I have owned a sim racing sim rig for two years now and raced actively for a year and a half. It takes a while to learn stuff at my advanced age, and I am deeply envious of the teenagers who join the leagues and outrace me in no time flat.
Several beginners I have observed, including me, tend to start with a relatively simplistic view of what it takes to win a race: Drive as fast as you dare! That is not only a simplistic view but also wrong! To win a race, the sum of your lap times must be less than the sum of your competitor’s lap times, and there is a lot to that.
So, let’s dive into how to have short lap times!
The single biggest issue is making mistakes and losing control. The typical lap time for road racetracks is more or less two minutes, and the usual number of laps for a race in the PCA league is around 20. If you spin, you will typically lose 15 seconds in the lap. It can be much longer if you have to wait for a gap in the other racers to re-enter the track. I have had to wait more than 20 seconds to get back on track, and then I have to accelerate to get up to race speed, which also costs time. So, what is the impact of that spin? Take the scenario that your error-free lap times are 1 second faster than your buddy Joe’s. If neither of you makes a mistake, you will be 20 seconds ahead of him at the end of the race. That is huge! But if you spin once and take more than 20 seconds in the lap you spun in, and that is very likely, then you will finish behind Joe! Spins are not the only mistakes and not the most common.
The worst mistakes are the ones that damage your car. Best case, you can recover and only lose a few seconds. But a lot of damage will affect your lap times. Losing a wing or a splitter may cost you 5 seconds a lap. So do the arithmetic again. If you scape a wall and damage your aero four laps before the end of the race, you will most likely lose the race to Joe. If you hurt the car so badly that you get the meatball flag requiring you to pit and repair, you are guaranteed to end up at the back. Even if the kind race organizer has allowed instant repairs, a pit stop typically takes between 20 and 30 seconds, and you probably had to drive at reduced speed to get to the pits. If your car is undrivable, you also have to be towed, which takes a relative eternity.
So how do you avoid mistakes? Experience is, of course, a factor, but the most significant issue to keep in mind is that the slower you drive, the better your control and the better the margins of error. The temptation is to go at ten 10ths of your ability. No margin of error, and every time something unexpected happens, you lose control. That gets even worse when other racers are on track, and it is not a race if there is only one driver!
Adrenaline is also pumping, and self-control is difficult when your adrenaline levels are high. They peak at the start of the race and when you are in a battle with another driver. You also have to remember that the other racer’s adrenaline also is high, and they are as likely to make mistakes precisely as you are. So, you have to leave some margin of error to minimize the impact of your mistakes and your competitors’ mistakes.
The start of the race is where more races are lost than any other time, and the first corner is where the most incidents happen. Everybody is bunched up, tires are cold, adrenaline is pumping, and drivers who had trouble qualifying are anxious to make up positions—a recipe for disaster. Even in Formula 1, you will see massive pileups, and those are the best drivers in the world! I am in the lowest class, and there if you survive the first five laps, you are likely to finish at least in the middle of the pack! So, these laps are all about survival.
If you survive the first laps without incidents, drivers will space out, and they will focus on advancing their position, passing other drivers. Passing and getting passed is a learned skill. The best strategy when someone catches up with you is to keep your cool and stay on pace. A better driver will get by, and if you try to increase your pace, you are more likely to make a mistake, making it even easier to get by you. If you are the faster driver, the best strategy is most likely to hang out close behind the slower car and wait for it to make a mistake. Feinting a passing maneuver puts more pressure on the driver and makes it more likely to make a mistake.
If you are fast enough to make sense to pass to avoid having my other competitors catch up with you, you need to do it in a safe place and observe the racing rules, written and unwritten.
You may have noticed that I have not talked about technique yet! Racing the racing line, optimizing speed out of corners before straights, braking early, and so on is what improves your pace, but it only wins races if you have learned the previous lessons!
So, if you have just joined the league and have no previous racing experience, my advice is to work on technique and always strive to avoid making mistakes. In both our local league and in the PCA National league, we emphasize welcoming and supporting new racers, so even if you have no experience, join the leagues, and start racing. It is OK to be a beginner, and we will treat you well!