Tested: How Close Is a Professional Racing Simulator to the Real Thing?

Our pro racing driver samples a virtual VIR to see how it compares to the physical track.

Motorsports fans, driving enthusiasts, and video-game players have heard a lot in recent years about the realism of racing games and simulators. But just how valuable are these increasingly complicated collections of digital code as training tools to top-level professional race car drivers, teams, and engineers? Ford recently offered us a chance to find out.

In 2014, the Blue Oval opened its Ford Performance Technical Center in Concord, North Carolina, to help the company with its race-car development programs. Conveniently, 2014 coincided with the beginning of the Ford GT's successful "Road to Le Mans" effort that won the GTLM class at the 2016 24-hour endurance classic, with drivers Sébastien Bourdais, Joey Hand, and Dirk Müller.

The tech center originally featured an advanced immersive simulator from professional simulator manufacturer Ansible Motion. Advanced simulators are well suited to aerodynamic and suspension research, both technical areas being central points of interest to Ford as it aims to continue to win races in the pro series in which it participates: NASCAR, sports cars, and the NHRA.

Around 2016, the center installed a second, even more advanced "real-world 3D driving" simulator. Engineers set about connecting the two sims so Ford's drivers could "race" each other, and more; for instance, NASCAR drivers can compare car setups in real time, draft each other, and even figure out dirty-air drafting issues and techniques. It came as a bit of a surprise to learn that Ford's three competing NASCAR teams work together on the sims and also share data. Another nugget: The real race cars use a Motec system for storing all on-track data information, so one of the tech center's engineers came up with a way to make the simulators give them a Motec file, which allows them to compare on-track data directly to simulator data.

Indeed, just as video-game enthusiasts have seen an almost exponential improvement in so many areas over the last decade—virtual reality, 3D graphics, response timing, realism, and the overall immersive experience of playing—professional simulators have followed the same steep improvement curve. For Ford, the addition of the second simulator also opened the door to production-vehicle development, with those engineers now using the machines three to four days per week. For both racing and road cars, simulators help to save time and money. Need to test a small suspension design change? Just program the change into the sim software, "drive" it on the car, and within a couple of hours you'll know if it gives the desired effect.

But how do these things actually drive? And are they exceptionally realistic? Ford loaded up the virtual version of Virginia International Raceway on the first simulator so we could find out.

VIR is not a place that suffers mistakes lightly. I have competed there several times since 2003, including in 2019's SRO GT4 America series race weekend. It's an "old world" drivers' circuit, where four wheels off usually teaches an expensive lesson in agriculture and physics. I was interested to see how the virtual run went, as I haven't enjoyed most of the nonprofessional driving simulators I've tried. The big reason for that is because, if the simulator doesn't move or react as my eyes, body, and brain expect from my inputs after decades of real racing, I get disoriented. But I imagined something as advanced as this Ansible sim wouldn't bother me. Billy Johnson, one of Ford's factory race drivers, helped me with the belts getting into the Mustang GT4 race seat inside the simulator pod. Everything was set up just like the real Mustang GT4, down to the pedals, windshield surround, and steering-wheel controls.

To start, the pod raised up by about six feet; it uses hydraulics, air bladders, and seatbelt tensioners to simulate real g forces. I started off down the front straight into Turn 1 and nailed the brakes; I definitely had some work to do here, as I wasn't using anywhere near enough initial force. But the graphics were realistic, and the chassis felt surprisingly good when putting two wheels on the curbs.

But sure enough, my brain quickly told me the sim car's reactions to my steering inputs didn't match my expectations. I stopped my session after a couple of laps, before my disorientation worsened. The engineers said that about 50 percent of people who try a simulator, pro drivers included, get sick or disoriented on the first few attempts until their brains learn and accept the different feelings as normal.

After lunch (was that really a good idea?), we tried again, this time with the Le Mans-spec Ford GT race-car pod and program cued up. Johnson said the GT sim is more advanced than the GT4 and feels closer to the real car; sure enough, I was immediately more comfortable. My steering inputs felt more realistic, but the track topography was not extremely accurate. Still, I felt way better with the GT sim than in the GT4—or maybe I was just getting used to it.

With the GT4 program, the simulator does a nice impression of engine performance, with linear acceleration through each gear, pulling strongly through the rev range, as does the real race car. Shifts feel smooth through the sequential gearbox. But the steering continued to bother me as my inputs didn't immediately cause a reaction from the chassis, tire-contact patches, or the car's nose. In fact, the steering does not feel even close to the tight and connected true Mustang GT4, which I've driven at VIR in real life. Yes, you can steer the sim car around the track at serious real-world speeds, so in that sense it's realistic. But if I was in an actual car and it felt like this, I would pit immediately to check for something loose in the suspension, steering rack, or both.

The sim provides little feel for understeer or oversteer, and when I did recognize one or the other—from my eyes, not from any feeling in my backside as you would for real—the tire patch did not immediately pick up my steering corrections, making the recovery a hit-or-miss exercise. Usually, by the time I sensed the front or rear end sliding, I ended up with a very late and lazy correction, or a spin. From a pro driver's perspective, it feels like the car has a loose toe link, which leads to random rear toe-out or front toe-in situations.

The virtual chassis does transmit bumps in a controlled and realistic way, and curbs don't seem to upset the car, which is comparable to the real thing. But because the steering is so vague, I found it difficult to know what's going on with the chassis.

Brakes are the other big issue when we're talking real versus virtual, something video-game racers are likely familiar with. There was very little feel, and it was quite difficult to modulate the pressure, with the added challenge of little connection between foot pressure and the feeling of deceleration. As I came off of full brake pressure, the car seemed to continue to slow at the same rate, and then seemed to stop harder as I released pressure. It feels nothing like the race car, which has fantastic brakes with good feel. The experience reminded me of driving with glazed pads, which require huge pedal pressure to make them work—but after they finally heat up, they may grip more as you come off of full pressure. If this were a real car, I'd be on the radio telling the crew we have a brake problem.

The Ford GT sim also varied from reality in several notable ways. In terms of power, the sim didn't seem quite able to emulate the real car's feeling of acceleration, which you perhaps might expect since you aren't actually moving. Interestingly, the steering felt much closer to the real deal relative to my inputs, but in this case the sim's reactions were much quicker than I felt they should be. I had to consciously slow down my hands, but even then, the car's movement still felt unnatural. On the other hand, I'm sure the steering is something I could get used to, and it's worth noting the real GT has adjustments for steering ratios.

When I tested the GT at VIR for real, it had amazing compliance over bumps and curbs. Its shocks just soak up hits and keep the tires planted, and it feels like you're connected to a living thing. But the sim version's extremely quick steering gave me little feedback from any chassis movement. In the real GT, I could feel the chassis load up and take a set at all speeds, especially when entering VIR's uphill esses and exiting Hog Pen. This feel was completely missing in the sim, so I felt like I needed softer springs or a shock adjustment. And like with the GT4 program, the brakes were an issue. In reality, I like to use the brakes to help turn a car, usually right when I come off of the pedal, but I found this impossible to do with such a numb, solid pedal in the sim.

I've certainly used simulators to learn a few new racetracks, notably the Nürburgring, but they generally only help me understand the track's layout. Topography and surface grip don't really come through to the driver, so it feels like I'm driving a race car with problems. I can drive around those "problems," but I don't feel the car reacting anywhere close to the way a real race car would on the real track. In practice, though, that's not meant to be the point of the simulator exercise for manufacturers like Ford and their race teams.

As I climbed out of the virtual car for the final time, I relayed my thoughts to an engineer. He nodded and told me there's a technique for driving the simulator, and no, it isn't the same as in a real car. However, once really good sim pilots get used to the programs, they can repeat their driving behavior and "feel" the sim car just like a pro racer can feel an actual race car. Their ability to repeat quick lap times, combined with the sophistication engineers can now tune into the virtual car, allows the team to conduct valid car-development research. The sim makes it easier and quicker for them to test even the smallest suspension and aerodynamic setup changes, making simulators an amazing, indispensable tool in modern professional motorsports.

Looking at the successes of Ford's NASCAR, GT, and NHRA race teams during the last several years, you'll be hard-pressed to argue that the Ford Performance Tech Center and its simulators haven't proved their worth. But if you rank high on your favorite racing sim's or game's global online leaderboard and have never actually driven on a real racetrack, you're likely in for a big surprise when you actually do.

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