It's been slowly changing my thoughts about virtual racing.
A while ago (a long while ago), I made an entry about the game "NetKar Pro". It was sort of unfavorable - I saw it as gimmicky and rough around the edges. While my opinion hasn't changed in a large way, a number of small things have.
Home simulators are still fairly primitive. They still have no real way of communicating G forces and a large portion of the other sensory factors. The computer wheels in use are still, on the whole, nowhere near powerful enough or subtle enough to capture the feel of a real car's steering. Very few pedals replicate the same behavior of real pedals (I'm thinking primarily of the brake in this case - simulator pedals tend to be travel sensitive rather than pressure sensitive). You can correct these problems with very custom, very specialized equipment, but it is hideously expensive. A few thousand dollars, at least. But mass produced wheels and pedals are getting better all the time.
But, there are a number of simulators out there that inspire confidence for the future. The three that do it for me are Live for Speed, iRacing.com, and NetKar Pro. All for different reasons.
But let's get something out of the way first. There are two extreme camps with regard to the usefulness of these simulators - one camp that thinks you can become Michael Schumacher by playing, and the other camp that thinks simulators are completely worthless and sometimes not even fun. The former tend to cite various examples of people that started on video games and progressed to real racing (I'm one of them), as well as technique similarities between the best sim racers and the best real racers, which I will get into. The latter camp tend to cite real world experience as tainting the simulator experience, claiming that a simulator can never do real racing justice and that, in the extreme, even the best simulators are frustratingly unrealistic. As you'll see, there are valid points to both arguments.
Most of the opinions in each camp are further split between the three games I just mentioned. Most people consider one or two to be good and accurate, while the other one or two are not accurate (to varying degrees). This is down to the individual style and focus of each game, which I will gloss over. As to which camp I belong in, I wouldn't presume to tell you. I think there are some things you can be introduced to and grasp on a basic level in a simulator, some things that you cannot, and some things which you can even get somewhat good at on a simulator. I guess you could say I'm kind of on the fence. I'm a firm believer that the truth usually lies between two extremes.
iRacing.com actually has the same Formula 2000 that Skip Barber uses in it's school program. Over the past couple of months, I've been driving it a lot in the hopes that what I learn in the simulator will carry over. So, in August, I will have a direct comparison to draw upon to tell whether simulators are actually useful. I've already learned a lot about the car, and the track, on the simulator. The virtual version of Laguna Seca in iRacing is actually scanned with lasers, so it is absolutely inch-perfect. I'll be able to compare both the car and the track.
I actually do want to do full reviews of each simulator, but that's for another time.
I do like racing games quite a bit. If you've been reading since the beginning, you'll know that it was video games that got me interested in racing. And, while not directly relevant to my form of racing (there are very few karting simulators), I feel like racing games have helped me in some ways.
I think the idea of a person learning to race solely on a simulator and then becoming successful in the real world is quite intriguing. There are a few different programs at the moment with that idea in mind, and so far they haven't produced any flops as far as I know. It's certainly plausible that someone who is fast in a game could be fast in real life. Let me explain that.
Driving a real race car is all about feel. You feel the G forces, primarily, and that tells you what the car is doing. Vibrations also have to do with it. Your senses can be extremely highly calibrated.
When you step into the simulator, you lose all that. You lose the G forces and the vibrations. Any real racing driver worth his weight will likely become confused the first time he uses a simulator. It's natural. Learning to drive in a simulator is a slightly different skill, but not an irrelevant one.
On the other hand, if you take a good sim racer, you see that most of his skill is from learning to drive something that has little feel. Most of his skill resides in his head and his eyes. Rather than feeling that he has a few degrees too much steering and a slight bit too much brake and correcting it through instinct as a real driver does, a sim racer sees that his car is responding badly and uses his technical knowledge to correct it. He has a limited amount of feel to help him.
The result is, if you take a sim racer and put him in a real race car, he will probably do better than the real driver trying the simulator, because the sim racer can still use his technical knowledge and his eyes in the real car, while the real driver can't use all of his senses in the simulator. The sim racer may be overwhelmed or intimidated by the (comparative) sensory overload from the real car, but he would adjust to that. When I first got on track for real, I didn't have all of the technical know-how (conscious or not) that a top level sim racer has. I wasn't driving the right simulators, and I didn't have enough time behind the virtual wheel.
What I'm getting at is, simulators are important from a mental aspect. Very important, I would wager. It's a theory I'm going to put to the test in about two months.