I've always loved simulators...even when I was a teenager. I started out in flight simulators (chuck yeager's advanced flight simulator or something, Falcon 1-4, etc). But, moved to driving sims about 10 years ago. I have an iRacing subscription, and I used it heavily for about a year. But, since it doesn't include any of the current Texas Region tracks, I've moved away from it.
I've moved to RFactor, and have all the regional tracks and the 1.6L SM car model. As most know last year was my rookie year in SM. So, I had ZERO knowledge of most of the local tracks. Last year, I only half-heartedly used the Sim to become basically familiar with the tracks. General visuals, lines, etc. Essentially enough to know if the next turn was a left or right and have some idea where the brake points might be.
After having been to all of these tracks now, I can attest to the general accuracy of the models. They are visually very accurate, and the couple of times I tried to compare times, it seems like they were pretty close to my actual times.
So this year, I'm taking a much more rigorous approach, and trying to treat it just like real track time. I'm taking track notes, adjusting setups, etc...just like I was actually at the track. I want to see how well this can translate from the Sim world to the real world. I'm using the sim to help train my eyes where to look. Like most less experienced drivers I find myself focusing to much on the next 100 feet and not on the entire turn. it takes time and practice to learn to look through to the exit and let the car rotate around your eye point.
First Data point
Last year at MSR-H (my first time there), I managed a best lap of 1:55.5. I'd done much the same in the simulator the week prior.
The NASA season started last weekend at MSR-Houston. I spend the 3 weeks leading up to it, practicing for ~1-2 hrs per day in Rfactor. My PR in Rfactor during this time was 1:52.9, and generally averaged a 1:53.5 in any given session during the week leading up to the race. I would go for walks, and recite every inch of a MSR-H lap in my head visualizing everything about that lap. I spent every Sim session trying to look as far through the turn as I could---trying not to even look at the center of the screen.
Before my "brush" with the wall, I went out and did several 1:53.x laps in the first session. I was struggling with wheelspin and a loose car with my open diff, so we dropped the rear bar before session 2. I immediately managed several 1:53.1s in a row, and the car was much more manageable. Two laps later I was -1.1 s (1:52 flat pace) exiting the keyhole until I caught a CMC car entering the bus-stop. He didn't seem know what to do, and just PARKED on the entry turn until I went by. Since I couldn't tell what he was doing I went by slowly. So, the lap was toast. then they flagged the session.
We all know what happened in session 3. Wall.
All that is to say, is that I dropped 2-3 seconds off my real PR time from last year, and when I arrived at MSR-H I managed times VERY similar to what I'd been practicing in the Sim. I plan to continue to keep track of this data throughout the year at each track to see how well they correlate.
Second Data point (work in progress)
I've already started on the next track (if for no other reason than to take my mind off the crash). Next up is MSR Cresson. Last year, I managed a single 1:26.5, but averaged more around 1:27.7 in real life. Since Cresson is my "home" track, I didn't do any simulator time before Cresson last year.
Last night (first session), I managed all 1:26.3 laps except for a single 1:25.9. We will see what all this means in March when we go back.
The biggest issue I had last night was the fact that I don't have a "real" pedal setup, so smooth downshifting is really tricky and artificial to the sim. Downshifting to second while decelerating up the hill into Rattlesnake without unsettling the car was spotty. Its a real world problem, but with my sim-pedal setup the solution is completely artificial and different than the real car.