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Hell and Back: Preparing to race the 24 Hours Nürburgring, Part II

Hell and Back: Preparing to race the 24 Hours Nürburgring, Part II
Welcome to part two of our series on preparing to compete in one of the toughest endurance races known to man or machine. Or to paraphrase Axl Rose, welcome to the jungle. In part one, we promised to introduce the idea of using race simulators to help learn the track. This is a good plan, a well-considered plan, and inspired plan even - but only to a certain degree.

Here’s why: As good as some simulators are these days (and they can be extremely good), they’re not the real thing - and this can actually hinder your ability to generate speed.

One of my past driving coaches is an individual whose name will be familiar to many readers. Not only is Ross Bentley a former CART driver, he’s also the author of no fewer than nine books on how to become a better racer, the aptly named Speed Secrets series among them.

Bentley currently divides his time among many different projects, including a coaching business that sees him travel the world helping racers extract more performance from their performances. Of all the instructors yours truly has worked with over the years - and there have been many - he is the most cerebral and the keenest student of the sport by far.

There are countless valuable concepts to be found in his books, but one of Bentley’s main tenets is that true speed only comes when decisions made behind the wheel are driven by the subconscious. If you need to consciously think about what you’re doing, he maintains, you will not be fast because the conscious mind processes information much more slowly than the subconscious mind.

This makes sense when you think about it and when you consider the concept otherwise known as “being in the zone.”Hell and Back: Preparing to race the 24 Hours Nürburgring, Part II

Bentley advises that the best way to feed the subconscious is via three different modes of information: visual, kinesthetic and auditory. This is where the typical driving simulator falls by the wayside - the information it gives the brain is just not of high enough quality. I learned this the hard way before racing at the Nürburgring Nordschleife for the first time.

In the run-up to my initial race appearance there, the sum of my real-life track experience consisted of 10 laps at a press event for the Aston Martin V12 Vantage. For this event, all the participants followed an instructor around the track and said instructor lifted off the gas in the straight sections, so it was roughly the equivalent of a tourist lap at best.

Recognizing that my brain needed more information prior to strapping myself into the Vantage V8 S racecar - and understanding that I live some 6,000 km from Germany - I turned to my Xbox 360 and Forza Motorsport. I didn’t initially have the full racing seat and all the various paraphernalia, just the game console, a large flat-screen TV and a couch. This was hardly the most professional approach, so I ended up borrowing a friend’s Playseat and Logitech wheel and pedal set.

After many, many hours of circulating the virtual ‘Ring, the main thing I can report is that it provided my brain with a decent sense of the direction of the track and the ability to anticipate the direction of the numerous blind turns with nearly unerring accuracy. But that’s about it.

Once I set out for my first laps of the Nordschleife during that first VLN weekend, I immediately understood where the virtual version was woefully inadequate. First, it did not capture the elevation changes of the track, which comprise a huge percentage of the racing surface. It also wasn’t good enough at conveying the state of the track surface. An ancient place like the Nürburgring has countless different qualities, including an absolutely treacherous nature at the first sign of any dampness. The sound system was also unlike any racecar I’ve ever driven. Finally, the motion of the game seat was better than nothing, but far from an accurate representation of how a car conveys kinesthetic information.

So, according to Ross Bentley’s rules for feeding your brain properly, my brain had been seriously malnourished. Sure, I had some measure of visual information to work with, but that was the sum of all that time spent in my basement.

As I was writing this column, I was interested to read an article on Kimi Räikkönen in which he claimed to have no use for driving simulators at all. Instead, the Finn prefers a surprisingly old-school approach to learning racetracks by driving racecars on those very tracks.

Without question, this is the best way to give your brain the visual, auditory and kinesthetic information needed to set the stage for real-life performance. Once you have absorbed all this data, Bentley suggests, you can then use advanced visualization techniques to replay the track experience in your mind and generate even more speed.

The point is, the brain needs very accurate, detailed and authentic information before it can operate on a subconscious level - or at a high level. Unless you have access to a driving simulator of the quality used by an F1 team, you actually risk feeding your brain poor information and can potentially harm performance in the long run.

Something else to consider: My teammate during that first VLN race was Aston Martin factory racer Darren Turner. Prior to his sportscar career, Turner was a test driver for McLaren, so he had experience with the best driving simulators in the sport. He used that experience to help build his own simulator and form his own driver training business, Base Performance Simulators in Oxfordshire.

But even he believes that simulators are useful only up to a certain point. The reason: fear. Turner said he’s seen drivers produce stunning performances in simulators and fail to reproduce those performances in real life because they were afraid of the consequences of racing at the very limit.

Without question, the fear of crashing can separate the men from the boys - particularly around a track such as the Nürburgring with its brain-bending series of corners, lack of run-off area and truly frightening speeds. In a strange way, any fears I had were excised during that first race weekend, which ended in a crash.

This was not the way I would’ve chosen to embark on preparing for the 24 Hours Nürburgring. But valuable lessons were learned and they’ve since been applied to the next stages of preparation. The crash was not of my making, but there’s no question that I wasn’t driving on a completely subconscious level when it happened - and this likely prevented me from avoiding it in the first place.

So, to the topic of race simulators, they merit a qualified “yes” as far as I’m concerned. They have their place to help drivers absorb the most basic visual information on a given track, but they should never be relied on too heavily.

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