Simracing has been brought up as a tool to learn driving/racing by some or as a waste of time by other for quite a few years now. I have personnally been simracing for the past 7 to 8 years, so it's pretty obvious that my point of view on the subject is more on the "pro" than on the "against" side of things. My goal will be to explain why and how I feel simracing is rarely given a proper chance by people who have experience in racing and who are/used to be racers or seriously experienced journalists.
First of all, the main problem. You cannot jump from reality to simracing, expecting it to be similar. Even if you are the greatest race driver in the world, you will drive like crap at your first attempt. Unless maybe if you have a very high end simulator like the Force Dynamics 401CR, which costs about the same price as a supercar, you will not FEEL the car. Sure you have the force feedback of your wheel to help you a little bit, but you will sit on a little chair with no feel at all of what the car is doing or on something that will vaguely make you feel some bumps, but nothing remotly close to what you should feel in an actual car, let alone a racecar.
All has to be done with your eyes, even force feedback in the wheel should be secondary as you cannot rely on something that artificial. It helps, but what counts is your eyes. You must SEE the rear of the car going out. I like to get people to practice without force feedback first as it forces them to find an other way of understanding what the car is doing. After, with the additional help of the FFB, they are able to combine what they learned without it and improve their laptime. You can easily imagine that once they get a feel under their butt in a real car, it's a another extra sense for them to understand how the car behaves, along with eyes and hands feel, which are often forgotten about in real cars (especially the eyes).
Then comes what I feel is the absolute most important thing in a simulator: FOV. FOV stands for Field Of View. It's basically a calculation in degrees, between the edges of your monitor(s) and the position of your eyes. This is what will allow you to actually properly learn the track. This is also the reason why I consider so many console "sims" as very bad, as this setting is often impossible to change. How do you want to learn a track if you cannot see the proper changes of elevation? If you cannot see where to dive into a corner? Have a proper notion of where your braking point is? What if all you learn in the sim with a bad FOV ends being totally different in real life? Here is what I mean, more clearly with the steepest incline of the whole Nurburgring, the uphill after Breidsheid Bridge around kilometer 10:
rFactor with a TERRIBLE FOV (as it is played by most people)
rFactor with a bad FOV
rFactor with a proper FOV for my setup
Not exactly the same notion of what a "steep incline" really is heh? Also try to understand that it's nearly impossible to have a proper FOV when racing in your living room, all the way back in your sofa, 10 feet away from your 40 inch TV. A realistic FOV, in this case, would be WAY too small, and you wouod not be able to see anything on the track or around you. That picture of the proper FOV on rFactor I just posted is my correct FOV when my eyes are 2 feet away from my triple screen setup (though the screenshot only shows my center screen)... Never forget that yours will be different depending on the size of your monitor(s) and the distance your eyes are from them.
Third and last, if you are a journalist, with no experience in simracing and plan on doing a review, search assistance from someone who DOES ACTUALLY KNOW ABOUT SIMRACING!!!! When I look at Leo Parente's Shakedown on SimRaceway, which had obviously paid to get on the show (the lack of conviction from Leo about the "sim" is pretty funny to me :) ), I see his simracing setup is everything that could go wrong, which is a shame knowing that everything was shot AT simraceway, which cannot apparently even manage to have proper setups for their own so-called sim. The worse moment I ever saw on TV was Tiff Needell's attempt to judge sims and games with an 11000 GBP seat which, as I explained earlier, is pretty much useless, all that while sitting miles away from his monitor and with the absolute worst FOV ever... Top Gear attempt at understanding racing games/sims and how they compare with reality was pretty awful too, though, as usual, funny... After all, what's more realistic than learning a track and a car from the comfort of your sofa on a PS2 with a joypad?
Here are the videos:
Leo Parente at Simraceway
Tiff Needell on Fifth Gear, sound out of sync a little
Jeremy Clarkson trying to learn Laguna Seca and the NSX from his sofa on a PS2...
Needless to say a proper wheel that actually does turn like a real one (720, 900 degrees or more), properly adjusted in game too, according to how much steering the real car has (as they don't have the same ones all the time) is absolutly necessary too (if the game thinks your wheel is setup at 270 degrees and you are actually at 900, it will not work properly at all, same thing the other way around). A proper h-shifter for cars that use one is more than a plus too. You will not learn to drive, do heel and toes, rev-match and so on, with a crappy plastic set of pedals and a 20$ wheel... For that you need to invest a bit. A G27 wheel will set you back 300$ and is a good starting point. Changing the pedals for a proper braking feel is a good thing too as braking in a car is not linear like most sim-pedals are on the market today... The more pressure, the more braking. And yes, this will make you spend an extra 200$ if not a lot more (good pedals can go in the 1000+$ dollar range very easily)...
So, as you might have noticed, my goal is not to judge what is or what is not a "good sim", it's up to you to make your own opinion (though I might have given you a hint on how I feel about Simraceway). But in order to have an opinion, you first need to understand what you are doing and you have to do it well. Some sims are of course, better than other... Some will simulate the racing experience very well, other will simulate the driving experience better, some are good to learn how to drive on slicks, while other are much better with street tires and so on... Some other have just lots of money, scream how good they are really loud and on the roofs, but in fact are crap. It is up to you to try and compare with your real life experience.
So Leo, if you ever read this and decide to ever do another simracing attempt, without a sponsorship of simraceway in your way, please, let me know and I will gladly show you the way to properly practice and train on a simulator. I'm only a few hours drive from NYC ;)