National Motorsport Academy

A Basic Guide on Setting Up a Race Car

A guide to help you with the basics of setting up your Race Car - for track days and sim racing

Your car’s setup is the secret ingredient that can turn you from a mere participant into a formidable competitor; both in the iRacing and Assetto Corsa Competizione (ACC) worlds as well as during track days. Whether you’re preparing to tackle the precise handling of ACC’s GT3 cars, mastering the diverse disciplines found in iRacing’s extensive library, or prepping for that next track day at your local circuit, understanding the intricacies of car setup is paramount to your success on the track and gaining the fastest lap time possible. 

#TeamNMA's Kieran and Ed looking at our Lotus Evora.

This guide will take you through the basic, yet essential principles of configuring your racing car specifically for iRacing and ACC, as well as how these configurations can seamlessly transfer to track days. We’ll explore key components that bring a significant influence on your car’s handling and overall performance, equipping you with the knowledge and skills needed to unleash your full potential on all circuits; both virtual and real.

Whilst this is a basic guide, it’s important to note that all cars have different characteristics and behaviours based on their setups as well as driver preference. Everything in this guide (and way more!) you can become an expert in by enrolling with the National Motorsport Academy. Our BSc (Hons) Motorsport Engineering degree is perfect for those looking to get into the motorsport industry; whilst our MSc Advanced Motorsport Engineering is recommended for those looking to progress into a senior role within motorsport. 

Without further-ado, here is your basic car setup fundamentals for sim racing or track days!

1. Car Setup Fundamentals

Let’s begin with the very basics—the foundational principles that underpin your journey to car setup mastery.

Weight Distribution  

Weight distribution plays a pivotal role in how your car behaves on the track. The art is in striking the right balance, literally. For instance, on a track like the Red Bull Ring where 7 of the 10 corners are right-hand turns, you might shift more weight to the right side to improve cornering performance for those specific turns. Experimentation is key, as the ideal weight distribution can vary from track to track. This practice is akin to strategies employed in NASCAR, where weight distribution is tailored to the predominant direction of turns on oval tracks, ensuring the vehicle’s responsiveness and grip are optimised for the specific challenges presented by the track layout.

Tyre Grip and Pressure

Tyres are your cars only contact with the track, making them one of the most critical components. Adjusting tyre pressure allows you to dial in the perfect amount of grip. Lowering the pressure generally increases grip, but beware of overheating your tyres, particularly during extended races. Monitoring tyre temperatures is crucial to ensure optimal performance throughout a race. 

Tyre Performance is essential to success Credit: XPB

2. Suspension and Handling

The suspension system is your gateway to precise handling and control. Let’s delve deeper.

Camber

Camber refers to the tilt of your car’s tyre when viewed from the front or rear. Negative camber means the top of the tyre is tilted inward, while positive camber tilts it outward. Camber adjustments are essential for optimising tyre contact with the road during cornering.

Negative camber provides improved cornering grip, allowing the tyre to maintain better contact with the track surface when the car leans into turns. However, excessive negative camber can result in uneven tyre wear and decreased straight-line performance. Finding the right balance depends on the type of racing and the specific characteristics of the track.

Positive camber involves tilting the tire outward, away from the car’s centre. While less common in racing setups, it has its benefits. For example, tracks with extensive high-speed, right-hand turns (such as the Red Bull Ring) slight positive camber on the right-side tires can help ensure even tire wear and maintain optimal grip during these turns. The right balance depends on the track’s characteristics and race demands.

Suspension Geometry

Other aspects of suspension settings include toe, caster, and toe-out on turns. Toe adjustments change how your car’s tires point. Toe-in adds stability on straights but may affect turning. Toe-out improves turn-in and cornering but increases tire wear. Balance depends on track and conditions.

Caster changes your front suspension’s pivot axis angle. More positive caster aids straight-line stability but can make steering heavier. Negative caster enhances cornering response but may reduce straight-line stability. Find the right balance for your style and track.

Toe-out on turns or Ackermann steering helps inside tires turn more in corners, reducing understeer and improving balance. Proper settings optimise cornering and maintain control during turns on various tracks and race conditions.

Springs and Dampers

Springs and dampers, or shock absorbers, are your first line of defence against the unpredictable terrain of a track. By adjusting spring stiffness and damping rates, you can fine-tune your car’s response to the road.

Stiffer springs reduce body roll and enhance responsiveness, making them ideal for tight and twisty road courses. Your car remains flatter in corners, improving grip and reducing the risk of rollovers.

Softer springs offer a smoother ride and better traction on bumpy tracks, like the Circuit of the Americas. They absorb bumps and undulations more effectively, preventing your car from bouncing and losing grip on uneven surfaces.

Damping rates, whether firm or soft, control how quickly your springs compress and rebound. Firm damping minimizes bounce and maintains tire contact with the track, ideal for smoother surfaces. Softer damping allows for more wheel movement, providing better grip on rough tracks. Adjusting damping rates fine-tunes your car’s handling for specific conditions.

Ride Height  

Ride height, the distance between your car’s chassis and the track, has a substantial impact on both aerodynamics and ground clearance. Lowering the ride height can increase aerodynamic performance, generating more downforce and consequently, grip. However, it’s a delicate balance, as going too low might result in your car scraping the track surface, leading to instability.

Example of Front and Rear Ride Height / Credit: Airshaper

3. Aerodynamics and Downforce

Aerodynamics isn’t just for Formula 1 cars. It’s a game-changer in sim racing too.

Front and Rear Wings  

The angle of your car’s wings plays a pivotal role in the balance between downforce and top speed. Increasing wing angles generates more downforce, improving grip in corners but potentially limiting top speed. On the flip side, reducing wing angles can help you achieve higher speeds on straightaways, albeit with reduced cornering grip.

You can learn more about Aerodynamics in Module 9B of our BSc (Hons) Motorsport Engineering degree – where you have the opportunity to design, test, and analyse appropriate devises ensuring that you can solve complex industry problems.

Aerodynamics is part of an ongoing R&D project here at the NMA. As our Lotus Evora is no longer Naturally Aspirated, Deputy Director Wayne Gater has developed a brand-new front bumper which will then progress to a fully updated aero package in the future. All development is done in house between our students and tutors. You can see the differences between the old and new aero package below. 

4. Break Balance and Transmission

Braking and shifting are your gateways to control and acceleration.

Brake Bias

Brake bias adjustment is a critical aspect of car setup that affects your car’s handling during deceleration. It involves the distribution of braking force between the front and rear axles. A well-balanced brake bias is essential for optimal control and preventing wheel lockup.

Front Brake Bias: When you adjust the brake bias to favour the front brakes, you increase stopping power at the front wheels. This can improve stability during deceleration and reduce the likelihood of rear-wheel lockup. It’s particularly useful when entering corners and under heavy braking. However, excessive front brake bias can lead to understeer, where the front tires lose grip and the car struggles to turn.

Rear Brake Bias: On the other hand, if you shift the bias toward the rear brakes, you’ll experience more rear-end stability. This setup can be advantageous during corner entry and mid-corner phases, as it helps prevent oversteer – the condition where the rear of the car tries to swing around during braking. However, excessive rear brake bias may result in understeer, making it challenging to navigate tight corners.

Finding the right balance between front and rear brake bias is crucial and often depends on your driving style, the type of race, and the track’s characteristics. It’s recommended to start with a balanced bias and make incremental adjustments while monitoring your car’s behaviour under braking.

Transmission Gear Ratios  

Gear ratios are vital for finding the right balance between acceleration and top speed. Shorter ratios offer rapid acceleration but might limit top speed, making them ideal for twisty tracks, like Zandfoort. Longer ratios are a boon on tracks with long straights, enabling higher top speeds – Monza being the perfect example. 

This is something that you can pick up in Module 6 (Engine Design, Development & Simulation) of our BSc (Hons) Motorsport Engineering.

Track layout of Monza, highlighting the level of brake bias you should use on each corner
Break Bias at Monza Credit: Dannylee.co.uk

5. Advanced Setup Techniques

For those looking to ascend to the highest level of car setup expertise, these advanced techniques await.

Differential Settings

Fine-tuning your differential settings is a critical aspect of car setup that can significantly impact your car’s performance on the track. The differential plays a crucial role in distributing power to the wheels and controlling how they rotate during acceleration and deceleration.

Limited-Slip Differential (LSD):

A limited-slip differential can substantially improve grip, particularly during the critical phase of acceleration out of corners. LSD’s provide better power distribution to both drive wheels, preventing excessive wheelspin and enhancing traction. Adjusting the LSD settings involves setting the level of locking force for the differential. Increasing the locking force can improve stability and cornering performance but may also lead to understeer. On the other hand, reducing the locking force can make the car more agile but may result in oversteer, especially during acceleration.

Coast and Power Ratios:

The coast and power ratios control how quickly the differential transfers power between the wheels during acceleration and deceleration. A higher power ratio can make the car more stable during acceleration, while a higher coast ratio can improve stability during deceleration. Experimenting with these settings allows you to fine-tune the car’s behaviour, especially in different racing conditions and track types.

Tyre-Related Differential Settings:

Tyre-related settings can be used to manage tyre wear and improve overall performance. Some simulators offer tyre differential settings, allowing you to control how power is distributed between the inside and outside tyres during a turn. This can be useful for optimising tyre life and grip during long races.

Remember that differential settings can be highly dependent on the type of car you’re driving and the specific characteristics of the track. It’s advisable to start with a baseline setup and make small adjustments while paying attention to how your car responds on the track. As you become more comfortable with differential tuning, you can develop a setup that perfectly suits your driving style and the demands of each race.

Chassis Adjustments

The elite racers often engage in chassis adjustments to fine-tune their setups. Meticulous chassis adjustments, such as anti-roll bars, can refine your car’s handling characteristics to meet the challenges of each race.

You can learn more about Advanced Setup technique in our MSc Advanced Motorsport Engineering degree. You can find out more by going to the bottom of this page. 

iRacing Chassis Setup

Can I Apply my Sim Racing Skills to the Real Track?

Absolutely! The same setup adjustments that enhance your performance in virtual races can elevate your game on real tracks, creating a seamless transition from the digital to the physical world of motorsport. This is where the National Motorsport Academy can step in!

By enrolling with the National Motorsport Academy, you not only gain the knowledge and skills needed to excel in the motorsport industry, but you also learn how to apply these skills to various racing scenarios. Our courses advanced concepts, including vehicle dynamics, aerodynamics, suspension design, and data analysis. Just as you fine-tune your sim racing setup, you can apply these principles to optimise your real-world track day experience.

So whether you dream of becoming a race engineer, data analyst, a team manager, or simply want the knowledge to tune your own car for track days, our qualifications can provide the foundations for a successful career in motorsport.

Interested in finding out more about us? Take a look at our course pages below.

Online BSc (Hons) Motorsport Engineering

Our full 3-year Bachelor’s Degree
course – Flexible Study.
Applications from non-NMA students and mature students welcome.

Online BSc (Hons) Motorsport Engineering – Final Year Top-Up

Top up your FdSc or HND to a full BSc (Hons) with one final year’s study of 3 modules. Applications from non-NMA students and mature students welcome.

Online MSc Advanced Motorsport Engineering

For a career in Motorsport Management or as a Senior Motorsport Specialist. Applications from non-NMA and mature students welcome.

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