Miracle Cure or Placebo? Exploring the world of (paid) setups!

Over the past year since the official release of Assetto Corsa Competizione (ACC), whenever someone claimed that they felt held back by the default setups or if they expressed discontent that “[X-driver] would not be as good without their setup”, I would try to explain that the default setups are, by and large, everything you’d need when you start driving. “Sure, a proper setup could help,” I’d say, “but only to close that final half-second gap. The rest is up to the driver and not the setup. The stock aggressive setup is in most cases good enough“.

I’ve never seen myself as a tinkerer of setups. The options offered by ACC are vast, and I don’t have the patience to sit down and methodically create setups for each track. However, I did put hundreds of hours in this game already, racing, qualifying or just doing leaderboard hotstints. My solution to the setup problem has always been to just take the stock aggressive setup, do a couple of changes to the wing, ride height, brakes, brake ducts and tire pressures and I’d be good to go.

However, with paid setups coming to ACC, I am in the position to test three things:

  1. How much could I gain by using professional setups, made by people who know what they are doing?
  2. How close did I get by my own (uneducated) fiddling with the setups?
  3. How good are the stock aggressive setups in comparison to both?

All I had to do was fork over some cash so I could download the setups.

Which is exactly what I did.

This post will detail my research. First, I’ll explain exactly how I am going to test and measure the worth. Next, I’ll show the results for the tracks I’ve chosen to test at. This will be followed by both a chapter dedicated to conclusions, as well as room for a discussion. You can use the index below to quickly skip to the part you want to see, because to those who don’t like statistics, this is going to be long and boring!

PS: this is not an ad. I am not affiliated with any organisation creating setups, nor am I paid by one. I have bought the setups, undiscounted, with my own money. I want this to be a fair judgement to inform you, the player, about the necessity (or lack thereof) of setups. There are two google ads in this post in order to remain indipendent.

Testing method

I created a couple of rules to keep this comparison as fair and representative as can be. To start, I chose five tracks to drive on, namely Kyalami, Nürburgring, Brands Hatch, Monza and Spa-Franchorchamps. I chose these tracks for multiple reasons:

  • They offer a nice variety of fast/slow and long/short tracks;
  • I have enough experience driving these cars to negate any learning-effect and put down fairly consistent laptimes;
  • I have previously-made setups for these tracks so I can compare the bought and stock setups.

I chose standard ‘clear’ conditions to drive on these tracks in practice mode (not hotlap, as that would not be representative of online racing) at 13:00h. This universally translated to an air temperature of 30°C and track temperature of 39°C. I found these weather settings to be the most-used in online servers, so it would offer the most worthwhile results.

To keep it fair, I would not change tire pressures for any of the setups. I would just keep them as offered. I also changed the fuel for each car to 20L (except Spa, for which I took 25L).

At the track, I would drive five laps, the first of which being an outlap. Then I would do four timed laps to the best of my ability. I would record these results via a screenshot of the timetables and label it, so that I could later work it into my excel spreadsheet. Little disclaimer: I converted each laptime to seconds (i.e. 1:40 becomes 100 seconds) to make it easier to calculate stuff in excel.

I would drive each setup in a different order in order to negate learning-effect, and I did an extra run on Kyalami with the first setup as a fourth ‘control’ run to check whether there was a learning-effect, which wasn’t the case.

Track 1: Kyalami

Table 1. Laptimes around Kyalami

I started on Kyalami with the bought setup, followed by my own setup. Lastly, I took the stock setup. As stated above, I ran the bought setup a second time but as you can see in the table above, the second time was near identical to the first. This led me to conclude their was no learning-effect both for the track and the car behaviour.

As you can see, the fastest lap was done with my own setup. The fastest second fastest was done on the second run on the bought setup, while the fastest third fastest was done in the first run with the bought setup. Taken together, the average laptime was fastest with my own setup, but also the variance (difference between fastest and third fastest) was the highest. This means that while fast, this setup is also inconsistent.

Table 2. Sector times around Kyalami

Looking at the sector times in Kyalami, it is noticable that the bought setup is fastest in nearly all sectors. This means that the ultimate lap with the bought setup is a lot faster than the fastest lap I actually put on the clock. This means that I could potentially gain half a second if I put in a consistent laptime with the bought setup.

Figure 1. Ultimate laptimes. (Smaller is faster)

All in all, my own setup performs a bit worse than the bought setup, but Kyalami was (at the time of data-gathering) my least driven track of the five selected.

Track 2: Nürburgring

Table 3. Laptimes around Nürburgring

The Nürburgring is the first track released in ACC, so in theory should be the one I’ve driven most, giving the most reliable result for this purpose. It’s quite a surprise to me, then, the amount of time I gained using the bought setup. I knew I wasn’t driving the Mercedes that well around the track, but I thought it was due to the car. Turns out, I could’ve gained a lot with a proper setup. Not only is the fastest lap nearly half a lap faster, so are the second and third fastest laps than their counterparts. The average is, therefore, also half a second faster. On top of that, the variance is not notably higher than the other setups, meaning that it is just as consistent. My own setup is even less consistent.

Table 4. Sector times around Nürburgring

Looking at the individual sector times, I gain in each sector with the bought setup. 0.15 in sector one, 0.25 in sector two. The ultimate lap is just 0.03 seconds faster than my potential fastest.

Figure 2. Ultimate laptimes around Nürburgring (smaller is faster)

The above graph clearly show the difference in laptimes between the bought setup and the other two. Even though I used my own setup first, I don’t think this can be ascribed to a learning-effect: the day before I started data-gathering, I had a league race at Nürburgring in which I used my own setup. Now I wish I bought these setups earlier…

Track 3: Brands Hatch

Table 5. Laptimes around Brands Hatch

Brands is the one track among the five selected I dislike most because for some reason I can’t (often) get it right. This is reflected in table 5, in which you can see I was unable to do three faultless laps on the stock aggressive setup, increasing the average laptime by quite a bit. The bought setup was faster regardless, but the crown on Brands goes – much to my surprise – to my own setup which was faster by half a second. On a small track like Brands, a half second gap is huge.

Table 6. Sectortimes around Brands Hatch

When looking at individual sectortimes, the difference between my own and the bought setup is smaller but still significant. One possible problem arose. My research design meant that I could not change anything besides fuel-level on the setup. The left front tire was overheating on all three runs (~28.5 PSI), but especially so on the bought setup (~28.9 PSI). Perhaps, if I had adjusted the tire pressures, the bought setup might match my own setup.

Figure 3. Ultimate laptimes around Brands Hatch (smaller is faster).

What is clear, though, that the bought setup is faster than the stock aggressive setup, so it would still be an improvement.

Track 4: Monza

Table 7. Laptimes around Monza

As someone who mainly drives the Mercedes, Monza – the temple of speed – is one of my personal favourites. Not in the least because the Mercedes is a beast around this track. Since it is mostly flat-out, I didn’t think there would be much difference in the laptimes. Boy, was I wrong. As you can see in table 7, my own setup was miles better than the stock and the bought setup. Even my third fastest lap on my own setup is still way faster than anything I did in the other setups. Also of note is the low variance between fastest and third fastest for all three setups, meaning that I was able to do very consistent laps on all three setups.

Table 8. Sectortimes around Monza

Even counting up my best sectortimes, the difference holds up. What’s more, the stock aggressive setup was also faster than the bought setup. Is it weird that the differences are so big?

Figure 4. Ultimate laptimes around Monza (smaller is faster)

A possible explanation I came up with is that Monza is very dependent on trust: it’s mostly about getting your braking points right and trusting the brakes in doing so. As soon as the feeling in the brakes changes (by, for instance, a different bias) you lose that feeling and you lose the speed with which you can exit the multiple chicanes around the track. Since I had gotten used to my setup’s quirks, I could fully depend on the brakes, whereas I couldn’t on the other two setups.

Track 5: Spa-Franchorchamps

Table 9. Laptimes around Spa-Franchorchamps

Spa is the longs track on the calendar, so I expected the biggest gaps. Turns out, there was only a 0.2s difference between all three setups in their fastest laps, with the stock setup proving to be the fastest on average. A big reason for this could be the unchanged tirepressures, making it harder to do a consistent lap on tires which are too hot and too hard given the conditions (if you remember, 39 degrees track temperature).

Table 9. Sectortimes around Spa-Franchorchamps

Looking at the individual sectortimes, there’s a clear gap between the ultimate lap and my own setup. Remarkably, I gain almost three tenths of a second in the final sector on my own setup, but I think this was largely due to the effect described in the Monza test: being comfortable on the brakes. You can win a lot of time by getting your braking point for the chicane right, which I couldn’t judging from the fastest sector with the bought setup.

Figure 5. Ultimate laptimes around Spa-Franchorchamps (smaller is faster)

You can clearly see the difference between the bought and stock setups and my own. I do think this one is statiscally least significant out of all five results, since it is a 0.300 second gap based on a near 140 second lap. Who knows, if I got the final chicane right, it might be on par with my own setup.

Conclusions

Bringing all the results together, we saw the bought setup was fastest twice (Kyalami & Nürburgring) while my own setup was fastest thrice (Brands Hatch, Monza & Spa-Franchorchamps), as can be seen in the overview in figure 6 below.

Figure 6. Ultimate laptimes overview.

I combined these ultimate laptimes to create another figure, figure 7. You can see the gap between my own setup and the bought setup is just under half a second, while the gap to the stock aggressive setup is just over 1.7.

Figure 7: combining all the ultimate laptimes per setup (smaller is faster).

I combined all fastest laptimes (regardless of setup) and subtracted it from the total per setup. This number was divided by five to show how much can be gained on average per setup if the right setup was applied.

Figure 8: the average deficit to the ultimate laptime.

As you can see, the stock aggressive setup is just under half a second slower on average than the ultimate setup. This seems to mimic my belief that a setup will only help you so much as stated in the introduction of this post. If you are multiple seconds slower than someone in the same car, you can gain more by practicing your driving than by tinkering with the setup.

Discussion

When I set out to write this post, I set out to answer these three questions:

  1. How much could I gain by using professional setups, made by people who know what they are doing?
  2. How close did I get by my own (uneducated) fiddling with the setups?
  3. How good are the stock aggressive setups in comparison to both?

In short, the answers to these questions are: 1) a bit, 2) very, 3) moderately.

Before I answer these questions more in-depth, let me adress some limitations: I am only one person, with one specific driving preference. On top of that, I only tested the setup for one car (because of financial practicallity). Also, quantifying these results is hard since it requires me to invest more time than I have available. Take these results as an indication, not a definite answer.

How much could I gain by using professional setups, made by people who know what they are doing? I only gained time on two of the tracks, but the amount of time I gained on especially Nürburgring was surprising to me. It is a track I drove often and I didn’t think I would stand to gain so much. This means I was wholly on the wrong track with my setup, and using a the bought setup made me open my eyes to this reality.

How close did I get by my own (uneducated) fiddling with the setups? I was, overall, faster with my own setups. However, that is also because these setups were created by me, for me. They cater exactly to how I like to drive the Mercedes. Even though I might not understand what everything does in the setup menu, I did spend nearly a thousand hours in this game.

Furthermore, I listen and talk about setups a fair bit in my community, and from that even a baseline understanding emerges. If I would use the bought setups as a baseline and to merge them with my personal preferences, I’m sure I could come up with something that would drive me even further forward. As well, maybe a bit more time spent with the bought setups would’ve seen me improve even more since I would’ve had more time to adjust to the new quirks the different setups brings with it.

How good are the stock aggressive setups in comparison to both? The stock setups are surely good enough to start with. You can even set some really fast times with them, to a point. At some point, you will hit a wall. You can improve on the setups, but a good setup will only let you close that final half-second gap.

Now, you might want to know from me: would I recommend buying setups? Well, lets just answer this in two parts, one dedicated to beginners, the other to experienced drivers.

  • Do you recommend buying setups for beginners? It is not an essential part of your kit. I would recommend you try to read up on setups in general and learn to make your setups, and only then (like I did) compare it to these paid setups. If you buy setups while also first playing ACC you miss out on a lot of fun. A big reason for this is that paying for the setups of one car locks you into that car, and you miss out on experiencing other cars. However, if you hate ‘fun’ (tinkering and testing), only want to win and have enough money: go for it.
  • Do you recommend buying setups for experienced drivers? Again, it comes down to how much money you have laying around. There is a lot of value in discovering where you went wrong with your own setup, like I did on Nürburgring. You might not have any direct gains in your laptime, but you do get new insights by trying out different stuff and thus widening your arsenal. It could make you an all-round better equiped driver, and there’s value in that as well.

The price of the setups are steep, so I can understand if people aren’t willing to pay that kind of money. As you can see, I was faster with my own setups, so it is not essential to buy them. It is a shortcut, and some purists are against taking shortcuts. I can understand their reasoning too.

Ultimately, it is up to you to decide whether it is worth it. I hope I gave you enough information to make an informed decision!

If you like this post, please follow me on Twitter and like/retweet this article, so I can widen my audience and continue to grow my website.