The "Engineer's Answer", or "a Tale of Two Hamiltons"
Do racing simulators for drivers have any measurable benefit? The data says yes... and no...
The case against simulators is presented by Lewis Hamilton. He's a 3-time Formula 1 World Champion, looking to add another should misfortune land on the other side of Mercedes AMG F1 garage, and is provided courtesy of Autosport Magazine in July, 2016.
In the opposing corner, wearing the blue trunks, is his brother Nicolas Hamilton. The two often spent time racing against each other, and to my knowledge still find time to race to this day. Despite having cerebral palsy Nicolas has managed to use his experience "playing games" to develop many cars for Slightly Mad Studios' game, Project CARS. Using what he's learned while playing and later developing racing games, he has earned his own chance at professional driving despite requiring modifications for his condition. Much like Alex Zanardi has shown, you simply cannot stop a racer from doing what they love, no matter the odds.
His virtual career taught him the skills he needed to be faster than a few racing instructors initially thought he was capable of, and has since obtained that "career in real life".
It's not rare to find two siblings with opposing views and philosophies, but where does engineering come into the debate? Simply ask an engineer what the best "thing" is for a given application, in this case the simulator as a worthwhile investment or just a frivolous waste of money, and you'll typically get "The Engineer's Answer To Life, The Universe, and Everything". (And no, it's not 42).
Engineers are taught to understand and solve the complexities of the environment they work in, including many variables you and I may take for granted simply because we lack the experience and lessons they've worked so hard to obtain. So for instance, if you ask an engineer which is a better brand of car manufacturer, "Brand X" or "Brand Y", the correct answer is: "It depends."
For Lewis, he sees and feels what the simulators can't supply in a quantitative manner and in a meaningful way. No simulator is going to know the precise time the wind will change direction, or when the track cool or warn at a specific time during a specific race. It's easy for him to discredit the tool because he understands exactly what it can and cannot do, and he can adjust himself to adapt and "cheat the system".
For Nicolas, the simulator is an invaluable tool providing all of the variables he can expect to confront when he's out on the track, but his lack of on-track experience may not help him to adapt to a specific track on a specific day under similar conditions. Having the ability to play with those variables in a safe environment can help him gain the knowledge of how to adapt and react. He also has the benefit of a reset button, something I'm sure Lewis would love this season (like Malaysia, for instance).
This is also a valuable life lesson that racing can teach. Life is rarely without moments and circumstances that are 100% right or wrong, each day possessing infinite variables at any given moment. So instead of asking "which is better" or "what's the best for...", the correct question should be "will this help me to learn what I may need to adapt and/or react?" "Is what I'm doing giving me the sort of feedback I will need in the future, and do I feel that there is value in doing it?"
Of course, the answer to both of those last two is: "It depends."