By Brian Makse | Photography by Brian Makse, Alienware, iRacing, Simraceway, Obutto
If you're like me and can't get enough of racing, you probably have at least one gaming console and the right driving game to get your fix of virtual, four-wheeled fun during the off-season. There's only so much of a game's physics model that's believable, so once you get your fill of unrealistic and gamey driving, where do you go next? Wait for the season to begin again for more track time – or can you access the kind of simulators that pro drivers use?
You'd be surprised, actually. Racing simulators are more accessible now than they've ever been. With a modest investment in some hardware, you can be racing in the latest McLaren MP4-27 Formula One car at Circuit of the Americas or a NASCAR Sprint Cup Chevy at Daytona – and with a level of simulation that can almost trick you into thinking you're driving the real thing.
Where to start?
Instead of a game console's controller, you're going to need a couple of things before you get started, but you'll be surprised at how economical sim racing can be. Most importantly, you'll need a PC, which could be a computer you already have. You'll also need a PC-compatible steering wheel and pedal set, which can be found for as little as $100 at many electronics retailers. For new sim racers, consider simply mounting the wheel to a desk, placing the pedals underneath and using your PC's monitor for your sim racing display.
After a hardware solution, you'll have to decide on the type of simulator software you'll want to use. There are a number of sim racing choices on the market today, each with a little different flavour, so you've got the option of selecting the one that's best for your needs.
iRacing is perhaps the most popular sim on the market and it's more software-as-a-service than pure software. You don't buy iRacing's software, per se, but instead subscribe to the iRacing service. While the company seems to run frequent promotions, the base subscription rate is USD $99 per year.
iRacing's standard subscription includes seven cars, with the SCCA Spec Racer Ford and World Challenge Cadillac CTS-V racer among them. You can drive them on the 10 available tracks – both ovals and road courses – including the famous Lime Rock, Laguna Seca and Charlotte Motor Speedway circuits, all laser scanned to millimetre-level precision. iRacing has an additional 21 cars and 42 tracks available to drive, which can be purchased à la carte, with new race cars and circuits coming online regularly.
According to iRacing's President, Tony Gardner, it's easy to get started and you're not jumping into the deep end of sim racing. He says, "You can race any car or track you want but we do start all rookies off together if you want to do our official racing and work your way up from there. The bottom line is that our system automatically places similarly experienced drivers together and you progress at your own pace. Or, you can go off and do your own things with your friends or people you meet on iRacing. Probably the most time consuming thing is learning all the different things you can do in iRacing because we do offer a lot of variety. You can choose from tournaments, official racing, special events, private league racing, time trials and open practice among other things."
San Francisco-based Ignite Game Technologies introduced its Simraceway sim racing platform to public beta in 2012. Unlike iRacing, you can install and drive the software for free. Before the release, Simraceway consulted well-known racing drivers to optimize the physics model. They worked with Indy 500 winner Dan Wheldon before his death and continue to work with IndyCar champ Dario Franchitti and Le Mans winner, Allan McNish. On a visit to Simraceway's Performance Driving Center at Sonoma Raceway in 2012, I witnessed McNish optimize the set up for his then-current Audi R18 TDI race car with a Simraceway engineer. You can't get any more authentic than that.
While Simraceway's software is free, we all know nothing in life is free, so what's the catch? Eventually, you'll want to drive more than just the solitary free car, the Mitsubishi Evolution X. The catch is cars comes at a price and, cleverly, each car is priced at 1/100th of the value of that of the real-world version. Fancy a Bugatti Veyron Super Sport? That'll cost you $24.27. Ayrton Senna's championship winning McLaren MP 4/4 runs $38.00.
Like iRacing, Simraceway offers a variety of driving and racing experiences. Whether you want to just hop on and do some laps at Zandvoort or want to race against competitors around the world, there are many options to choose from. Not only that, if you just want to race, there's no waiting, and Simraceway's proprietary skill-matching algorithm will place you in a race with similarly experience sim racers.
Company spokesman Declan Brennan tells us, "Quick Race 2.0 is the fastest way for users to get straight into head-to-head racing. Also, Simraceway's proprietary Skillquant system will then ensure the user has the fairest and most competitive racing experience possible. The Skillquant skill matching system is in its early stage of deployment which is focused on data collection and calibration."
Michigan-based Image Space Incorporated produces the original rFactor ($39.99) simulator software, with rFactor2 now available in beta for $84.99. For those who are more hands-on with PC technology, rFactor's deep online community develops a long list of cars and tracks. For the most part, the community provides users with some great cars and tracks, but with some shortcomings.
Unlike iRacing and Simraceway, the rFactor community doesn't have the resources to laser scan race tracks, so the levels of accuracy typically don't approach that of iRacing and Simraceway. On the other hand, the community-developed tracks are close enough to reality they'll at least give you a sense of a track's flow. For example, I used rFactor to learn my way around Indiana's Putnam Park club racing track prior to my first race at the track. The rFactor version gave me a sense of the sequence of corners and a rough idea of the general speed through each, which was enough to put me one step ahead before I turned a wheel on that circuit.
What rFactor will give you are cars and tracks, as well as combinations thereof, that aren't available anywhere else. If I want to drive something like a Porsche GT3 Cup, I'll boot up rFactor. If I'm racing at another American club circuit, like California's Thunderhill or Carolina Motorsports Park, I can find those circuits through rFactor's community resources. Heck, they've even got a virtual Shannonville Motorsport Park.
Now that you've got it, how do you use a sim?
There is a laundry list of casual reasons to use a simulator, from straight practice and learning a new circuit, which are the main reasons I use my simulators. I've also used iRacing's hosted service to do lead-follow exercises with racing colleagues to give them head start on new circuits.
Online sim racing is readily available in iRacing, Simraceway and rFactor, though it's easiest to jump on Simraceway to pick up one of its Quick Races. iRacing has an excellent hosted service that I've used to race semi-regularly in a league with friends. With so many professional drivers using iRacing, it's no surprise that I've raced against Le Mans and IndyCar pros.
How can you benefit from sim driving?
My initial interest in sim racing stemmed from my need to learn my way around Laguna Seca before my first race. That was successful and I've used iRacing to prepare for races at Road America and Road Atlanta.
Beyond simply learning circuits, serious amateurs and professionals alike use sim racing for real progression. Peter Krause, founder of Krause & Associates, coaches drivers across the U.S. and uses sim training as a core part of his teaching methodologies. Krause says, "The sim allows for unhurried, unrushed, most convenient and the least expensive way to make this detailed study of even familiar tracks. When a driver combines the experienced observation of a professional coach, often the coach can gain huge insight into the driver's technique (eyes, vision, head movement, interaction with the controls) by the simple act of evaluating the driver in a non-competition, real-time environment."
"For example," Krause continues, "an SCCA driver very familiar with Road Atlanta spent three hours on the sim driving a quicker car than he normally races, picking up dozens of visual cues he had never seen before through a detailed study of the course on the iRacing sim. This was bolstered by the input of even more intimate circuit knowledge of the coach. Next time out, he picked up two full seconds."
Optimizing your equipment
As your sim driving progresses, you'll find that better equipment makes sim driving more effective. There are always better wheels, pedals, displays, seats and PC, so you'll have to decide what suits your driving and budget. After some research, I decided on a Logitech wheel and pedal set because of its reputation and the Obutto cockpit due to its relatively small size, open pedal area and comfortable seat. Since I didn't want to waste time configuring a PC, the Alienware M17x gaming laptop flawlessly runs each of the sims I use, plus its compact size maximizes space around my sim rig.
Advanced sim drivers don't skimp on their equipment, either. As Krause says, "A proper racing seat coupled with a sturdy wheel and pedal mount preserve the relationship between the driver and the controls. Most sims have graphic details that are 'scale-able.' This means the more powerful the rendering engine, the more objects and detail the screen will show. One of the most useful tools of using sims, that of finding landmarks critical in establishing turn-in, apex and track-out points, as well as lining up the car in anticipation of a complex section of track, is enhanced immeasurably with additional detail."
The ultimate in sim racing
Chas Lawrence operates Seat Time, a racing simulator studio in Santa Monica, California, which caters to serious amateur and professional racing drivers. Lawrence uses the full-motion CXC Motion Pro II simulators because, as he says, "Anything that isn't full motion (pitch, dive, roll) isn't a simulator, it's just a game. Of the ones I drove, CXC's had the best motion profile, giving you realistic feedback without over-exaggerating a lot of the motion. Also, CXC's components were all very high-end, so the wheel, pedals, seat and chassis are all very good. The net effect is that the CXC is the most realistic feeling simulator, both in the inputs the driver makes with the controls and with the outputs from the sim and the motion profile. Also, CXC is the only sim designed by a racing driver and continually tested by racing drivers, so the realism is baked in."
This level of sim racing goodness is not inexpensive. The Motion Pro II starts at USD $45,000. I've driven CXC simulators and they're the closest thing to the six-figure-plus "driver in the loop" rigs that professional racing teams use. Perhaps you'd be surprised, but CXC rigs aren't just for commercial use. The company is the first to admit it has installed countless simulators for private use, but the customer list remains confidential.
Whether your interest in sim racing is casual or to supplement your professional driving career, there is a wide range of software and hardware options. Choose wisely and I'll see you on the virtual track.
rFactor - http://imagespaceinc.com/products/
Obutto - http://getgadget.ca/
Alienware - http://www.alienware.ca/
Seat Time - http://www.seattimesims.com/
CXC Simulations - http://cxcsimulations.com/