Is simulator racing a realistic alternative to driving?
Updated: Sep 3, 2020
So we are all stuck, locked-down in our homes, our big-boy toys sit disused and lonely in our driveways and garages. It’s a tough position for driving enthusiast to be in. But sim racing – or simulator racing – is a great option for those in need of an automotive adrenaline fix.
While our real cars are taking a well-earned rest, our virtual ones are getting a bigger workout than ever before. A lot of us, from mechanics to car guys to racing enthusiasts, have all taken to sim racing with gusto; online servers are seeing more racing action than any time in history.
For those considering taking up the hobby there has never been a better opportunity. The chance to get involved and experience some fantastic door-to-door racing at any level has never been more realistic, more affordable or more comfortable!
One of the greatest things about simulator racing is that it allows you to experience the actual racing yourself. Watching the Formula 1 or V8 Supercars live on TV is cool, but when you’re the one in the driver’s seat it’s a totally different story.
How do I take part in sim racing?
Sim racing is a relatively cheap hobby to get into. A decent entry-level racing wheel and pedal set will only cost you around $250. You can find them second-hand, and if you already own a computer, Xbox or PlayStation, you’re good to go.
There are also myriad platforms out there to choose from; arcade-style sims like the Need for Speed and the Forza franchises offer a ton of fun, and a chance to carve through traffic in large, free-roam maps.
At the next level, more serious sims like Project Cars and Assetto Corsa offer a much more realistic driver experience; focused much more on circuit racing with great single-player racing career modes as well as thriving online space to race your friends.
On top level platforms like iRacing (at a higher cost to other sims; pictured above) is an extremely realistic online setting where driver skills are rated and matched together; accidents are properly penalised by a steward system; and the top categories see pro racers competing for real prizes.
It is on platforms like this where it’s not uncommon to find yourself lining up on the virtual grid against the likes of Max Verstappen, Lando Norris, and many many other world-famous racing drivers who use these platforms... that is, if you’re good enough to be matched-up against them!
What’s the sim-racing driving experience like?
Online racing cannot and will never be able to replicate the G-forces of a real car, meaning it is impossible to achieve that full-driving experience. In that way, it will never be fully realistic.
But it is certainly a case of “don’t knock it until you try it”.
Sim racing is better, and more realistic, than it has ever been; and from a purely visual perspective is pretty damn close to the real thing.
Obviously, the better the equipment you use the more feel you will have through the wheel (this is known as haptic feedback), and therefore the more control you will have over the experience overall. Put on a VR headset instead of using a screen and you will forget you’re playing a game entirely.
Even a basic setup with a computer or TV screen and Logitech steering wheel (pictured above) will give you a very well-rounded and immersive experience.
And let’s be honest, when you are side-by-side on the absolute edge trying to squeeze past your rival on the final lap – or heading into turn one at the start of a race surrounded by cars on all sides – it doesn’t matter what your holding onto; you’re gripping that thing with everything you have as the adrenaline pumps through you.
Find out what it’s like to be a racing driver
No matter which platform you choose, almost all online simulator racing will involve a proper practice, qualifying and race sequence, giving you a chance to get familiar with the car and track; and then giving everybody in the server an equal opportunity to qualify for the race.
Going through this process (learning who the other drivers in your session are, and setting a time you are proud of), is an incredibly rewarding experience. The sense of satisfaction when you finally manage to edge ahead of that one guy you have been battling three sessions in a row is not unlike going to a local track day and managing to set a new personal best in your pride and joy.
And don’t be discouraged if you feel a little uncoordinated when you start out. Like anything sim racing takes practice. You’ll very quickly adapt to using your hand-eye coordination and become familiar with sliding cars on the edge the track, clipping apexes and setting personal bests.
The same approach comes to online competition. Even if you are a seasoned driver, learning to drive against real people who move unexpectedly can take time, so do not feel discouraged when you hit, or are hit by, other amateur racers, several races in a row.
The reaction times are absolutely tiny, and making contact with others happens an awful lot in real life as well, it’s all part of racing. Much like if two professional sports teams were to play each other several times over, two races never play out the same online. You may win one race, and then come 17th in the next. It’s a constantly changing environment which forces you to adapt to the people you are racing against, and it’s a massive thrill.
Do real-life skills give you an advantage in sim racing?
While real-life driving skills do give you an edge on the simulator, getting used to driving without ‘feel’ manages to equal-out the playing field to some degree.
An experienced driver and a brand-new driver both have to adjust to how a simulator wheel and pedals feel. However, a very interesting takeaway is how the simulator skills translate back to real life.
With no cost to crashing a car, a simulator allows you to push the car to its limit; and if you’re lucky enough to find your own car available in the online realm, that chance to push your own car to it’s limits is very rewarding when you finally return to four wheels.
This opportunity allows your brain to learn how the car handles on the limit without the ramifications of an insurance claim. The realism is very impressive. In fact, millions of dollars are invested by software firms to ensure the driving dynamics of the car are closely matched in the simulated environment.
Every hour you spend on the simulator is teaching your brain and training your muscle memory in how to take a corner properly; how to come off the brakes smoothly; and, most prominently, how to initiate, sense, and correct a slide mid-corner.
Building hours and hours of muscle memory means that when you get back in your real car, your brain has all that experience built up. Then, in that split-second where something goes wrong, your muscle memory immediately jumps into action. Believe me, you will find yourself catching stuff more quickly than you ever have before.
I find this extremely valuable, and to be honest, it has saved me multiple times on the race track. I can tell you it’s a very weird feeling when you slide your own car for the very first time only to correct the slide instinctively. It’s like you knew what the car was going to do before it did it.
If nothing else, sim racing is an amazing way to beat the iso blues. It might also leave you better practiced for when we return to real-world racing, and for that point alone, is well worth the price of admission.