Sim racing gets taken more seriously by the top levels

SIM RIG: E-sports is doing its part in keeping motorsport alive.
SIM RIG: E-sports is doing its part in keeping motorsport alive.

TRY A HOBBY: SIM RACING

I bought a sticker for one of my motorsport projects that says "Caution: I learned to drive on Playstation." It's a bit tongue-in-cheek - inferring I'll crash a lot - but it really did help. Coders for platforms as early as that one had all the fundamentals in place for simulating the characteristics of a vehicle.

Since then, coders have been getting ever-more detailed with the physics models for various aspects like tyres, turbo lag, aerodynamics, weight shift and everything else.

For F1 teams, over a decade ago the coding (and their extremely elaborate rigs) reached a point where they will test the performance of various new parts designs, and setups, on the virtual chassis before making the part or physically applying the changes.

With worldwide lockdowns in place, the top levels of motorsport turned to the virtual world to provide entertainment for their fans, with some drivers admitting to having done sim racing for a long time. After winning the second round of the NTT Indycar iRacing Challenge from his home in Queensland, double V8 Supercars champion and aspiring Indycar driver Scott McLaughlin said in the post-race interview that he's been using that particular simulation platform for the past 10 years to keep his driving skills sharp.

One of the points that co-commentator of that series Townsend Bell made many times was that it's so important to "hit your marks," stressing that the braking and turn-in points, getting to your apexes and accelerating smoothly out of corners was so important for achieving good lap times, and doing so consistently was needed to win a race.

That's the reason good sims are good training tools; they require the same control inputs as the physical vehicle. Perhaps not the same force, but very much the same timing. What makes it tricky to learn to start with is the sensations you get back are different; you only get the sound, visuals and the steering feedback (unless you also have a motion rig).

That also means, initially at least, you have to drive at a more conscious level, because the parts of your brain that are wired up to the seat of your pants, so to speak, aren't able to offer any help.

When it comes to a sim's accuracy, there are three layers to this. These are the accuracy of the track, the accuracy of the vehicle you're practicing with, and the physics engine of the sim title you're driving them in.

For tracks, the width and elevations need to be right, as does the camber, curvature and position of corners relative to the others. Real bumps are nice too. iRacing and others use laser-scanned data, and the track surface and kerbs can be accurate within 1mm.

It doesn't have to be laser-scanned to be good though. On the Race Department website I found a free download of my home track, Wakefield Park, to add to the PC version of Assetto Corsa. It was created using track day GPS data, and has me doing the same dance in my sim rig that I've done many times as an enthusiast on the venue itself.

Within the sim, the steering feedback needs to be detailed so you feel what's going on, especially when it comes to detecting under- or over-steer to catch a slide.

When it comes to the PC-based sims that can be modified the quality will vary between content creators and sim titles, but the general standard on all platforms is pretty high, and the good stuff is easy to identify when you read the feedback others have given or watch a few reviews on YouTube. Actually, on that, I believe the Chris Haye channel is a good place for beginners, with vids on starting out cheap, setting your field-of-view, car setup tips, fair reviews of various sim content he's tried, and interviews with other sim racing YouTubers.

With car accuracy, well that's also possible to find in terms of the physics. You could also commission someone to make a sim version of your car for one of those mod-able PC sims if nothing close already exists (or perhaps learn to make some small changes to existing content yourself as I am doing).

If you're just in it for the fun or the nostalgia though, then neither the car nor the track has to be realistically-difficult to drive on the limit, it just needs to look, sound and feel nice. Name any series and era, and chances are you'll be able to find that content available in, or for, one program or another.