The hardware and software for virtual racing have progressed to the point that simulation training is the most cost-effective way to learn and maintain skills for high performance driving. Professional racers spend more time in simulators than in real cars. You should too. If you’re not using a simulator, let me give you a few reasons why you should.
- Safety – Probably the most important reason to do sim training is for safety. I don’t only mean you won’t injure yourself, your car, or property. That’s a given. I mean the sim world lets you get into and out of disasters you can’t responsibly train for in real life. Want to know what happens if you drop a half a wheel on the grass at 100 mph around T1? Not in real life you don’t. But you can in the sim world. Sim training is literally preventative disaster training.
- Cost – You can build a serviceable sim rig for $1000 or half that if you buy used. This includes the computer, monitor, steering wheel, and pedals. You can also spend over $3000 on a steering wheel motor alone. There are high end components in virtual racing too, but pretty much everything in the virtual world is cheaper than the real world. Try renting out your local track for a whole day.
- Time – The only thing more expensive than money is time. Driving events have a lot of down time from organization to travel to waiting in line. The down time in the virtual world is measured in seconds, not hours.
- Convenience – Even if you have a lot of money and time, training can be inconvenient if you have to coordinate with spouse, friends, team mates, coaches, etc. With a simulator in your abode, just step in whenever you want.
- Rigor – Sometimes it’s difficult to assess your performance because every day on track is a unique experience. Weather, track, and car are constantly changing. You can lock all that down in the virtual world and work on just you.
Most recent desktop computers have enough performance to work with any of the simulators that exist today. But make sure you check exactly which graphics card it has. You want a Passmark score of at least 2,500 for a single monitor, 5,000 for triples, and 12,000 for VR. Upgrading an older PC with a new GPU is a cheap way to get all the computer you need.
Monitors or VR?
One of the biggest decisions to make is if you’re going to have 1 monitor, 3 monitors, or a VR headset. In my experience, a 1920×1080 monitor is good enough. That said, I use a curved 2560×1080 because it offers a wider field of view and better immersion. But 2560×1080 is nothing like VR. I had an Oculus Rift, and that was amazing. It made me want to vomit, but it was amazing. I found a triple screen setup to be 90% as good as VR with 10% of the disorientation. If I had a larger space for my computer rig, I would have a triple screen setup.
The cheapest wheel-pedal combo that I would recommend is the Logitech G29 (PC and PS) or G920 (PC and Xbox). These sell for ~$200 at Newegg or Amazon. Note that this isn’t a strong recommendation. The force feedback isn’t very good in Assetto Corsa and the pedals all have springs in them.
Thrustmaster makes some really great steering wheels and they are coming out with a new pedal set that uses a load cell. I think if I was going to rebuild my sim rig, I would start with a Thrustmaster wheel. Expect to pay around $400.
Fanatec makes some really nice gear. Expect to pay $1000 or more.
Just like in the real world, you can buy used hardware for half the cost of new, with the same risks attached. I once purchased a used G25 rig for $75 but had to do a bit of soldering to make it work. It was still a great deal.
There are several good racing sims. I’ve listed them below in the order of my preference. I prefer those that contain tracks and cars I actually drive. I have no interest in F1 or Le Mans. I’m never going to drive in those events.
- Assetto Corsa – It’s inexpensive and there is a huge user community creating new tracks and cars. There is some variability in the quality of these, but the sheer volume and minimal cost make AC the best deal going. Don’t confuse “Assetto Corsa” this with “Assetto Corsa Competizione”, which is an esports GT3 platform with no user-created content. I love Assetto Corsa. I returned Competizione for a refund.
- rFactor 2 – rF2 takes a slightly more powerful computer than Assetto Corsa. The amount of user-created content is growing. Installing cars and tracks through the Steam Workshop is a breeze. I actually prefer the feel of rF2 to AC, and if rF2 had as much content as AC, it would be my favorite.
- DiRT Rally – Unapologetically difficult for the novice. Patience, you will learn how to drive sideways. This is the best way to train for driving on loose surfaces. Do not confuse DiRT Rally with DiRT 4, which is not recommended. DiRT Rally 2 is good, but not better than the original.
- iRacing – This has the highest quality tracks but zero user-created content. It’s much more expensive than others because it requires a monthly subscription and you have to purchase tracks and cars separately. But it’s still cheap compared to anything in the real world. iRacing is the best software if you like organized racing. Sadly, when you decide you want to stop paying the subscription, you’re locked out of all your content.
- Automobilista – It’s a lot like rFactor 2 but doesn’t require a fast computer. Not that many people play it though. The modding community creates some nice tracks and cars. Automobilista 2 does some things better than the original but some things worse.
- Project CARS – If you have a high end computer and want to see how beautiful a driving sim can be, this is a good place to experience that. The car and track selection is somewhat limited. Project CARS 2 is an update to the original that is somehow not as good.
- rFactor – The graphics are really dated. It can still be useful for finding some obscure track that hasn’t been created in a newer sim. For example, I’ve driven the Vaca Valley track that used to be 15 miles away in the 1960s.
In order to be safe on track at high speed, you need the forethought to avoid dangerous situations, the muscle memory to control a sliding car, and the experience to make the right decision. These thoughts and actions must be automatic. There’s no way to learn these skills from a book. They are developed from hundreds if not thousands of hours of training. As they say in the military, you do not rise to the occasion, you fall back on your training. Musicians spend countless hours practicing scales. Do you spend countless hours working on oversteer recovery? You probably should. With a sim rig, you can.
Be serious about your training. Don’t drink and drive. Don’t think to yourself “I’m just going to have fun”. Yes, simulation is fun, but make it into a training activity by being professional with your time. Start a racing journal. Begin each session by writing down your specific goals for the session. For example. “Try to carry my trail-braking farther through T1 at Lime Rock. Focus on pedal release”. A more general goal might be “Do 5 laps without incident all within the same second”. After you’re done with your training session, write a quick debrief to self-evaluate your performance.
At some point you will have to compare your lap times to others. You’ll be shocked at how much faster some of them are than you. Try not to get discouraged. They learned how to be fast and so can you. But the next step is hard. You’ll need to be critical of your own driving techniques and dissect every little piece. You might want a coach. You’ll absolutely need to look at telemetry. Thankfully, that’s pretty simple in the virtual world.
My computer is higher performance than needed for sim racing. That’s because I got an Oculus Rift, and the computer requirements for that are pretty high. But I actually don’t use the Rift because it makes me seasick. It doesn’t affect everyone that way, so you should try before you buy. I gave it to my son.
- Lenovo Y710: Intel i5-6400, 8GB RAM, nVidia GTX1070, 1TB
- LG 34GL750-B 34 inch 2560×1080 144Hz monitor
- Samsung 250GB external SSD
My wheel is actually made from two separate Thrustmaster components. I bought a TS-PC Racer, but didn’t end up liking the wheel. A YSAR reader sent me his spare T300 wheel and I sent my Formula wheel to another YSAR reader. Paying it forward, that’s what we do around here.
- Thrustmaster TS-PC Racer base
- Thrustmaster T300 Ferrari wheel
Logitech shifters and pedals normally plug into the wheel base, which provides a USB connection for the whole set. So if you run separate components, like I do, you need dedicated device cables for each one. In the case of the brake pedal, it increases the resolution from 256 to 1024 bits.
- Logitech G27 pedals mounted inverted and connected with Bodnar cable
- PerfectPedal hydraulic brake pedal
- Logitech G25 shifter connected with a Bodnar cable
I mount all of this in a custom cockpit made from some 2x4s, plywood, cinder blocks, and the seat from my old E30. The seat slider and recliner still work, and the geometry of the pedals is just like my Miata. When I sit down for a training session, it feels a lot like a real car.
The main monitor is slightly curved and has a resolution of 2560×1080. This isn’t as immersive as a triple monitor setup, but this is what I have the room for. I also have a mini monitor that I used for extra gauges that I don’t want polluting my main screen. In the picture you can also see my keyboard tray, which I put in my lap when I’m playing games like Overwatch or World of Warcraft.