How to become an online sim-racing champion ... on a budget
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It's Alert Level 3 in New Zealand, and all voices are instructing you to stay isolated, practice social distancing, and restrict the amount of time you're mulling around outside of the house. That means no French kissing strangers (probably not advisable in any case), no sport, and no needless driving.
Those latter two points have resulted in a global explosion in interest around virtual motorsport. The Supercars Championship, Formula 1, IndyCar, FIA World Rallycross Championship, TCR Australia, NASCAR, IMSA, and many others have all quickly erected their own respected online championships featuring their own star racers along with a raft of guest racers.
It's enough to make you want to get legions of others to want to become involved themselves.
So, where do you start?
There are two trains of thought here to ask yourself; are you wanting to just get out there and have fun or perhaps get the kids learning driving technique at a young age? Or, are you wanting to actually become a pro-level driver with the target of competing in championships.
The former is significantly more cost effective, and certainly more advisable for those wanting to dip their toes in before diving head-first into an expensive simulator set-up.
In the case of the former, console gaming is the easiest way to get started. Some games are available across all platforms, like DiRT Rally and Project Cars. But both Xbox and PlayStation have their own exclusive motorsport franchises in Forza Motorsport/Forza Horizon and Gran Turismo.
To maximise the realism of either title, you'll also need a solid internet connection for online gameplay in order to pitch your own skills against the abilities of other real people playing everywhere else in the world.
Forza and GT are much of a muchness on paper, but the latter has a significant ace up its sleeve for those wanting to take things to another level ...
And what's that?
While the Forza titles do have an esports network of sorts where players around the world race against each other in big marquee tournaments, Gran Turismo Sport has arguably the biggest, most competitve online tournament network of any mainstream racing title.
The series hosts a year-long FIA-sanctioned online championship split into a Manufacturer's Series title (where each driver fights to be the best racing a particular brand of car) and a Nation's Cup title (where each driver is battling those in their global region directly).
The series hinges around a 3-days-a-week online schedule of FIA-specific online races, where players enter a particular race at a particular time for their region. The best players with the highest Driver Rank (DR) and Sportsmanship Rank (SR), accumulated in non-FIA races, qualify for top lobbies that pay out the most points.
Those who rank in the top percentile of the Nation's and Manufacturer's titles then get invited to real-world events around the world, where they compete in front of a live audience, in a telecast beamed around the world online. Although this year's FIA league has resigned to being online-only due to Covid-19, last year events were held in Monaco, New York, and the Nurburgring among other places. And yes, all expenses are paid.
Photo / Matthew Hansen
But isn't Gran Turismo a bit unrealistic?
Well, yes. But it's still arguably the best 'ready to run' way to dip your toes into virtual racing, even without the bonus of those pretty incredible real-world prizes.
It's worth noting too that the gains in racecraft learnings through Gran Turismo are proven at a high level. Many of those who won the game's old GT Academy programme went on to become solid real-world race drivers, while a GT Sport world champion, Igor Fraga, won the New Zealand Toyota Racing Series earlier this year.
So, what if I want something more realistic?
Step one would be to ditch console gaming and move to playing on your PC (while making sure that your hardware is good enough to handle such things along the way).
The most realistic simulator platforms all reside exclusively on PC. Two of the best to start with are rFactor 2 and Assetto Corsa. The pair can be purchased as an online download for $40 and $25, respectively. Each simulator requires a few extra bucks for other downloadable tracks and cars, so bargain to spend a bit extra for the stuff that you want.
The jewel in the PC simultator crown, though, is iRacing. This is the platform used for most of the virtual motorsport series we've been enjoying over the last few weeks. Unlike everything else here, iRacing is a subsciption service. For USD$13 (approximately NZ$21) you get one month of service, with USD$199 (NZ$330) the price for a two year subscription.
That said, at the moment iRacing is running a 50 per cent off sale on all its subscription deals. So if you've been thinking about it, now's a good time to give it a whirl.
Why's it so expensive?
While it has its imperfections, iRacing is still recognised by most as the best of the best. The tracks are laser scanned for accuracy, the cars and engine models are created with the help of real-world racers ... plenty of whom use practice on the simulator to keep themselves sharp and focused between races. Shane van Gisbergen and Scott McLaughlin are among the many that use iRacing, with two decades of practice on the game between them.
Ultimately, once you start getting into this sim-racing business, the price of the platform can be a drop in the ocean ...
Photo / Matthew Hansen
Err ... is this the bit where you tell me to spend $10,000 on a sim rig?
It's actually not. One does not need the top end in sim-racing hardware in order to have fun and be competitive. Instead, the most important mantra is: practice, practice, practice.
Case in point is New Zealand's current Gran Turismo Sport number one; Simon Bishop [pictured above]. The Dunedin TV and tech salesman, who won a GT Sport world title last year at the Nurburgring, managed to qualify for his first overseas event by using his standard Playstation dualshock controller. And, for a long time, he was actually quicker on the controller than on the wheel.
Contrary to the belief of some, the benefit of hopping onto a wheel isn't quicker lap-times. Really, the benefit is consistency. Moving to a wheel makes the car's virtual movements much easier to feel. The force feedback through even a basic steering wheel is much more communicative than what you'd feel through the buttons on a controller.
You're much more likely to reduce the amount of crashing you do on a wheel. Then, over time, lap-times come.
Steering wheels ... where do I begin?
The two ports of call you should investigate if shopping on a budget for a steering wheel are Logitech and Thrustmaster.
Second-hand or older-generation wheels from either brand can be had for under $200, with each often coming with a pedal box and the attachments necessary to bolt the wheel to a desk (or in Liam Lawson's case, a ironing board). If you've got no desks around, you can embark on the fun weekend project of building a rig from scratch, or you can spend another few hundred dollars on a solid gaming wheel stand (Logitech make those, too). And boom, you have a good gaming rig for well under $500 ... less than the price of a farm hack.
Want to buy new? Each of those aforementioned brands has a solid baseline steering wheel or two. Logitech has the G29 and G920, and Thrustmaster has the TMX T150 and T300. Pricing for these ranges from $300 to $800. The sub-$500 G29 is arguably the best all-round buy, while the T300 would probably achieve the best results for those with a bit of extra money.
And, if I'm after something a bit more?
Out of the mainstream gaming wheel brands, it's Thrustmaster that offer the best premium options for just over $1000. Here, the extra dosh covers off things like a more realistic feeling leather-bound wheel rim, better force feedback, and more tactile paddle shifters.
But, those wanting to spend extra on their wheel set-up often want even more. This is where a brand like Fanatec comes in.
Fanatec are the most well-known top-tier steering-wheel producer in the world, with most of the real-world racers competing online wrapping their fingers around the German-designed and built equipment. At this level, buyers choose their wheel base, wheel, and pedals all separately according to their needs.
Wheels can be made out of carbon fibre for reduced resistance and lined with Alcantara to repel sweat. They can also feature LED shift lights, digital displays that show live racing data, and much more.
Be on particular lookout for wheel bases that offer something called 'direct drive'. As opposed to the gear and belt-driven force feedback systems in most wheels, a direct drive wheel connects the driver's fingertips directly (aha) to the wheel's motor shaft.
In short, this means the feedback that comes through the wheel is far more nuanced than it is on a standard base. With one of these systems, you can achieve a 1:1 feedback ratio, where a car snapping sideways at 200km/h through Eau Rouge is as violent and instant as it would be in reality. Check out gaming YouTuber Jimmy Broadbent's excellent explanation of direct drive above.
Okay, lay it on me. How much is it?
Fanatec's cheapest bundle costs €569 (NZD$1,032), with the cheapest direct drive wheel base costing €1,199 (NZD$2,175) by itself. But there's an issue.
There is no Kiwi distributor for Fanatec goods, meaning that if you want something at this level you will need to get creative. Either search the country high and low for second-hand examples, or utilise a YouShop or overseas account to purchase a system online. Just be ready to fork out for GST, on top.
Fanatec are just an example here. There's a bunch of brands making this kind of gear (Simucube is also worth a gander if you're interested), but as far as we know none has a local distributor. At least not yet.
What about rigs?
If the ironing board or computer desk doesn't really cut it, there's plenty of options here, too. Full ready-made rigs consisting of a frame, adjustable plates for attaching pedals and wheels, and a bucket seat, start at just over $1,000. The GTUltimate cockpit is one of the most popular in class, and is widely available locally for $1,199.
Like almost everything else here, the sky is the limit for spend. Established aftermarket company Sparco sells gaming rigs for between $2000 and $10,000 locally, and that's before we even think about things like articulating rigs and virtual reality. There's also external hand-brake levers and gear-shifters to consider, too.
Perhaps the most overlooked element of the quintessential sim rig is the screen. Curved screens designed for gaming can cost between $500 and $2000 depending on size, and are particularly handy for motorsport since they can widen a driver's peripheral vision significantly. Those most serious about their sim rigs will commonly run three of them side-by-side.
Woohoo, time to sell the kids and kidneys and construct a $10,000 rig!
Just ... wait. Settle down. If there's one piece of advice to offer here, it's to start small.
A consumer grade wheel and game set-up will be more than enough to fill the racing void for most people. While going all-in on a huge cockpit and direct drive wheel sounds great, you need to make sure that you've got the space, money and maybe most importantly the patience first.
Start small, get good, then make that jump if or when you're ready. With virtual motorsport on the rise, who knows where it might take you.