Car simulator racing has been increasing in popularity for years and there’s been massive growth in the last few weeks due to COVID-19. So how do you get started with online racing?
Why should I try online car simulator racing?
Simple. Because it’s a lot of fun, especially if you’re into cars and it helps with developing real-world motorsports skills. I’ve been online racing for around 10 years now, and have a leaderboard on my lounge wall of the times set on my simulator by visitors. Much fun has been had, competition is often intense and it has led to people buying their own simulator setups.
How real is it?
More than real enough. Car racing is much easier to simulate on a computer than just about any other sport, because the controls can be the same; exactly the same in fact, as people literally take car seats, steering wheels and pedals then adapt them for sim use. The top drivers on my leaderboard are all people who in real life drive cars on track or race; the skills definitely translate from the ‘real’ world to simulator and back.
Yes, the physics model isn’t perfect but it’s more than close enough even for a pro let alone a novice – you’ll learn late vs early apexes, smoothness, understeer and oversteer, racing lines and much more. Go up against an expert in the same car and you’ll be left for dead. Racecraft is similar too and, let me tell you it’s a nervy time when you’re in the lead after an hour’s racing. The graphics are great too – all the race images you see here are from Gran Turismo Sport, and some look very real indeed.
Okay, what’s an easy way for me to started in sim racing?
You’ll need five things – computer, sim software, control system, stand and video system.
The basic choice here is a Windows 10 PC, or a console – either a Sony PlayStation 4 or Microsoft Xbox One. The PC will be more versatile, run a wide range of software other than games, and you can set up a triple-monitor system. But, it will be more complex to set up with software and maintain. The consoles are simpler, switch on and pretty much go, but they won’t run Microsoft Word. That said, consoles are now really home entertainment devices not just gaming systems.
If you’re just dabbling then just buy a console. Worst case you can sell it easily for pretty much what you paid for it, and they’re handy devices to have in a lounge room anyway. But don’t buy an older console such as the PlayStation 3, because while the race sims will load and run, the servers which provide the online racing have long been shut down so you’ll be limited to single-player offline mode which is still a lot of fun, but not as good as racing other human beings.
To some extent your choice of computer dictates your software, because not all sims run on all computers. For example, Gran Turismo Sport runs only on PlayStation 4, Forza runs only on XBox, and iRacing runs only on a PC. Some others such as Project Cars 2 run on all three. Do note that sometimes the extra ‘mods’ on sims only work on one platform. For example, you can get tracks such as Australia’s Wakefield Park in Asetto Corsa, but only on the PC version. There’s that tradeoff between customisation and ease of use.
Each sim has its own pros and cons and of course a dedicated fanbase. For a beginner, you want something you can pick up quickly with minimal investment, yet have some depth. There’s literally hundreds of options, but here’s a list of some of the most popular:
iRacing – PC only. This is what most of the pro series are based on, and many professional drivers use it to develop their racecraft. It requires a fair bit of setup and an annual subscription. I’m not a fan of the physics model, and it’s purely focused on online racing, nothing else. But if pure racing is what you want and you’ll set up a PC, then it’s a good choice.
Gran Turismo Sport – Playstation 4 only. Has a very good online racing feature with Daily Races which match you against racers of similar skill, private lobbies (Google what this is if you’re a newbie) and racing against AI (artificial intelligence) opponents. There’s also an amazing photography side to the game, hundreds of cars to buy, and there’s drifting which is reasonably realistic, and rally…not so much.
Forza Motorsport – Xbox One. Similar to Gran Turismo Sport it also offers online racing but features aren’t as rich, for example the player-match system isn’t as good but there’s a massive range of tracks, cars and features to play with.
Assetto Corsa – PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One – a good physics model, great graphics and the main claim to fame is lots of mods available but you’ll need a PC to use them. The AI is pretty good too.
Project Cars 2 – PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One – a good single-player career mode, harder to drive than some others here, and the online system for racing need a little work.
rFactor 2 – PC – generally agreed to have the best physics model and is used by many pro raceteams for their systems, but graphics, gameplay and online racing are lacking compared the others.
The cost for each of the above varies from about $20 to $100, depending on whether you get the standard or extended editions or buy new or second-hand. The console games can be picked up cheap secondhand at the likes of EB Games for a little as $20.
Most require some sort of subscription for online racing, for example PlayStation Plus for $80/year…but that gets you way more than just Gran Turismo racing. And note that some sims require you to buy cars and tracks once in the game, for example iRacing.
If you’re using a console you can simply use the controller than came with it:
However, that’s not a very rewarding experience for novice gamers who can drive cars, and when you get into the top 10%, most people find a steering wheel and pedal setup gives them an extra edge. If you’re using a PC, then you’ll definitely need a wheel/pedal setup.
So assuming you’re on a budget and want a wheel/pedal setup, here’s two of the cheapest:
You must ensure that your wheel/pedal system works with your hardware and software, for example, the popular Logitech G29 is PS3 and PS4 only. However, there are “cross console convertors” to fix those problems.
You can spend thousands on a wheel/pedal system, and the Fanatec systems are perhaps the best, but this is a basic beginner’s guide so we’ll leave them for another time. I can assure you that if you’re new to sim racing, your best investment for improving is working on yourself, not throwing money at hardware in the expectation it’ll shave seconds off your laptime. It won’t, you’ll need to be very good to get to the point where a top-end system improves your times over a basic system, and even then it’ll be thousandths of a second.
If you’re using a controller, just kick back on your sofa. But if you’re using a wheel/pedal setup, you’ll need something more specialised, like this:
It’s a basic stand for the wheel and pedal. Add your own chair and off you go. Two tips:
- Don’t use a swivel chair as it moves too much. Pick a strong, sturdy, comfortable chair.
- Ideally, get a sheet of wood, or attach a frame like this one, and connect the chair and pedal mount to it as that’ll reduce relative movement.
That’s really the minimum required in my experience. You can also, for some wheels, simply clamp the wheel to the desk, but that’s not as stable or as adjustable.
You can also build your own stand out out of metal or wood and whatever car seat you find at a wrecker’s yard.
There are so many options – here’s another idea, from Next Level
And this is what a really expensive setup might look like:
You’ll need to see the track… For a console, you can use any old TV, preferably one at least 40 inches diagonal and full HD. Don’t bother with a 4K TV, it’s not worth it. For a PC, you could again use a TV, or a monitor, or a triple-monitor setup like the one pictured above.
So let’s assume you’ll go for a console as that’s easiest, and if you want a recommendation, I’ll say Gran Turismo Sport on Playstation 4 as I think that’s got the better online race experience compared with Forza. Here’s a summary of what you need and rough costs for either console:
- Game – $35 – look for second-hand at games shops to save money;
- Console – $300 – refurbished units from games shops are the best value, and possibly also another HDMI cable to connect it to a TV;
- Wheel/pedal -$300 – ensure it works with your console;
- Stand – $200 (or make your own) – ensure it works with your wheel/pedal; and
- Video – assume you own a TV, otherwise pick up a cheap 40-inch model.
TOTAL = $700 to $1000
Got a bundle of new gear and raring to go? Here’s a suggested order:
- Connect to your TV via an HDMI cable;
- Connect the console to the internet via your home wi-fi;
- Load the game;
- There will probably be updates for the console and the game…download and let it do its thing. That is why you want to start it the update process soon as you can, rather than be frustrated when you want to play. While you’re doing that…
- Connect your steering wheel/pedal setup to the stand and then to the console;
- See what subscription you need to race online, and sign up; and
- Go racing.
Online racing is real, live, competition and that means it’s not easy. Don’t expect to keep the car on the circuit o begin with, let alone race to win. Read our Guide to the Joy and Pain of online racing to start with. So what do you think, worth a try? Comment below and let us know what you think of online racing.
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