The curious allure of sim racing

Sim racing allows fans to jump into the driver's seat without as much risk to their lives or bank accounts

The car squirms as I accelerate out of the sharp right-hander. I feather the throttle until the rear tyres find grip, then smash my right foot as far as it will go. Two cars jostle for third position metres ahead as we fly down the home straight. My hands grip the steering wheel with force as I nail each gear change, while my eyes are focussed ahead on the apex of turn one, which rapidly approaches. A gap opens and I sandwich myself between the French and Bulgarian drivers ahead, interrupting their struggle, before darting out to the right, taking the inside line. I’m last on the brakes and make the move stick, jumping from fifth to third in a single corner before accelerating once again. I hold my line and the position to eventually take the podium. All from the convenience of my front room.

I don’t race cars in real life, and likely never will. The cost of a track day alone isn’t too scary, but entering a series and racing competitively can be prohibitively expensive. Which is where sim racing comes in. Although nothing new, sim racing has exploded in popularity and it’s easy to see why. For a relatively small sum (compared to its real-life counterpart), you can replicate a full racing set up in a corner of your living room, download the same software used by F1 world champions and get track time on the world’s best circuits.

Sim racing is a form of gaming, but it’s more about competing than just having fun. Like the name suggests, the concept is to simulate racing by playing realistic driving games with a steering wheel, pedal and some sort of seat or rig. The idea first started appearing in 1980’s arcades with titles like 1982’s Pole Position – the first game with a steering wheel and pedals – and WEC Le Mans of 1986, the first to feature a motion rig and force feedback. It was the ‘90s where big improvements came though, as more people began to purchase home computers. Indianapolis 500 is widely thought of as the first racing simulation, with users being able to set the car up – which affected handling – as well as being able to drive in first-person mode, something essential for an accurate sim experience.

The first game to accurately replicate the highest tier of motorsport was Formula One Grand Prix, released in 1992. It offered multiplayer for the first time and simulated slipstream, allowing drivers to gain time when directly behind the car in front. And then came Gran Turismo in 1997. The first in an iconic line of racing sims, GT brought realistic driving to home consoles, requiring players to earn different driving licences to qualify for events. With 11 millions units sold, it became the most successful racing game ever. The next two decades resulted in significant upgrades to realism, both with software and hardware. Today’s top sims include iRacing and Assetto Corsa, games that 3D-scan real life circuits, making them accurate to the millimetre.

Bobby Trundley sim racing
Credit: Bobby Trundley.

“The technology used to recreate tracks for higher levels of sim racing is incredible”, says Bobby Trundley, 22, who competes professionally for TeamBRIT, a racing outfit consisting of disabled drivers. “Laser scanners re-create every bump, kerb and camber change to get as close to real life as possible. Sim racing is a valuable tool for racing real cars too. Race craft is learned and practised before you hit a track for the first time. I can imagine vast amounts of money has been saved with drivers getting an insight of the track before taking their hugely expensive cars out for the first time and perhaps incurring damage.”

The hardware available is now equally advanced, too, with high-end equipment virtually matching the feel of real life, both in the feedback given and the aesthetics. Sim racing is arguably the only esport where you can accurately replicate the exact equipment you’d use in real life, from the correct switchgear positioning to the pressure needed to lock up the brakes. The skills needed to be quick virtually mirror those needed for reality too, from cat-like reflexes to immense concentration over elongated periods.

It’s no surprise then that those who are quick virtually are also quick in real life. A number of sim racers have made the jump to pro, with Rudy van Buren and James Baldwin having raced GT cars in Germany and the UK. More recently, F1 Esports winner Cem Bolukbasi was offered a season-long seat in F2, making him the first Turkish driver and the first from the world of sim racing to make the jump to the F1 feeder category. Having raced both himself, Trundley argues that “sim racing is a fantastic alternative without the extreme expense, and there are some incredibly good racers who have been spotted sim racing. They have gone on to race real cars at top level and I believe many more will come via this route.”

Credit: Bobby Trundley sim racer
Credit: Bobby Trundley

But it works the other way round too. Top F1 drivers have long practised at their team headquarter’s respective simulators, but today’s technology means they can have their own set ups at home, too. Current F1 Driver’s Champion Max Verstappen, Lando Norris, Carlos Sainz, Charles Leclerc and George Russell are all known to be keen sim racers, often streaming their races live on Twitch and YouTube. Verstappen even regularly takes part in official races with Team Redline, an international esports team. During 2020, and the various lockdowns that ensued, the real-life F1 season was delayed, and drivers instead took part in the Virtual Grand Prix series. Over 30million viewers tuned in to the races, which were live-streamed on TV and YouTube and saw the likes of Verstappen, Norris and Leclerc face off against former champion Jenson Button, Johnny Herbert and sim racing YouTuber Jimmy Broadbent, who himself boasts a subscriber count of over 776,000. The races were largely competitive at the front, with Leclerc admitting he’d spend upwards of five hours a day practising.

But what about sim racing on the more amateur end of the spectrum? For those with an interest in motorsport, jumping behind the virtual wheel is a form of escape and a hobby that allows for accessible competition and self-improvement. For Mike, 49 from Kent, “it’s the challenge of getting to try something that only a very small number of exceptionally talented people can do for real. The satisfaction of getting things right, of going as fast as possible around a highly detailed representation of the best racing circuits in the world is immense, and the concentration required to do it lap after lap without crashing is intense.” Liam, 39 from Teesside, describes himself as a sim racing “rookie” and enjoys streaming on Twitch. For him, “it’s about seeing how much I am improving each week I drive. I can feel myself getting better, driving with better technique, being safer around other cars on track. The feeling of progression is just beautiful.”

Sim Racer credit: charlie Thomas
Credit: Charlie Thomas.

Whether you’re an F1 World Champion or a complete beginner, sim racing is undoubtedly the most accessible way into motorsport. It’s unique in that it complements its real-life counterpart in a way no other esport can. Will it turn you into a racing god overnight? Absolutely not, but that’s the beauty of it. It requires commitment and a willingness to work on the smallest of details and then, just maybe, you might find some pace. For petrolheads, there isn’t anything more satisfying than nailing the apex of a sweeping right-hander. Doing it virtually is the next best thing.

We recently named Gran Turismo 7 as one of the biggest games to look forward to in 2022 – why not see what else made the list? 

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