Sim Racing is here to stay.
Some motorsport fans might be new to Sim Racing. But the art of virtual racing was around long before its recent boom thanks to the global pandemic. And long before competitive esports developed into a multi-million dollar business.
Whether it be on a gaming console or PC, sim racing comes in many forms. From 1983’s Chequered Flag on the ZX Spectrum, to the modern day platforms that allow us to race in immensely accurate detail. Sim Racing is always evolving and it is now more serious than ever.
With a Sim Racing rig, virtual racers can relish many of the world’s greatest racetracks and cars. It provides opportunities for people who might not necessarily be able to partake in the real-life version. Anyone can enjoy racing, in any form.
The attraction of Sim Racing is there for all. It is producing the next generation of racing stars and fans.
The Changing Of The Guard
Car culture has come a long way since the days of hanging a poster on the bedroom wall. The Baby Boomer generation, for example, idolised models that became cult classics. They went on to purchase their dream vehicles later in life. That love and bond for cars, engineering and technology is something particular to that era. It is a unique physical and emotional attachment.
But as generations changed, so did affection towards cars. Popular culture had a huge impact: the Fast and Furious franchise, for example, glamorised car customisation. Cars have always been compared to art in how they look – classic Ferraris or Jaguars are valued because they are beautiful and evocative. Customising supercars is still a version of that; it’s just packaging it differently to a different audience.
For today’s crop of young motoring enthusiasts, the adoration now resonates virtually. There is still a love for the cars, but it manifests in the thrill of online racing. A thrill of experiencing what the professionals do. The thrill of being able to sit in their own home and race at a circuit they've always dreamt about visiting. Or race a car they've always dreamt of owning.
Sim Racing: A Rise In Realism
Realism is a key factor. The technology is now so in-depth, and so calculated, that driving a virtual car mirrors how it behaves in real life. Tire wear, gearbox ratios, weather: everything that can affect performance can be mechanically altered and experienced virtually to a tee. You can customise your own virtual vehicle to exactly how you want it to behave and look, to suit your driving style. The same goes for Sim Racing rigs.
Theoretically, fans of motorsport can now feel what it is like to drive a Formula 1 car, or an IMSA-spec car, or NASCAR, or GTLM cars. Sim Racing rigs give incredibly realistic feedback, while the progression of Virtual Reality makes you feel like you are physically on the track. The feedback is instantaneous: you have to correct mistakes in split-second timing or risk losing control. The only distinctive differences are a lack of G-Forces, how the body battles them, and the obvious risk to life. Feedback in live timings and data improves performance in much the same way professional drivers use it at the track.
Every F1 team has both a simulator set-up for driver training and preparation, as well as a Sim Racing division to compete online. Most major race series now host online versions of their championships (the pandemic certainly had an effect here). Famous racetracks and races are available to anyone: you can sit and race the Le Mans 24 Hours, experiencing everything a professional driver goes through. The fan is now closer to the real experience thanks to Sim Racing.
Preparation For Success
The importance of manufacturer involvement here cannot be understated. BMW, for example, leans heavily on simulators to improve its motorsport arm. Porsche, Audi, Mercedes and Ferrari are the same.
Professional drivers always talk about using points of reference on track. Simulation is now the main point of reference off-track. BMW’s racing sims are so meticulously accurate that they replicate the exact cockpit of a car down to the smallest detail.
Even if something is missed – a circuit’s camber, kerb height, grip level – the level of detail and realism using simulators for preparation means teams are able to react quicker on location.
Valentino Conti, chief engineer of the BMW i Andretti Motorsport Formula E team, explains: “If we did not have the tests in the simulator beforehand, we would be lacking a lot of performance. Any knowledge you don’t acquire in the simulator is very difficult to catch up on at the circuit.”
Sim Racing: A Marketing Tool
But Sim Racing platforms are not just used for competition. It is a useful marketing tool to advertise cars to a massive online audience: a virtual “try before you buy” scenario. There is a strong customer focus and an understanding that older generations are now becoming those who grew up around more advanced technology.
BMW recently worked closely with iRacing to develop the M4 GT4 for the online platform. It took six months of intensive development and collaboration to make the car as realistic as possible. The iRacing programmers worked alongside BMW Motorsport engineers as if they were working on a real car. They used a massive amount of data. Even down to which lights display on the steering wheel in different situations and what texture the dashboard is.
Kevin Bobbitt, Director of marketing at iRacing, said: “A simulation as realistic as this also benefits the manufacturer, because many more people can test the cars and in the best-case scenario might even go on to buy one.”
BMW’s head of vehicle development, Rudolf Dittrich, added: “We want to give our customer teams the opportunity to experience the BMW M4 GT4 virtually. They can upload and use their own liveries with their own sponsors. Their drivers can also practice on their own in the current break. Potential new customers might even develop a taste for it and think about racing with a BMW M4 GT4 in real life.”
Porsche and Ferrari are approaching online racing in the same way. With the virtual 24 Hours of Le Mans replacing the real event due to the Coronavirus pandemic, both manufacturers are completing virtual launches and shakedowns of their entered vehicles as they would do in real life. When manufacturers take it this seriously, it rubs off on fans.
Realism Means Reality – And Consequences
Of course, realism isn’t just about replicating conditions and how cars drive. If you crash a car in real life, you can’t just press a reset button. There is the major risk of life: yours as well as the lives of others. Accidents and bad driving bring consequences. This is something that has come to the fore of virtual racing in recent weeks. How seriously should we take racing online?
The answer is very. Formula E driver Daniel Abt was recently caught using a professional sim racer in his place for the championship’s Race At Home Challenge series. As a result, he lost his real-life race seat at Audi. McLaren driver Lando Norris was thwarted during the virtual Indy 500 by an intended accident, simply because a current IndyCar driver did not want to see their F1 counterpart win.
Bad driving faces punishment online. The more penalties and incidents a driver racks up, the more their online ranking suffers. Meaning they won’t be able to race in certain events, or will be banned from entering them. It is a move welcomed by the online community in order to deter bad behaviour and promote respect for the rules. And it is teaching a younger generation to approach online racing with the same attitude they would real roads.
Sim Racing: Popularity and Accessibility
The global pandemic has created a spike in online racing, but the reality is it was already popular. Millions race online worldwide, while platforms like iRacing host hundreds of thousands of members. Global series such as NASCAR, F1, IMSA, W Series, IndyCar and Le Mans running virtual championships has only brought Sim Racing further into the limelight.
Broadcasting races online, whether on YouTube or Twitch, means fans can interact with their favourite drivers as they compete. The platforms offer live chatrooms, making a more immersive experience for all. Broadcasters provide full-race commentary and driver interviews in post-shows.
And enthusiasts can race against professional drivers, such as Williams F1 driver Nicholas Latifi in the Racing Edge SimRacing Series.
Accessibility is at an all-time high. Whether you are racing for fun on a console or seriously on a platform, rigs are available to suit all budgets. From cheap-and-cheerful to the super-rich. Sim Racing acts as a gateway to motorsport and allows people to try their hand before committing huge financial and social investments. At the other end of the spectrum, fans can enjoy something incredibly realistic for a fraction of the price.
Classic Racing Simulators founder Jim Hill said: “One way of getting into motor racing is to start on Sim Racing. There you can start learning about how changing the settings on your car makes a big difference. The most important thing in racing is understanding what is happening and how to make changes to adjustments in temperature, adjustments in track surface.”
How Sim Racing Helps – And Hinders
The learning aspect is a huge factor. Going forward, it will be a significant growth area for manufacturers to explore and develop. Using simulators as driving aids benefits learners and students.
By providing learners the chance to drive real-life roads on a simulator, it improves how they determine their surroundings. It allows people to drive in all types of weather and throws up different situations to hone reaction times. Using a simulator builds a driver's confidence: students develop reference points when the machine offers instant feedback. It is an important approach to improving driver mentality, without the danger or repercussions of an accident.
There are, of course, drawbacks to online racing. For all the detail in replicating driving online, reality will always be different. Real-life throws up unprecedented anomalies we cannot plan for. It's nigh-on impossible to replicate the G-Forces felt around the track unless you have a monumental budget. And there is the danger that when a driver leaves for the track, they might not come home.
Many criticise motorsport for its lack of diversity and how it caters for the super- wealthy. Sim Racing is experiencing similar trends: money goes a long way in simulators. The more you spend, the easier it is to improve and get better. Those who have the means to spend big get a significant advantage over those who do not.
But the key is, today, people can race each other wherever they are in the world. On the same circuit, with the same cars – without leaving the house. Those from completely different cultures and upbringings are connecting through a common love of motorsport. As a result, communities are still growing.
The journey continues online as the next generation of racing gets bigger and better.