For many the thought of owning a fast road car or track car is a distant dream. We simply don’t have the means to spend thousands of euros per year for a few days of track time and don’t have the discipline to spend hour after hour in a cold shed inevitably fixing what we broke at the last trackday. As if that wasn’t a big enough barrier to motorsport, in this country we only have one real race track (Mondello) if you don’t count karting tracks and for the majority of people, it takes hours to get there and back. Yet somehow, we are motorsport obsessed. We have some of the world’s best rally drivers and drifters. We have tonnes of great cars on this little island, and thanks to technology we can now get into motorsport in our own homes which I am going to tell you how to get into sim racing and set it up.
Of course racing games have been around for years and years, but it wasn’t until the release of gran turismo, a game which single handedly ignited the imaginations of the mainstream and exposed us to real driving simulation. Of course gran turismo wasn’t the first, but in ireland we didn’t all have PCs to play formula 1 or indycar games. We were really poor in the 90s. And yes, looking back, the physics in the early gran turismo games were pretty terrible. Right up to the latest gran turismo, the physics still aren’t amazing in my opinion. But once you understood the physics, it was a relatively realistic driving simulator and for many of us, the closest we would ever come to driving a real car on a real track. However, in recent times a new generation of simulation is taking hold. We’re no longer happy with compromise, we want it to be real. And we expect it to be difficult. We want to shave milliseconds off of our friends’ best laps and now more than ever, we are customising and investing in our setups so that we can be better and faster.
We have lots of great options available to us in this world of HD, 4K, next generation consoles and relatively cheap personal computing and many people wonder how they can get on the ladder of real simulation. So let’s dive in. I’m going to assume here that you already have a HD (1080p) or 4K TV or 1080p+ monitor, so that’s excluded from any prices I may mention. I’m also going to concentrate on a handful of games: Assetto Corsa, Dirt and Project Cars. Let me also go on record in saying that there are currently no realistic drifting games for consoles. So if all you want is to pretend to be James Deane or Mad Mike then I would skip straight to the PC section, unless you care more about the screenshots than you do about the driving experience.
The trusty console
“But my friend says you need a PC to play real simulation games”. Your friend is wrong, although consoles do have limitations which i’ll get into later, they have many advantages. Firstly, you’ll pick up a new Xbox One or PS4 for around 300euro. That’s a lot of bang for your buck. The average game will set you back €70 when it’s hot off the press. That’s a basic (by today’s standards) simulation setup for under the €400 mark. Which one is better? that’s entirely up to you and how you want to use it. Xbox will give you access to the Forza series of games which are visually stunning but leave a lot to be desired from a sim racing point of view.
Gaming seats and cockpits
This is where most get creative. If you have the space, finding an old bucket seat and some wood or metal to nail or weld together is all part of the fun. If you don’t have the space, there are still plenty of options. Basic steeringwheel and pedal stands are available from around €100 from Wheelstandpro. Playseat has some great offerings too. For stuff like this i would keep an eye on adverts.ie and donedeal.ie because bargains do pop up on a regular basis. Everyone’s setup tends to be different. Some people have entire dashboards and even passenger seat setups.
VR – Virtual reality is taking over.
You’ve probably heard of the Occulus Rift or the HTC Vive. Virtual reality involves wearing a large set of goggles almost like a sleep mask. The amazing thing is that when you move your head around, your in game head also moves. This allows you to properly focus on that apex or look out your side window as you try to correct or maintain a slide. It is a truly amazing gaming experience available on PS4 (Playstation VR) and PC (Occulus, HTC Vive, etc) but as of yet, Xbox One lacks proper VR support. Albeit amazing, it’s not without its flaws. In my personal opinion, it is like going back to a single screen gaming experience. I find that I lack peripheral vision and can’t spot that car trying to undercut me unless I look both ways before making every single move. But that’s not my biggest reservation, I find it awkward that the hands i see in game aren’t my actual hands and my handbrake and gear shifter are in a different place in real life which leads to occasionally reaching in the wrong place. Not to mention that a gaming session that lasts a few hours is tasking as headsets aren’t light and are strapped pretty tightly onto your head. I’m not convinced about the technology yet, but admittedly haven’t spent enough time with it.
For years there has been a snobbery from PC gamers towards consoles and most who make the transition to PC gaming don’t tend to go back to consoles in a serious way. This snobbery stems from the amazing community that has surrounded PC gaming for years and years. Without getting into details, on PC you can get drifting mods for Gran Theft Auto and even drift with strangers online who also have the mod. The biggest barrier to getting into PC gaming is the lack of knowledge around configurations and specs. You can buy a console and all games for that console will run on it, but on PC your game will always only look as good as your system allows it to. On PC you can (with the right knowhow) create your own cars or trucks or even busses and import them into pretty much any game. People have even managed to take models from Forza (Xbox exclusive) and port them to Assetto Corsa and rfactor.
There I go mentioning rFactor again. If you’ve looked it up you’ll probably notice that rFactor is a game from 2007 and was never meant to be a drifting game. It’s a competent racing sim, but with unbranded cars and horrible graphics out of the box this somehow became the drifting game of choice for the past 10 years. They even came out with rFactor 2 but if you want to drift, rFactor 1 is the one to go for. It all sounds glorious but there is a downside. rFactor takes quite a bit of tweaking to set up, and even at that, when you go to one of the few online lobbies, odds are that most of the cars wont be visible due to the vast number of mods and adhoc way of simply dragging and dropping files into your cars or tracks folder. You will spend a lot of time simply asking other what cars they have and where they got them, and should never go on the assumption that any cars are widely available. It is slowly becoming a community of elites and being replaced as those modders gravitate towards Assetto Corsa and Project Cars.
That said, when it comes to drifting there is only one match made in heaven for an entry level sim drifter and that is a heavily modded rFactor on a mid to high end PC. To give an indication of costs, a 500euro second hand PC will most likely run rFactor without issues. That’s a sweeping statement of course and it’s best to consult someone who knows about PC specs before forking out. A good steering wheel as mentioned above would be a Logitech g25 or g27 (around €150 second hand). They are very popular and widely available second hand. Settings are very easy to come by for these wheels too. Then there’s the cost of the game: rFactor will cost you $25 or so and the mods are free if a little hard to find and keep up with. Get yourself involved in some of the facebook groups around sim racing and drifting and you’ll quickly learn the lay of the land. Let’s not beat around the bush though. Although PC gaming is the ultimate in home simulation, it requires effort and dedication and if you’re not paying attention you can completely disable your game by mistake and need to start again from scratch. The end product is worth it though and I would advice simply taking a copy of someone’s setup who has already done all the hard setup work.
There’s a compromise, but it’s gonna cost you. Get yourself a well specced gaming PC. Something that is custom built and around the €1,000 mark. Compared to console gaming, that’s a lot of money but you are buying a PC that’s also capable of lots of other things than just gaming. Then once you have your PC, get a steering wheel. Again, the Logitech models mentioned above are quiet and durable and easy to modify and upgrade. Then finally, buy Assetto Corsa for racing and/or drifting and buy Dirt if you’re into rallying. By all means, experiment with project cars, Automobilista and countless other racing sims out there, but Assetto Corsa gives me those Gran Turismo butterfly feels that i had back in the late 90s when all I thought about was cars and that girl in my class. It has lots of cars out of the box, and lots of downloadable car packs which are simply stunning and extremely realistic. It’s very easy to get access to mods as the community is growing and growing. Not to mention the fact that the game is constantly being updated by the developers and kept up to date using the steam portal. The quality of the user created mods makes them almost indistinguishable from the native cars that come with the game. Assetto corsa is also one of the few games I’ve ever played where you can drive the same car for time attack or drift without changing the game mode or car setup. It’s the best of all worlds and looks fantastic.
To summarise, this is only a drop in the ocean when it comes to the world of sim racing. There are real online races for tonnes of real life money. And I haven’t even gone near hydraulic setups or the fact that some of the top drivers in f1 and rally and drifting have sim setups similar to what i described above which they really use for training. There are even competitions where they take sim drivers who have never driven real cars in a race and they put them in real cars to duke it out on track. At long last there has been a cultural shift in the gaming community as well as the motorsport community. A breakthrough in a way. I think that Ireland is ready to embrace sim racing at long last.
If you are interested in SIM racing please feel free to join the facebook group dedicated to sim racing in Ireland: Sim Racing/Drifting Ireland where the members will help you get set up on whatever platform you’re interested in.