Motorsport.com contributor Justin Sutton talks about why he plays racing games....or participates in sim racing.
Automotive racing has existed since automobiles were invented. Over a century and a quarter of what, in my mind, is the most dangerous and exciting sport in recorded history. Racing has evolved over the decades, sitting atop the peak of technological breakthroughs and innovation, and continues to strive for that very excellence today. In more recent times the only way to get that feeling of being a racing driver was from the toys of children; slot cars and remote control vehicles and the like. With the inception of video games and the growing popularity in the late 80s and early 90s it was only natural for developers to want to bring the thrills of racing into the homes of people across the globe.
The first “racing game” I remember playing was for the Nintendo Entertainment System and it was called: “Excitebike.” In the game the player controlled a motorcycle on a straight track and rather than turning, the focus was on jumps and obstacles. Times were measured to the hundredth of a second and the game certainly required skill to become good at, but to say it elicited the same emotions as an actual race would be a lie.
The first game to teach me about braking points, apexes, throttle control, and setting up of a racecar was Gran Turismo for the Sony Playstation (released in 1998 in America). With a huge advertising campaign and a collection of real world cars of all speeds, Gran Turismo was a huge influence on my budding passion for racing. The physics were laughable by modern comparison but it cannot be denied that without Gran Turismo racing games might not be at the point they are at today.
Peripheral racing wheels have also existed for quite some time, but as with the games of the same era the technology was laughable and was certainly designed for children rather than adults. Over the course of the last decade or so, the technology behind these racing peripherals has been making huge strides, much like the games they are designed to control. Real world physics in the games, combined with quality craftsmanship in the racing wheels has yielded a whole new level of immersion that was previously unheard of in the racing world.
Before we knew it, racing teams from all sorts of disciplines were using similar types of “games” to prepare their driver and other team members for upcoming races. Gathering preliminary information and learning the layout of a track were just two of the numerous benefits that come from, what we now call “simulator work.” What was once a form of entertainment has now become an integral part of real world motor racing.
Real racers using them means something is being done right
Unsurprisingly, racing simulations today are more visually accurate than ever, but more importantly are more true-to-life in the physics than ever as well. That is the reason why people like myself have been drawn into the world of sim-racing. Specifically in just the last five years games like iRacing and rFactor (and many others) have proven that, not only is sim-racing an incredible amount of fun, but also teaches the real world skills of a racing driver. Not only do drivers like Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Scott Speed use iRacing and also swear by it, but more recently a former rFactor driver in the Formula Sim Racing series (FSR) by the name of Stoffel Vandoorne became the GP2 runner-up in the 2014 season, and in his rookie year no less.
Sim-racing has reached new levels of accuracy and you don’t need to be a millionaire to get involved. Sure, you can spend as much on your racing setup at home as you would on a diamond engagement ring, but for a good entry level computer, racing wheel, and some games it’s pretty easy to stay under the $1000 mark if you know what you’re doing. Nothing can replace sitting at the wheel of a powerful machine designed to do nothing more than go fast, feeling the vibrations of the idling engine in your fingertips, getting that “floaty” feeling in your guts as the rear wheels begin to lose traction, but with the advancements of modern technology we’re closer than ever to reaching those exact sensations from the comfort of our climate-controlled homes. Sim-racing has a relatively short history as it stands at the moment, but there is a long, bright future ahead for the creators, enthusiasts, and even spectators of this growing world of virtual racing.