Racing simulators: not just for fun

Everything you need to know before diving into to the world of simracing

Racing Simulators

Gaming has been lurking in the computer world for ages. Many years ago, when sex was dirty and the air was clean, the first computers that youth in the late 80ies got their hands on had rubber keys and joysticks. This seemingly odd contraption would suction onto the table, and with a bit of luck, amidst all the frantic movements, it would cling on for dear life. Games of all kinds were played, and despite having little resemblance to reality, this kind of training might have had an impact on motor development.

Real cars don’t have a “start new game” option

Over the years, hardware quickly improved and became more accessible. What may have once only existed in aviation and space centers now adorns the homes of those who consider it a hobby or even training.  Predicting and muscle memory play a crucial role in driving skills, helping us control motor reflexes and act accordingly. Both are linked to practice and can be strengthened on a simulator.

Selecting your gear

At the heart of any simulator lies a (personal) computer or a gaming console, and I won’t dwell on this too long. However, it’s worth noting that a beefier graphics card sets the stage for a more thrilling experience. When it comes to diving into the realm of car simulators, many enthusiasts opt for Logitech’s G29 kit. For approximately 200 €, you receive a sleek leather steering wheel complete with paddle shifters, a cluster of handy function keys, and three pedals mounted on a sturdy plastic base. Another popular choice, albeit a tad pricier, is the Thrustmaster (T248/T300), which boasts similar dimensions but comes at roughly twice the cost. If you’re willing to part with a few extra euros, you can even snag a Logitech 6-speed shifter, ensuring that your hand and foot coordination is in sync during gear shifts.

Thrustmaster T300 (28 cm diamater) and Logitech G29 with shifter (26 cm)

Mastering the virtual wheel

Setting up and calibrating the software is a breeze, even for the entry-level model, which provides a range of settings. You can adjust the steering wheel’s rotation angle, resistance, and force feedback strength. Once you’ve attached the wheel to the table and secured the pedals, your virtual driving adventure begins. There’s a variety of games to choose from; beginners might prefer something forgiving like Forza Horizon, offering both arcade and simulation modes. Assetto Corsa, on the other hand, demands more effort, as it’s a bona fide simulation that doesn’t just feature actual racetracks, right down to the bumps in the asphalt, but also provides an extensive array of car settings: tire pressure and temperature, specific adjustments for suspension components, tire wear, fuel consumption, and much more. It even allows for various hardware parameter tweaks (primarily for the steering wheel), bringing the simulation even closer to reality. As you play this game, you might quickly realize that your driving skills aren’t quite as stellar as you’ve bragged to your buddies. The speeds are faster than your usual daily commute, and it feels different because it’s not quite like the real deal. But hey, don’t stress out; nobody’s born a pro, and with a few dozen hours of practice, you’ll see some awesome improvements.

From desk to rig

Your initial upgrade might just involve getting a contraption to keep your office chair from escaping, as you’ll soon discover that trying to brake with a rolling seat is a hilariously unrealistic endeavor. And as time rolls on, you might find the seating position not quite aligning with your car experience. That’s when Playseat swoops in with a 250 € foldable chair that gladly accommodates your steering wheel and pedals, turning your seating setup into something more car-like. Plus, when you’re done, you can neatly tuck it away, making it take up no more space than your trusty ironing board.

Playseat Evolution and foldable Playseat Challenge, both eqipped with Logiteh G29 wheel.

Getting closer to reality

If you’re getting hooked on gaming and binge-watching Schumacher, Senna, or Colin McRae videos online, you’ll likely start craving a bigger steering wheel. The Logitech G29 is a mere 26 cm in diameter, quite a bit smaller than real car steering wheels (which usually measure between 35 and 42 cm). This size difference can affect your gaming experience. So, for your first upgrade, consider exploring Thrustmaster’s options. For around 700 €, you can grab a 32-centimeter alcantara wheel wrapped in Alcantara, inspired by the Ferrari 488 Challenge.

If you wish to enhance your experience further, it’s time to consider a dedicated cockpit setup. There are several options available, mainly divided into those simulating a car environment and those simulating a F1 environment. For those looking to dip their toes in, the Playseat Evolution or the ART model (from GT Omega) should do the trick, priced at around 500 €. Despite their slightly less robust build, they’re more than adequate for newcomers to the world of simulators. Sturdier and more massive options will deplete your wallet by 1000 – 2000 € (RSeat, Prosimu), and the higher price is partly due to a much more solid construction, ensuring there’s no twisting, creaking, or groaning when making rapid steering movements.

Pricier configurations include (often optional) better seats and a ton of extra gear: monitor mounts, shifters, handbrakes, keyboards, speakers… and, eventually, actuators that take the simulation to the next level of realism. Electric or pneumatic actuators make sure the setup responds to lateral forces produced when you brake, accelerate, and steer, bringing you closer to the authentic experience.

Rseat S1 rig (left), GT Omega ART (right)

Bigger screens, bigger fun

Now that you’ve ventured beyond the boundaries of your desk, it’s time to ponder a special monitor—a behemoth compared to your average office screen. Think at least 34 inches in size with a 144 Hz refresh rate. But why stop there? Go big with a 49-inch screen to supercharge your gaming and widen your view. Prices span from 300 € (for 34 inches) to 1500 € for the colossal 49-inch screens. Or, if you’re feeling fancy and want to crank up the authenticity, consider three monitors (like 3×27, 3×32, or even 3×40 inches) arranged in a glorious arc. Whatever you choose, you’ll need a separate stand that doesn’t cramp your style. Opting for three monitors also means you’ll require a beefier graphics card that can handle the next fascinating option: VR goggles. Leading the pack is the HP Reverb G2, clocking in at around 700 €. Strapping on VR goggles delivers an entirely different, hyper-realistic experience, though it might not be everyone’s cup of tea at first. It takes some getting used to the virtual realm since your brain gets motion signals while your body remains firmly planted. So, take it easy to avoid any unexpected tummy twists. For less demanding graphics cards, one monitor is plenty. For example, an older GTX1060 can smoothly handle a game at 2560 x 1080 px with over 100 fps.

A high-end racing simulator from Coolperformance and HP Reverb G2 headset.

Your ticket to endless simulator adventures

As you dive deeper into the realm of simulators, it becomes apparent that, much like many aspects of consumer-driven capitalist society, the possibilities are virtually limitless. Choices abound, and sooner or later, you’ll likely stumble upon the popular German brand, Fanatec. They offer a vast array of mid to high-end hardware, providing an authentic experience that’ll keep your upgrade itch at bay for a while. If you were using a separate wheel and pedals before, here you have a much broader choice of individual components. You can choose between numerous wheelbases, which even better simulate the actual steering wheel behavior in terms of resistance.

On top of the base unit, you can optionally install an universal hub with functional keys and gearshift paddles. Lastly, you get to choose your steering wheel, and boy, oh boy, are the options diverse. They come in various sizes, shapes, and even brands, spanning from everyday cars to Formula 1 and dedicated cup cars. Enthusiasts will be pleased to know that the universal hub has six holes, allowing you to attach real car steering wheels (brands like OMP, Momo, Sparco, etc.). The great thing about this setup is the potential for wheel swaps. While it might take a bit more time, manufacturers offer a quick-release adapter, allowing you to switch from grand touring to open-wheel racing with just a few twists and turns.

Universal hub (top left) and steering wheels ranging from 300 mm to 360 mm diameter. Porsche GT3/GT4 wheels diameter measures 360 mm.

Pedal to the metal

The pedal options are somewhat more limited in comparison, with variations in build quality, materials, and extras. Fanatec’s top-of-the-line pedals, priced at 400 €, should satisfy most users. Those seeking more sophistication may consider the 600 € “inverted” version, mirroring the mounting system found in high-performance road cars. For the most discerning users, there are even pricier models exceeding 1700 €, boasting aesthetics and features reminiscent of race and cup cars. Many packages include a variety of pedal shapes that can be adjusted for height. You can also fine-tune the clutch stiffness and brake pedal force. The brake pedal even features a vibration motor to replicate the feeling of an ABS brake system. As an optional upgrade, you can opt for an adjustable simulator hydraulic cylinder, which further aligns the brake system with modern vehicles.

Shifting gears and pulling stunts

For the true purists, there’s the 6-speed manual shifter, with an additional cost of 260 €. This package includes two distinct gear knobs, a switch for toggling between sequential and H-pattern shifting, and adjustable shift resistance. Some shifter mounts may require a separate bracket purchase to fine-tune the positioning. And of course, no drift aficionado’s setup is complete without a handbrake, which can be installed directly on the shifter unit or with the an appropriate bracket.

Fanatec shifter, Heusinkveld Ultimate+ with SR-X hanging pedals attachment, Fanatec inverted pedals V3 (on the right).

Taking your simulator to the next level

Other accessories, like keyboard stands, mouse stands, extra control panels, and speakers, are less vital for the simulation but offer practical advantages. You can customize these to your needs, and instead of splurging on dedicated stands, consider repurposing existing furniture to save some cash.

A simulator equipped with reliable and decent hardware can already offer a highly realistic experience. With a total investment of approximately 3500 € you can substantially enhance your reaction time and motor skills, experiencing sensations very close to real-life driving, minus of course the physical movements.

Simulating physical body movements demands more advanced technology, and setups with such systems can easily reach the less budget-friendly 10,000 € range. A comprehensive investment, including top-notch components, three monitors, and a suitably powerful computer, will set you back at least twice as much, and even then, the experience won’t be entirely indistinguishable from real-life usage.

Unconventional road to racing glory

Hence, it’s crystal clear that driving the real deal is a whole different beast, but let’s not go around accusing folks of eating ice cream through their windows. It wouldn’t be the first time a well-practiced young gun, who clocked in endless hours behind a computer screen, snagged a job as a bona fide test driver or even claimed a victory lap. Case in point: Steven Thomas, the ultimate multitasker who trained both on a simulator and in a real car for three and a half years, eventually clinching victory at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Now, that’s quite the feat, especially when you consider he had zero racing experience to kick things off. Most racers have roughly 25 years of pedal-to-the-metal action under their belts by the ripe age of 30.

Next Level Racing F-GT Elite at 1249 € (rig only)