Sim racing is, by its very nature, designed to be a close representation of the real thing. There are plenty of things to consider when comparing real and simulated, and there are implications for real racing if racing sims can achieve similar standards. But just how realistic is sim racing?
When comparing sim racing to real life racing, it’s highly dependent on the games played and the setups used, but sim racing can be very realistic in some cases. With a decent sim racing rig, racecraft can also be improved with practice, and it can make you faster on the real race track.
The answers to these questions are highly dependent on a variety of factors. Which game you are playing can become less important if you are using a professional rig, and some games are very realistic even without an expensive setup. Below, we consider these factors and their implications in detail.
Factors To Consider When Comparing Sim Racing To Real Racing
The first and most obvious thing to consider when you are talking about the realism of sim racing is the setup used. A professional rig is obviously going to provide more realism than if you were to just use a controller. There are plenty of options on the market, and the higher up you go on the quality ladder the more realistic it gets.
For example, some setups simply use a steering wheel and pedals, while others have integrated gear shifters and even handbrakes. These will make the setup feel more like a real car and can also give you more control over what is happening in the game. The quality is important too though, as a cheap plastic steering wheel and pedals will feel flimsy and not as responsive as the real thing.
Quality plays its part in all aspects of the setup for the realism factor, but so does the layout and actual setup of the rig. A proper racing seat will make you feel like you are in the driving seat of a real car, and some setups even look like the inside of a car – some even have motion capabilities! Generally speaking, the higher the price, the more realism you will get, and this goes for every part of the setup.
The next important factor is the game you are playing. If you play an open world racing game like The Crew 2 or any of the Forza Horizon games, you are most likely not looking for the ultimate in realism anyway. Although these games can be fun and work with a basic steering wheel setup, they offer little in the way of realistic driving physics and force feedback steering.
On the other hand, a game such as Assetto Corsa or iRacing will provide a fully immersive sim racing experience, with top-quality graphics and realistic driving physics. The more realistic the sim, the more realistic the experience will feel. Pairing a realistic game with a top-quality racing rig is the best way to get maximum realism.
Note: The most realistic racing sims are often not the most beginner friendly
Other factors that will affect the level of realism are usually just variations of the game and setup. For example, a lot of options within the game itself, such as tire wear and force feedback strength, will have a large effect on how realistic it feels. So, some tweaking is required with most games to make them feel as real as possible.
On the setup side of things, if you are playing in your bedroom, surrounded by bookshelves and posters, it won’t feel like you are really on the track. However, if you go the extra mile and create a space that feels more like a car, such as through the addition of wider screens to make your field of view larger than just a small screen in front of you, it will feel more realistic.
Obviously this depends on the space you have and what you want from the experience.
What Sim Racing Does Well
When you consider how realistic the experience of sim racing is, you have to think about what real racing actually involves in order to compare the two. Real racing involves both physical and mental endurance, and there are some key areas in which sim racing does mimic it quite well. However, there are some aspects of real racing that sim racing just cannot emulate.
A Realistic Setup
Where sim racing does do well to imitate the real thing is through the equipment used. Using a good force feedback steering wheel and a solid set of pedals will emulate the inputs required in a race car quite well. Using a direct drive wheel goes one step further, providing a more realistic level of feel through a more powerful motor.
As for the pedals, a lot of manufacturers do a very good job of providing feedback and resistance within the pedals themselves. Some even have force feedback, pushing the brake back against your foot and making every movement feel super responsive, and there are even hydraulic systems on the market too. A good pedal setup is one way to really enhance the realism of the sim racing experience.
Real racing may also involve manual gear changes and the use of the handbrake, especially in rally racing. This is another way sim racers can add some extra realism, with handbrakes made especially for racing rigs along with gear shifters as well. Although you might not feel the crunch when you slam it into the wrong gear at 50 mph, you will be able to mimic the movements of the real thing quite well.
What Do Real Racing Drivers Say?
Josh Poulain raced in the G55 Pro Class in the 2022 Super Cup season and nabbed some podiums and a win in the process, and he moved to the Ginetta GT Pro Championship for 2023. Before that he competed in the British Kart Championship. But alongside his motorsport career on the real track, he also races for Ford’s first ever esports team, Fordzilla, competing in iRacing.
He tells us that his real-life racing team suggested that he uses sim racing to improve his performance on the real track, which was particularly useful in the early stages when he was still getting to grips with all aspects of racing, and for learning new tracks before a race. He says it’s “good for keeping your eye in” too, allowing racers to stay sharp in between race weekends.
When it comes to the racing experience, a big part is played by the sounds that you hear. A lot of racing sims provide excellent sound effects, for both the cars themselves and the environment around you. This, paired with a good set of headphones or a decent sound system, can really make for an intense racing experience that sounds like the real thing. But where does sim racing fall short?
Where Sim Racing Struggles With Realism
The Real Feel
The main area of real racing that sim racing struggles to mimic is in terms of the overall feel of being in a car. In a race car, you will feel every bump in the road, and you will experience the force of acceleration and deceleration. Even uphill and downhill sections will feel different within the car, and in rally racing the car will quite often leave the ground entirely!
Real racing involves tight cornering and sharp, clean movements of the steering wheel to overtake and execute corners with precision. Although a direct drive steering wheel can provide fairly accurate feedback to the racer, the key thing that you don’t feel in a simulator when cornering is the G-force.
Cornering at 90 mph in real life will force you against the side of the car, requiring a lot of neck and core strength to maintain your grip on the wheel and to prevent you from losing control of the car. In sim racing, you may struggle to keep the wheel where it needs to be, but your body will stay in the same position, losing that effect of being forced around when cornering.
Note: The lack of G-force emulation in sim racing is especially apparent when comparing it to F1, where drivers sometimes experience cornering forces of up to 6 G!
However, some very high-end racing rigs do provide some of the movement that you would feel if you were driving in real life thanks to motion platforms. Although out of reach for most racers, the potential for realism is there, but it comes at a high cost.
Another area sim racing struggles to emulate the real thing is in how the car behaves on the track. Physics models in the more realistic sims like iRacing do a great job overall, but all sims are vulnerable to some inconsistencies when comparing virtual to real racing.
One area Josh Poulain told us he finds these inconsistencies appear quite often is in the kerb modelling. There are various types of kerb on a racetrack and some are more aggressive than others, with sausage kerbs being some of the worst offenders. Josh explains that, in many racing sims, you can drive right over these, but in real life you might end up with all 4 wheels in the air!
What It Looks Like
One other place where sim racing struggles to emulate the real thing is the field of view of the driver. Unless you are using a VR headset for sim racing, you will very easily remember that you are playing a game, as if you turn your head you will see the walls of your room rather than the edge of the track. Although not as important as other factors, this dramatically reduces the realism of the experience.
Although large screens are available that give wide fields of view, it will never quite look the same as being in a real car. Even with VR headsets, the imperfect graphics, paired with the lack of physical feeling, cannot fully emulate the real thing. However, with the rapid advancement of technology, the experiential gap between real and simulated is closing.
KEY POINTS• Sim racing can do a good job of emulating some aspects of real life racing
• With the right setup and racing game it can feel somewhat close to the real thing
• Sim racing can’t implement a lot of the look and feel of real racing, including the G-forces you’d feel in real life
What Can Help To Make Sim Racing Feel More Real?
The Right Equipment
The first thing you will need to get the most realistic sim-racing experience possible is a good setup. Using a direct drive wheel will give you a realistic feel with the steering (if you have the budget for it), and making sure to get a good set of pedals will go a long way too. Also, you will want to grab a good gear shifter and a handbrake if you want to maximize the realism with your racing rig (although this depends on the games you play).
Motion setups are expensive, but they’re another way you can add some extra realism to your rig. They simulate some of the movements you’d feel in a real car, which can help narrow the gap somewhat between virtual driving and the real thing, as you get extra feedback that you just can’t emulate with a wheel and pedals.
“The main difference is that, in a real race car, you feel everything through your butt on the seat, but in sim racing it all comes through your hands”– Josh Poulain, Fordzilla esports team & Ginetta GT Pro driver
The Right Game
The game you are playing will also have a large effect on how real it feels. Therefore, you will want to make sure that you choose one of the more realistic racing games on the market, such as iRacing or Assetto Corsa, for the most immersive experience.
Can Sim Racing Improve Your Real Racing Ability?
The factors discussed above make it clear that there are some aspects of sim racing that very closely represent the real thing. And of course, there are some areas that sim racing just cannot emulate. However, aside from the actual feel of realism, sim racing can have some major effects on your driving in real life, and it can even improve your racing ability.
Using a high-quality direct drive steering wheel and responsive pedals will make you feel like you are controlling the car in the game in the same way that you would in real life, and some setups and games do a good job of demonstrating what is truly required to keep a car on the race track while keeping up with your rivals. So, what else can you transfer from the screen to the track?
What Sim Racing Can Teach You
With a good steering wheel, pedals, and gear shifter setup, you will be able to emulate all of the movements required in a real car. If you have never used a manual gearbox, using a sim racing rig could be a great way to learn. You will obviously not feel or hear the sounds made when you enter the wrong gear at high speeds, but it can help you to learn how to make faster and smoother shifts.
The pedals can help to show you how little movement is needed in order to bring a car up to a high speed, and how much force can be required to slow it back down again. Using the clutch is also a good way to learn how to coordinate your feet correctly to help with those smooth up and downshifts in manual cars. Sim racing can help to make all of these movements faster and more efficient.
You can also learn a lot about car setup from sim racing. Some games offer a wealth of setup and tuning options that you would find on a real race car, and so sim racing can be a very good way to learn more about what makes a setup good for a particular car or track, and you can learn from your mistakes without worrying about real crash damage and repair bills!
Sim racing games can also teach you a lot about the skill and knowledge involved in racing. Although you can’t look around your room to see the other cars around you, using in-game radars and what you can see on the screen will go a long way to heightening your awareness of your surroundings to avoid collisions.
“The racecraft transfers to real life racing”– Josh Poulain, Fordzilla esports team & Ginetta GT Pro driver
Josh also told us that sim racing is useful for learning when to “pop out” to make overtakes. Learning how to navigate between your opponents safely and fairly is essential if you want to avoid penalties or, even more importantly, a crash. Learning how much space to give other cars is essential on the track where the slightest bit of contact can lead to disaster.
Of course, just learning that you shouldn’t drive into people isn’t going to be enough to prevent you from actually doing it in real life if you don’t know how to properly control the vehicle. Although sim racing will teach you to be considerate of other drivers around you, only by learning how to race in real life will you learn how to safely navigate between them safely.
And finally in terms of the game, if you have never stepped onto a track before, you may have never come across braking markers. They can become invaluable tools as they will act as reference points for braking zones to take corners safely and effectively. There is no doubt that sim racing can not only introduce this concept to many new drivers, but it can also teach you how to use them correctly.
Learning The Trade
Physical characteristics of the car, such as tire wear and fuel consumption, are also difficult to grasp without experiencing them in practice. Sim racing provides a safe and effective way to show drivers the effects of their driving style on the performance of their car. So, racecraft, and the knowledge about racing itself and even different racing formats, can definitely be improved through sim racing.
KEY POINTS• Sim racing can be used to improve some aspects of your real driving
• You can learn a lot about the technical side of racing from the games themselves
• However, it’s no substitute for proper experience on a real race track
Professional Racing Simulators
Not only can racecraft be improved, but the actual ability of drivers can be enhanced through the use of top-end simulators. These are not the ones that you can pick up at the shop or get delivered in one box to your door, but instead they involve custom-built simulators used for driver training purposes. They are expensive, but they are packed with advanced technology that helps racers go faster.
BMW’s High-Tech Racing Sim
BMW is one of the big names in motorsport that uses sim racing as part of its driver training processes. They have an extremely high-tech simulator at their BMW Motorsport Center in Munich, and they use it to train their DTM racing drivers. The rig is very pricey, and you wouldn’t be able to grab one for yourself, but it certainly does the job in terms of realism.
The rig is essentially the chassis of a touring car, and everything from the pedals to the steering wheel is made of high-quality materials straight out of the real thing. The chassis rotates, moves left, right, and up and down to make it really feel like you are driving on the track, and the software they use is custom-built too.
With the massive screen in front of and beside the driver, drivers have almost the same field of view that they would have on the track. Combine that with the realistic features of the rig, and the incredible driving physics of the software that they use, and you have an extremely realistic racing simulator that can be used to train drivers for the real thing.
Safe & Cost-Effective Practice
This realism allows BMW to use it as a safe and cost-effective way to train their touring car drivers, as they can crash as many times as they need without real-life consequences. It teaches drivers how to use braking zones correctly, and they can use the data pulled from the simulator itself to easily point out where drivers can improve.
This kind of setup definitely shows that simulators at the premium end of the spectrum can do a lot for a racer’s performance in real life. The advantage of having the data right there in front of them after a race can make it super simple to find areas that need to be improved, while the rig also gives the driver a great idea of what the real car will feel like in real racing situations.
The Story Of Jann Mardenborough
Racing teams are looking to simulators as a cost-effective way to test and train their drivers. However, sim racing is also proving an effective method of spotting racing talent, as was the case with Nissan’s superstar Jann Mardenborough (he’s even getting a movie based on his life – Gran Turismo – which is set to be released in 2023).
Jann was the winner of the 2011 GT Academy competition, in which 90,000 entrants tested their racing skills on the popular PlayStation game Gran Turismo in a bid to move from virtual racing to the real thing. Nissan teamed up with PlayStation to create the tournament as a way of finding the next big talent in the racing world.
Jann, after winning the competition, went on to race for Nissan at lots of different events, and he’s still used as a test driver for their Formula E team. He has won events in the GP3 racing series and the Super GT series as well. He has even competed in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, where he finished third in the LMP2 class on his debut appearance.
He is one of the best examples of transitioning from sim racing to real racing and he makes the perfect case study for the benefits of sim racing. Nissan clearly saw the talent in Jann, and he has since gone on to compete at a high level. There is no doubt that a lot of his skills and knowledge about racing came from his passion for virtual racing.
KEY POINTS• Many professional racing teams use simulators for driver training
• It’s a safe and cost-effective way to train drivers
• Jann Mardenborough is an example of a sim racer becoming a competitive driver on the real track
How Simulators Are Used To Improve Racing Ability
The way that a simulator is used will have a big impact on the efficacy of it. To actually improve your racing ability in real life, it is not enough to simply drive lap after lap around your favorite track. There are a few key things that real racing drivers do when they use a simulator as a training device.
Analyzing your laps is essential. This involves meticulously going over every single detail of a lap to find out where improvements can be made. Each corner will be analyzed, and the timing of the brakes will be looked at to see where milliseconds can be saved. These add up over a race, and so it’s a great way to make improvements before actually going out on the track for real.
Lots Of Data
Using the data from the simulators can show drivers what their driving is like from a telemetry standpoint. It’s a useful tool in showing where improvements can be made, but in a different way than simply telling them that they need to brake harder at point A or ease off the throttle at point B. Graphs, charts, and other information such as recorded footage and replays can illustrate how a driver is performing.
Finally, drivers use racing simulators for long periods at a time. By using them for extended periods of time it acts almost like a drill exercise, which can be very effective when the right practices are repeated over and over again. This again means it is not as simple as just driving a couple of laps at a time, but instead using repetition to really get the right skills down in an efficient manner.
Overall Ability Of Sim Racing To Improve Real Racing
Sim racing can definitely be used as a tool to improve a driver’s real-life racing ability. A driver’s racecraft is definitely an area that can benefit the most from sim work, as being able to negotiate competitors is something that most beginner drivers will never have had any experience with before hitting the track for the first time. It’s a great way to introduce the chaos of real racing without the costs or dangers of several inevitable crashes!
Sim racing can be a useful tool for improving the racing skills of a driver, but to be really effective, an expensive setup is usually required. This doesn’t mean that you won’t learn how to take corners faster using your belt-driven force feedback steering wheel and cheap pedals, but to get the finer details down you may need to try something a bit more advanced.
Also, the sim racing industry has proved to be a good way to introduce drivers to the real world, as we have seen with Jann Mardenborough and many sim racing YouTubers. Sim racing can show racing teams some of the hottest talent, and so it can act as a gateway for young drivers to go from the virtual track to the real world of professional racing.
There are a lot of ways that sim racing differs from the real thing, but there are also some areas that simulators do a really good job of emulating it. Using an advanced setup can really make you feel as if you are in a race car, and some of the top-end racing sims can make the experience even better through their incredible driving physics and realistic sounds and visual effects.
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