A Beginner’s Guide to Sim Racing – How To Get Started
Sim racing is a broad term with many aspects and an extensive glossary needing to be understood to fully grasp it. Therefore, we have created this beginner’s guide for those interested in learning more about racing simulators and getting started with their own sim racing setup.
It will provide a basic understanding of the equipment and info needed to start your trip into the sim racing world.
Furthermore, this article will give an overview of some of the most prevalent sims (games) within the genre and how they separate from each other.
Whether you’re a PC or a console gamer, there are MANY aspects to address within sim racing, and this article won’t cover all of them.
What is Sim Racing?
Sim racing is a branch of the simulator genre of games that simulates real racing cars in the virtual world.
These racing simulator setups aim to provide the user with the most realistic simulation and the sense of being on an actual racetrack in a real racecar. This means that simulators emphasize factors that play a part in the way a car handles, compared to what is known as ‘arcade racers’.
This means A LOT of settings are available for tweaking and adjusting all the aspects that relate to driving the cars in your racing sim setup. All factors into how a car handles on the track. In short, sim racing is simulations that attempt to bring traditional racing to your sim racing setup at home.
The Origins of Sim Racing
Sim racing has been around since the late ’80s. One of the first games to spark popularity was ‘Indianapolis 500: The Simulation’ in 1989, which added the importance of gear ratios, racing lines, and wing settings.
Since then, as computers have become increasingly complex, so have the published racing simulators.
Sim racing has also become a standard for pro motorsport teams. Training in simulators is a great way for professionals to do hundreds of laps on certain tracks, as well as practice advanced driving techniques in a completely safe environment.
How Realistic is Sim Racing?
Since racing simulators attempt to recreate traditional racing, it is often measured against how true the representation becomes. Today, there are several ways of increasing the realism, not just in the feel of the wheelbase and pedals.
Virtual reality (VR) has come a long way, and when paired with sim racing, you are placed behind the steering wheel in the virtual car.
This, combined with motion platforms, and you truly feel like you are sitting in a race car, as the vehicle leans as you turn and bounce over curbs. And make no mistake: Aerodynamics matter even if you’re sitting fairly still in a racing simulator.
Furthermore, it is also possible to simulate wind when racing, giving you the feeling of the air intakes on a racecar as they funnel cool air in to cool the driver.
Later in this blog post, we will cover some of the games that are most popular. Most, if not all of these, use laser-scanned tracks to precisely replicate every corner and bump of real racing circuits to create the most immersive and best sim racing set up for you.
Weather conditions can play a huge part in racing, and many of the different sims also take great care in providing settings that allow you to experiment with the forces of nature.
However, one aspect holds the realism of sim racing back: how g-forces affect the body. Sitting stationary in your sim rig will never feel the same as feeling the forces from braking and accelerating in real life.
Bridging the gap between real motorsports and sim racing is no easy feat. However, that’s exactly what we’re trying to do by developing a range of immersive and authentic sim racing products.
What Equipment Do You Need in Your Sim Racing Setup?
To start your foray into sim racing, you need a proper sim racing setup with the right equipment. These range from entry-level setups to high-end professional sim racing setups.
Some racing simulators can be played on traditional controllers, but if you want to extract their full potential, you need pedals, a wheelbase, and a steering wheel intended for gaming to improve the authenticity of your sim racing setup.
Both pedals, wheelbases, and steering wheels come in all different shapes, sizes, and prices. A complete set of pedals, wheelbase, and the steering wheel can be found for as low as a couple of hundred dollars, all the way up to several thousand dollars, for one of these integral parts of a sim racing setup.
It is important to remember that sim racing equipment is meant to withstand high amounts of stress, and therefore there is a specific need for a build quality that can withstand these forces.
Therefore, our recommendation is to keep this in mind and buy equipment that suits your level of commitment. Like pedals made of metal, higher-end equipment may be better suited for prolonged play than their plastic counterparts.
What Types of Sim Racing Pedals Are There?
Pedals are a key component in any sim racing setup. Not all pedals have a clutch out of the box because a sim racing clutch is not used for all types of sim racing.
While the throttle and the clutch can be fairly similar on a sim racing pedal set, it is often the sim racing brake that’s the most unique part of a pedal set. This is because the brake has to take on larger amounts of force from your feet.
Pedals can be designed in a few different ways. Pedals are often either potentiometer-based, load cell-based, hall sensor-based, or hydraulic-based.
Potentiometer-based pedals measure the braking force using a potentiometer meaning the brake force is measured by the travel of the pedals instead of the force compressing the pedals.
Potentiometer-based pedals are often the cheaper option, as production of the pedals is inexpensive and straightforward. However, these pedals also offer less precision and may be challenging to perform consistently with.
Hall sensor pedals
Hall sensor-based pedals function with a magnet that measures the travel of the pedals more precisely than a potentiometer. Also, unlike a potentiometer, hall sensor-based pedals are less affected by dust and such getting into the components.
Load cell pedals
Load cell-based pedals measure braking force using a load cell. This differs from potentiometers, as load cells measure the force put onto the pedals rather than the pedals’ compressed distance.
These pedals are often more expensive, but lower-end load cell pedals still use potentiometers for the throttle and the clutch. Load cell pedals offer more fidelity than their more inexpensive counterpart, meaning more precise inputs that can lead to more consistent performance on the track.
Learn more about load cell pedals here.
Hydraulic-based pedals measure braking force through the hydraulic pressure, which is created when compressing the pedal. This results in a more accurate simulation of a brake pedal in a real-world race car.
Hydraulic pedals are often made from higher quality materials, meaning the highest price tag of the three ways of making sim racing pedals.
At Asetek, our hydraulic pedals for sim racing are named Invicta. We want our initial sim racing product to be absolutely top-of-the-line, so our engineers have spent thousands of hours developing pedals that pro racecar drivers and sim racers alike can use for training and competition.
What Types of Sim Racing Wheels Are There?
Along with the pedals, the wheel (and the wheelbase you attach it to, of course) is the centerpiece of your racing rig. Also, like the pedals, the price range can vary from a few hundred dollars to several thousand.
One of the first things you should consider when deciding on your wheel is whether Formula or GT is right for you. They are shaped differently because of the steering range, whereas formula driving does not require as much range.
Another thing you’ll notice on sim racing wheels right away is the number of buttons. While some only have a few, others may have well over a dozen front and back combined.
You can learn more about the most common buttons on an F1 wheel for sim racing right here.
Beyond the style and number of buttons, some wheels also come with a display to relay how you are performing. When we decided to enter sim racing, we purchased the company Ultimate GameTech as we felt their software solution was one of the best.
When it comes to sim racing steering wheels in general, of course, you don’t want to make things needlessly complex without needing the extra possibilities. We advise that you, as a first-time buyer, do thorough research on the quality and features of a wheel before making your choice.
What Types of Sim Racing Wheelbases Are There?
You need a wheel and a wheelbase for your foray into sim racing if you want an immersive sim racing setup. These also have a few different ways that they are created, with varying price tags accordingly. They are primarily constructed in three different ways: gear-driven, belt-driven, and direct drive.
Gear-driven wheelbases use gears to amplify the motor’s torque and generate force feedback. These wheels are generally the most low-budget solution, meaning that it is a great starting point for someone wanting to try out sim racing before committing to a more expensive setup.
One disadvantage of a gear-driven wheelbase is that leeway can appear over time, and this can create torque spikes and inconsistent force feedback.
Belt-driven wheelbases use a belt and pulley system together with a small motor to generate force feedback. Using this method, the belt can amplify the motor’s torque by up many times, meaning that a small motor is enough to create sufficient force feedback.
Some of the advantages are that the small motor helps keep costs down, and the belt provides smoother force feedback than gear-driven wheelbases.
One downside to the belt-driven wheelbase is the absorption of force feedback due to the belt, meaning less and more unprecise force feedback in general.
Direct drive Wheelbases
Direct drive wheelbases are pretty different from the other two solutions, as it consists of a motor with the steering column-mounted directly onto it. This means that no gears or belts are connected to the motor to amplify torque as the motor is already powerful enough.
Therefore, all force feedback is sent directly to the steering wheel. No feedback is lost in the conversion between the motor and gear/belt, providing superior detail to the other two systems. This is a more expensive solution as direct drive wheelbases are at the very top of the line.
In addition to this guide, we’ve published a more thorough introduction to wheelbases and sim racing wheels which you can read here.
Other Sim Racing Peripherals
Now we’ve covered a bit about the pedals, wheel, and wheelbase. These are the core hardware components. Of course, there is A LOT you can add to your rig for true racing enthusiasts.
In time you can add a gear shifter, handbrake, and even a motion platform as the base for a complete feeling of immersion.
There is one category of crucial hardware we have not mentioned yet, and that is, of course, your screens. The screen setup that best suits an aspiring sim racer can differ quite a bit. Some prefer one curved screen, while others roll with a triple-screen setup.
As mentioned before, virtual reality is also an option. When choosing your screen setup, pay attention to FOV (Field of View) and the screen refresh rate (Hz).
Setting Up Your Sim Racing Equipment
One thing is getting the sim racing gear you need to get started. Another thing is putting it all together.
There are several solutions to this, as many companies have developed ‘rigs’ made for sim racing. While varying in form, they all help provide a place for the equipment to not take up space on your desk.
An important yet often overlooked aspect of setting up your simulator setup is the notion of ergonomics. Being comfortable when you race is key to being consistent, but it also depends on how close you want to simulate the real-world racing experience.
In a real racecar, the driver’s center of gravity is much lower than in an average civilian car. Consider ergonomic adjustments so that your:
- Screens and displays are a proper distance from your eyes
- Arms are at a proper angle when gripping the wheel, allowing you to steer with sufficient strength
- Seating position is considered – whether it’s more vertical or horizontal
All are adjustments you can choose to make to more closely simulate real-life racing.
With everything plugged in and sitting comfortably in your simulator setup, you just need to make sure the drivers for your equipment are up to date. Sim racing equipment is also about calibrating with software. Therefore everything should be updated to the newest versions, to take advantage of recent developments.
In racing simulators, there are plenty of options for tweaking the settings further. Having software for both individual pieces of equipment and the specific game can become cumbersome as one adjustment leads to a shift in another you just made.
It’s a known issue for sim racers we hope to solve with our all-encompassing software RaceHub.
We recommend you search for other sim racers’ preferred setups to get inspiration for something that works for you. On this blog, we’ll occasionally do deep dives into different adjustments for hardware and software so you can get inspiration for your setup.
Competitive Esports in Sim Racing
Like competitive games such as Counter-Strike or League of Legends, sim racing has an ever-growing esports presence, getting bigger and bigger for each year.
2020 was in particular a big year with the 24 Hours of Le Mans Virtual being hosted on the rFactor 2 simulator because of restrictions from COVID-19.
This brought together real-world racing teams with their respective racing drivers and mixed them with competitive esports racers. Major racing teams like RedBull and Williams Racing both have eracing teams and academies where they train and develop their racers using simulators.
Given the applicability of sim racing compared to actual racing, many racecar drivers actually use the racing simulators to prepare for races when it would be otherwise impossible to go and test on the actual track.
Previously large racing teams have had hugely complex simulators to analyze a wealth of data, which is still the case today.
However, given the newfound accessibility of sim racing, many racing drivers supplement their work with the team simulator, with extra time on the track in their own personal simulator. Even though it’s a simulator, it still requires effort for the racer. Healthy routines and discipline are important factors that need to be considered. You can read more about that right here.
This proves that high-end simulators are realistic enough that time on the actual racetrack may be found through a simulator. Some racecar drivers have enjoyed racing the different simulators in general and are using them for recreational use.
Given that sim racing is all about competition and being better than the other cars on track, esports has found a natural home in sim racing. Competitive sim racing has come far, and today, many championships are raced throughout the year with big prize pools.
Furthermore, tech companies have gotten on board and help sponsor and fund teams in their search to become the world’s best teams with the world’s best drivers.
Some of the top esports drivers compete in sim racing events full time, either through competition, streaming, or creating setups for various racing simulator titles.
What Are the Classes in Sim Racing?
As briefly mentioned, many different car classes are being used in racing simulators. These handle very differently from each other, meaning that naturally, people will have a favorite, which suits their personal driving style.
Formula 1 or F1 is often regarded as the pinnacle of racing. These cars are engineering powerhouses taming about 1.000 horsepower. The vehicles can handle very stiff and react to even the slightest of input into the wheel.
This means that the F1 car is for people who enjoy millimeter-precision and who have a quick reaction time. Formula also has lower categories: F2, F3, and F4.
Formula cars are built on the same principles but setups can change drastically between the categories. The formula vehicles are known as ‘Open Wheelers’, as no fenders cover the wheels on the cars, meaning that tires may interlock with another car’s wheels.
If you want something that more resembles an actual road car, the GT categories may be more for you. These include major car classes such as GT3, GT4, TCR, and Porsche Cup categories. GT3 is one of the world’s primary ‘tin top’ categories, with luxury brands creating a race car version of a specific car model in their range.
There is a lot of diversity in these classes, as many manufacturers create cars for these classes. You find more close racing within these classes, and the phrase ‘rubbing is racing’ may be heard over voice communication. These cars are all about being able to carry momentum through corners and being smooth on your inputs.
Of course, formula and GT are not the only classes in sim racing. From stock to touring cars, there are loads of variations. In the next chapter, we’ll give five examples of race types and cover a bit more ground there.
What Are The Race Types?
As well as cars spanning far and wide, the way a race is held does as well. Sprint racing is a shorter format of races usually with a single driver.
The racing is often more intense due to the race being over quickly. Only in some cases, a pitstop is needed. Otherwise, it is just flat-out racing from green light to checkered flag.
Endurance racing such as Le Mans on the other hand, is something completely different. For one, you are no longer solely responsible for the car, as you may have teammates sharing the car with you for the duration of the race, meaning you may need to make compromises regarding setup.
The races are longer, too, as they may range from a couple of hours all the way to 24 hours, just like the Le Mans 24h classic.
Racing is still intense, however, very different given that these races are rarely decided by a frantic overtake a few hours into a 24-hour event. You are rarely alone on the track either, as these events tend to have multiclass racing as well, meaning that prototypes may fly by you as you are driving a GT car yourself.
Who needs asphalt, right? Rally is off-track racing where you can blaze through the wilderness to the sounds of gravel bouncing of the chassis and your co-driver guiding you on the upcoming corner.
If the thought of going in circles bores you, rally may just be your thing. DiRT Rally and WRC are the usual suspects among the games available and they suffice most enthusiasts.
Rally is a great way to practice other driving techniques than offered on a circuit with a dozen other racers and pacing for the best finish time, is sure to get your heart rate pumping.
Drifting stands out as it’s both a technique and a discipline. You can drift in all the simulators we mention below but sometimes you just want to abandon the straights and focus on those turns and corners.
Popularized by a particular furious car flick, drifting is walking the tightrope between gliding through a corner at the perfect angle and slamming into the barrier.
When not competing in races or tournaments, we recommend doing some laps just for the sake of drifting.
Nascar and oval racing
Even if you’re not from The United States, you probably know Nascar. The oval stock car racing is known across the world but wildly popular in many American states.
Over the years there have been plenty of Nascar simulators with NASCAR 21: Ignition and Nascar in iRacing being some of the newer and most popular at the moment.
Which Racing Simulator Games are Available?
Today there are quite a few racing simulator titles that have the majority share in the sim racing community. They all have distinct differences, meaning that even though the premise of simulated racing is the same, there is still room for variation.
We won’t compare the simulators to each other in detail, so we recommend that you do your own research. Like in many other aspects of life, YouTube is your friend!
Mentioning all racing simulators is out of scope for this article so we’ll just stick to a top 5 – in no particular order, we should say! We’ve listed some of the biggest (and our personal favorites) here:
iRacing is known for its focus on competitive online racing. The iRacing service hosts a fixed number of series with a fixed number of cars, and the races are scheduled at specified times during the day.
These ‘official’ races are then split into servers determined by the rating that a driver has to ensure competitive racing for everyone – whether it’s a skilled driver behind the wheel or a rookie just trying out the simulator.
iRacing is a subscription-based service with a lot of extra content, which can be purchased separately.
Check out our in-depth guide to getting started in iRacing.
rFactor 2 is the sequel to the popular title rFactor and is like the predecessor focused around the community creating content for the simulator. Besides that, there is also plenty of official content focused on multiclass racing.
This means that this simulator takes the opposite approach to iRacing, in that the community themselves create the content they want if the official content does not suit them. However, this means that there is less quality insurance when it comes to this unofficial content.
Assetto Corsa Competizione
Assetto Corsa Competizione (ACC) is a racing simulator that many serious sim racers swear by. Whereas other simulators have a large variety of cars, ACC only includes the GT3 and GT4 classes of racecars. This is due to the game being having licensed the official GT3 world championship. The game is available for both PC and consoles.
Assetto Corsa is the predecessor to ACC. This is a more traditional racing simulator, as there is a large variety of base content and extra paid content. This sim also has a lot of additional content made by the community. Assetto Corsa has plenty of variety in its racing, including content specific for drifting and four-wheel drive.
Automobilista 2 is a race simulator that is currently only available for PC. While the original title focused on Brazilian motorsports, the sequel expanded with a diverse range of disciplines and vehicles – from rental karts to GT and several official championships.
Like the other simulators on this shortlist, Automobilista 2 enjoys an active online community that discusses the latest updates and driving tips.
Now you may be asking: how come we didn’t mention simulators like Forza, Gran Turismo or F1? Well, while these games are mainstream (with good reason!), they’re also more arcade-style racing than the simulators we have mentioned above.
They definitely deserve a mention for their huge following, but we’re all about taking racers as close to the real-world experience as possible.
To sum up, sim racing allows for different levels of commitment depending on your personal ambition.
Do you want to live out the dream of racing 200 miles/hour, cornering and drifting like a pro? A personal racing simulator will help you live that dream, or just upgrading from a controller to pedals and a wheel can help you improve your lap times and better immersion.
At Asetek, we are committed to making high-quality sim racing products that will help you do both.
Asetek has been developing hardware for gamers for more than 20 years, and now we are using our engineering know-how for sim racing.
Stay tuned on this blog, where we will frequently share articles on racing, building, and getting the most out of your sim racing experience.