Over the course of the last decade or so, a new form of racing has emerged... well, not so much "emerged," but rather "became slightly more popular." Home computer racing simulators - sim-racing - are effectively hopped up racing video games, focused intensely on simulating driving physics as realistically as possible on a consumer PC. So intensely focused, in fact, that it typically led to a lack of success in the ever-expanding video game industry.
The realism turned away many who wanted a video game, which would be easy to learn and drive, such as the Need For Speed games. Some games have tried to bridge the gap, bringing nearly convincing physics to a console based game - Forza or Gran Turismo for example. True sim-racing, however, is not so simple to learn or to use, and so it has rested in a dark corner of both the gaming and motoring worlds for many years - known only by a small group of racing obsessed PC nerds.
Today, sim-racing is beginning to break out of the shadows and slowly into the mainstream world. Those simulators which aim to bridge the gap have come even closer to reality, and those focusing on realism have found ways of flourishing in their select market. Sim-racing appears to be reaching toward a golden age, with uncompromised realism, stunning visual quality, and excellent support from manufacturers to boot. Perhaps best of all, while it may not be cheap to get a top-of-the-line sim-racing setup, it certainly does cost less than repeated accidents in a real car on real tracks... and it hurts less too.
This brings about a few questions for the motoring world - and more specifically, we Noobs of the Track. First, and most importantly, does that mean I can learn to drive at the limit in a racing sim and go straight out and do it in real life? As should be the obvious answer, no. Please, no. Really, don't do it.
Sim-racing has certainly reached an all-time high for realism and depth of physics simulations. That doesn't mean it can affect your brain, body and senses in all the ways necessary to be able go out and do it for real. It is also necessary to realize that while it has gotten much closer to reality, it isn't reality. Simulation, especially on a consumer PC, still has it's limitations; limitations which real life couldn't care less about.
"Well then," you might ask, "what good is sim-racing to me, if not for the same value as a video game?" Although it may not provide you everything you need to know to drive at the limit, sim-racing certainly can be of some assistance. The thing to realize about sim-racing is this: It is not a videogame with a singular experience. Sim-racing is what you make of it. It can be tailored to your needs, it can provide excellent knowledge of a particular track or even a particular car, however, it can also create horrendously bad habits when people exploit the fact that it is a simulation with flaws. Sim-racing can help to learn a car, a track, or general driving skills and reactions. It should be used as a supplement to cut the learning curve, not as the curriculum. What it can not teach, is how driving at the limit will affect your body in real life: Tremendous g-forces, heat, noise; the variability of real life - you won't find a lizard running across the track on a sim, nor will you find an oil spill on the apex of a corner; and most importantly fear. As much as sim-racing can become immersive - and believe me, it really can - it will never teach you the fear you will feel in a real car at the limit. Not only will this fear likely hold you back, it can blow your concentration and cause mistakes.
Ok, so sim-racing isn't the perfect answer, but it does stand to do some good and, at the very least, it should make for some fun. So, how do you get started? There are several popular racing sims on the market, most of which can be purchased through Steam - popular PC gaming market software. Google can quickly provide a roundup of all the available sims, so I'll just mention a few of my personal favorites and the things that make them stand out. Keep in mind, you will need a relatively powerful PC to run the sims and hardware, so don't plan on doing it with the old Gateway your parents gave you 2 years ago.
Tailoring your sim-racing experience begins with choosing what sims to purchase. A Google search for "BEST RACING SIM EVER" will likely lead you to a forum, as is tradition in the PC world, where you will probably find a group of less than 40 people text-screaming obscenities at each other about who's sim is best in a virtual pi... well, you know. The truth is, there is only a handful of successful PC racing simulators - each of which has its own strengths and weaknesses. For example, if you want in-depth realism above all else and hardcore league racing against other drivers online, you probably want to go for Automobilista or rFactor 2. These games place physics simulation over graphics and and sound (although it is still more than acceptable), and go so far as to simulate the buildup of tire debris on the outsides of the racing line. If you want integrated online racing championships and competitions and content which can be purchased individually, you probably want to choose RaceRoom Racing Experience or iRacing. My personal favorite, being the Track Noob that I am, is to hoon road cars around the worlds greatest tracks. For me, the solution to that is Assetto Corsa. It is a very well rounded sim, and includes laser scanned tracks which are accurate to within 1 cm. Most importantly (for me anyways), the selection of laser scanned tracks includes the entire Nurburgring Nordschleife. This means every corner, bump, crack and curb is exactly where it should be. AC also has a plethora of officially licensed content, including all three of Thyne Hypercar Holy Trinity - yes, the LaFerrari, P1 and 918 Spyder.
Next comes hardware. First of all, ditch the idea of using a controller. It may say "controller compatible," there may be plenty of people who successfully use a controller to play the game, and they may claim to learn as much or have as much fun. They are all wrong. If you want to feel like you are driving, if you want to have a sense of what a car or track is like to drive, you need to be using a wheel and at least two pedals. Obviously, the quality of the hardware can make a difference, and available hardware ranges from downright laughable to terrifying.
If budget is an issue, or you just want to try things out, look for something from Logitech's G-series or Thrustmaster, which may include a wheel, pedals and shifter and can simply be clamped onto your existing desk. If you are willing to spend a bit more, look for a stronger wheel, better pedals, and a better shifter - such as those available from Fanatec. Shop around a bit, read reviews, find what suits your budget and needs.
If you are thinking about using sim-racing more seriously, you will want to look into direct drive systems as the two pictured above. Such systems will provide real-life forces of as much as 20Nm or more, but will also come with a price tag into the thousands and may require some (or a lot of) assembly. Pedals, shifters and handbrakes also have an equal range in quality, so you will want to make sure these can stand up to your needs as well. Then there is what you might call a rig, or essentially the thing to connect all the parts to a seat and make it all work like a car. You might look to build one yourself, do some budget-engineering as I have, or buy a pre-made rig. Such rigs range, again, from basic metal frames which include a seat, place for pedals, wheel, shifter and a monitor - such as those from Obutto all the way to robotized full motion rigs capable of simulating some level of g-forces. Obviously, this is going to depend on your budget. One of the more common options is SimXperience's Stage 5 full motion rig, which can be purchased for $26,000 - delivered and installed. If this is out of your price range, but a static seat doesn't sound quite good enough, you can add large transducers to give it some rumble. These range from small ones, good for engine vibrations, to very large to simulate curbs and bumps. You might think that may not be all that good, but it really can make the difference when done right. You might compare it to the difference in driving a Cadillac which glides smoothly along to a Radical SR-8 which has aftermarket 22" rims... but of course in this case we want the terrible ride.
Last but not least, you will need to figure out how to see where you're going. This might mean pulling your existing monitor up close to the back of your wheel and driving as if you are looking through a small square scraped out of the frost covering all your windows. If you have gone for the more costly routes, you may consider triple screens to give you a wide IMAX like view. Fortunately, modern technology has revealed yet another, and better option: Virtual Reality. Mark my words, VR will become the standard for sim-racing. I currently use an Oculus Rift, and it has completely changed my sim-racing experience. Rather than looking through a window, I am there. I can spot apexes, view my mirrors and even look behind me as I would normally. If you want realism, this is the only way. Sadly, not all the currently available sims include VR support, so this will make yet another factor to consider.
Dizzy yet? I've nearly gone a bit James May-ish on this one haven't I? Sorry. The point to remember is this: Sim-racing is an excellent tool to learn to drive the limit, but it isn't the tool-bag. Use it how you want to, make it what you want it to be, and for God's sake, don't try to hop the sausage curbs just because it worked in Assetto Corsa.