Not so long ago, just having a device behind the wheel made you a racing game pro. What if this wheel had force feedback? Attention, online racing game lobbies. Mario Andretti has just arrived.
The 2022 standard for sim racing gear is a bit more evolved. Over the past few years, sim racing esports have grown in popularity and top young F1 stars are now spreading themselves playing in their platforms. If you’re not sitting in a carbon fiber monocoque, clutching a direct-drive wheel that’s worth more than most used cars, watch three 50-inch panels project the latest F1 game, do you even race?
Notable setups include that of Australian YouTuber Boosted Media (opens in a new tab), whose huge triple screen and front-facing camera make it really hard to tell you’re not watching a real race from inside a cockpit. The whole thing cost over $69,000 and includes three 65-inch 4K panels built into a custom frame and a sled on a hydraulically moving platform. Let’s not even explain how you would get a stable framerate at 12K.
Archie Hamilton’s Vesaro Rig (opens in a new tab) also features a motion platform and triple screen output. These setups are great to watch on YouTube, not to mention fun to drive, but they don’t quite look like the sim rigs we see in the homes of F1 drivers when they stream on Twitch.
Lando Norris, Charles Leclerc and Max Verstappen, the new generation of talent in motorsport’s most exclusive category, tend to use static sleds. The triple-screen setups are still there, and the wheel and pedal hardware is of the highest quality, but there’s no bouncing on the hydraulic pistons.
There is one thing all of these setups have in common though: they are all overkill for the demands of most sim pilots.
What happened? The obvious answer is that 2020 changed everything for sim racing, just like this year of unprecedented indoor weather changed everything for just about everything. Gaming saw a burst of business that year, and sim racing hardware makers sold out of stock very quickly during the shutdowns.
This was certainly the case for Cool Performance (opens in a new tab). The company’s head of global operations, Connor Hughes, tells me it sold six months of stock in the first month of the UK lockdown: “It was crazy.”
Cool Performance and its hardware design partner, Pro Sim, make some serious simulator setups. Founded by two former racers Hughes and Oliver Norris (brother of current McLaren Lando driver), the company’s goal was to build rigs that could actually save racing drivers money in the long run. . Rather than traveling across Europe to their contract team headquarters and logging hours in the simulator there, why not have a custom simulator built in your home, accessible day and night with no transport costs?
It’s a solution to a problem Norris saw with his own eyes when his brother Lando competed in Europe, according to Hughes.
“When you race, you finish on Sunday, you come back Sunday night, then Wednesday you have to be back on the track,” he said. “That’s why Lando was one of the first to have the simulation, basically just to reduce that time in between. When he was home for, say, one day, he was able to practice, go down, lunch, come back to go straight to the SIM card, rather than having to cross Europe for it.”
These are not cheap setups. A basic “E-Sport gaming simulator” costs £14,250 (around US$17,000). Some of the professional simulators cost £24,445 or more. But given that a season of single-seater racing like Formula Renault costs upwards of £200,000 a year, excluding private testing and transport costs, if you ever compete in this world you probably have capital at your disposal. Plus, sim time at home, even in a state-of-the-art rig like Cool Performance’s, can be cheaper than flying to get more track time outside of races.
“In Formula 4 you might not be able to afford to go and drive for 50 test days,” says Hughes. “In reality, you’re going to be spending between £5,000 and £10,000 a day on testing, and that adds up very quickly. So a driver might invest in a simulator instead.”
Everything about Cool Performance is designed for racers who compete in a variety of motorsport categories and need the most realistic simulation setup possible to improve their real-world performance. And yet, as Hughes tells me, half of the company’s clients are “just wealthy people who want something like Carlos Sainz and Mick Schumacher to train at home, in their downtime.”
They are enthusiasts and players who do not hone a skill to apply later to the track. They do not participate in esports competitions. They run for their own good, for intrinsic pleasure, and they don’t need $60,000 worth of custom simulation rigs, no more than a CS:GO player needs an army bulletproof vest.
They probably didn’t make such a financial investment just because they were locked out at the time, either. Like every other face of PC gaming, sim racing culture is now about indulging in the hobby – creating and refining a space for the activity – perhaps even more than actually participating. to this activity.
Streaming has placed a new emphasis on the look of our gaming space, and this has particularly affected sim racing thanks to the blurred line between racing superstars and sim racing streamers. So many members of the current F1 grid have casually cast themselves playing the latest Codemasters F1 game or racing in ACC that the image of a steering wheel peripheral, and even a sim rig, has gone d from amateur racing equipment to ambitious equipment – a status symbol like microphones, but much more expensive.
Expensive as they are, sim rigs arguably lower the barrier to entry for would-be racing athletes. The upper echelons of racing, particularly F1, have long been the subject of criticism that the drivers who go there are those who not only have talent but also large amounts of financial backing to open doors. . With so much money needed to achieve a steering wheel in F1, can we be sure that these are really the best drivers in the world?
Sim Racing offers a different route through the ranks. Where the journey could have started with karting – which for many is prohibitively expensive, even at junior level – potential young drivers can now get huge amounts of virtual track time without having to travel across the country. and to explain to their teachers why they only attend three days a week. It’s hard to imagine sim racing becoming a total substitute for track time, and just being in a car can prepare you for the excruciating neck strain G-forces put on you, but if young riders whose families have a little less to spend than Nikita Mazepin’s can supplement their time on the track with meaningful practice in a rig, perhaps the barrier to entry lowers slightly.
Accessibility is another interesting facet of the high-end racing rig scene. It’s accessible to very few from a financial standpoint, but all of Cool Performance’s rigs are custom controls, so building a rig without pedals or with specific button layouts is well within the business scope.
“We build everything ourselves,” says Hughes. “So yeah, anything can be done. We built a sim for Billy Monger, who lost his legs in F4. He has one of our sims, tailored for him. We can do things like a hand throttle and a brake on the steering wheel. We can provide custom seats.”
One such project involved a seven-foot NBA player, who had difficulty using traditional sleds due to their size.
“We ended up sticking two seats together, effectively,” Hughes said. “Me and you probably could have sat together in that seat. It was pretty cool to see.”
This equipment is not for everyone, clearly. Most of us don’t need or can’t afford bespoke rigs, and even a Playseat with an entry-level force feedback wheel is an extravagance rather than a necessity to establish fast lap times. But the sim platform is becoming an increasingly common sight for runners, streamers, and gamers who have a passion for racing and a bank account balance with lots of numbers.