Speed Secrets: Sim Racing Hardware & Software

By Ross Bentley

August 23, 2016

A few months ago I received an email from a young sim racer looking for sponsorship. He was not looking for money (well, maybe he was, but since I'm not in position to do that, he smartly chose to ask for support from me in a form that I could provide - access to some training materials). I looked at this as a learning opportunity for him, and asked him to put a proposal together, outlining the benefits to Speed Secrets.
And that's exactly what Ryan Selsor did - in a very professional way. I learned that Ryan was, at that moment, fighting to win a sim racing championship, had started in autocross before sim racing, and participated in HPDE and track days whenever he could afford to (financially and time-wise). Oh, and he recently won the Race Department (www.racedepartment.com) Touring Car Championship, an international online sim racing series, driving for The Mighty Forth team. But what impressed me the most was his proposal, as it was focused on what he could do for Speed Secrets, and not just on what I could do for him.
When I wrote about different simulator options a few weeks ago and provided a discount code for the Playseat simulator chassis (use the discount code "Drivercoach" at www.playseatamerica.com), a few people asked for more information about how to set up a simulator. I knew Ryan had experience with a variety of hardware components and software, so I asked him to share that experience with you.  -- Ross
In recent years, simulation racing has gained respect in the racing community, and many people looking to get an edge have started to view it as a legitimate training opportunity. Simulation racing, also known as sim racing, has many advantages and has become easier than ever to begin. When using a home simulator, you can hone techniques, master set up and tuning, and even race people all over the world without actually stepping foot onto a track. According to Edgar Lau, professional race driver and GT Academy Alumni, “Sim racing is a fantastic tool to reinforce your driving habits. When you are using a sim, you are reinforcing your muscle memory, which you will subconsciously bring to the table when you get on the track in real life.”
This virtual driving experience is more accessible than ever and the software that's available to consumers has become incredibly realistic regarding car behavior and physics. A home simulator setup allows you to work to improve technique and driving skill using practically any car or track around the world. You can practice at any time and if you make a mistake or crash, it’s as simple as pressing the reset button. Simulation racing is a useful tool not only for driving, but to help develop race craft and race strategies (not to mention it can be a lot of fun).
Speed Secrets
If you’re ready to try sim racing, you may be surprised to find that setting up a simulator at home may be easier than you realize. The first component you must have is a computer. Your regular home computer should be able to get you started in some of the more basic simulations. However, the slight hardware update of installing a graphics card will improve your simulation experience for fairly minimal cost and effort. If you have a new or fast computer you may not need to, but generally expect to upgrade your graphics card. As mentioned, this can be a pretty inexpensive upgrade, and in many cases it can be done for less than a hundred dollars. 
Arguably the most important piece of equipment you’ll need is a wheel setup. A simple wheel for a simulator should have at least 900° of rotation, force feedback, a sequential or paddle shifter and two pedals. Generally, you can find one used for $100 or less. These wheel characteristics are the minimum I would recommend and a good example is the Logitech Driving Force GT. However, the best starting place would likely be a wheel such as the Logitech G25 or G27. These have been considered the best starting value for your dollar and are great if you’re looking for used wheels. These wheels have a good force feedback system, nicer materials such leather wrapped wheels, and metal pedals with a more natural brake engagement. They also feature a clutch pedal and a six-speed manual gear shift, which helps it to both look and feel less like a toy and more like an actual car. These wheels can generally be found for around $150 used or $250 if you can find one new. A modest setup like this can work well simply attached to a desk with an office chair. Add your favorite simulator software and you’re off to the races! You could say this is the Miata of simulators. It’s simple, but it works well, and you can sure have a lot of fun once you’re on the track.
If you want the BMW M3 of simulators and are ready for immersion at the next level, there are several upgrades you can implement to kick your experience up a notch. One of the most common improvements is the use of a simulator chassis. A simulator chassis puts you in the driver’s seat quite literally. These structures use a seat similar to those in a race car, connected to a frame with a wheel attachment. This helps immersion by placing you in a seated position much closer to that of an actual car. The change in seating position affects the experience more than you would expect. One of the most popular brands that offers this kind of chassis is Playseat. They offer a variety of products that are both durable and well-priced. You can use the same computer and wheel setup, but the overall experience will be improved. 
Another common tactic to increase the sim racing experience is upgrading to three monitors. This gives you a wider field of view and can greatly increase immersion and the sense of speed. To implement this, you would not only need the additional monitors but an increase in computing power, as well. You can also upgrade your wheel and pedal system. Fanatec has wide range of quality wheels and pedals that are a great step up from a basic configuration. If you’re looking to incorporate either a simulator chassis, triple monitors or an upgraded wheel, you can expect to spend anywhere from $400 to $1,500. However, the world of race simulation may be changing with the introduction of virtual reality headsets. Over the last few years, it’s become more common to see these VR headsets used, but at this point it’s still too soon to know if that’s the direction simulation is going.
For those looking to improve the simulation experience even further, combining the purpose-built simulator chassis and the triple monitors is a good step. But you’ll also want to consider adding in other upgrades such as a button box, a telemetry screen using a tablet, and bass transducers. Each of these serves a unique purpose. The button box is used to replicate the dash of a race car, a telemetry screen lets you monitor individual aspects of the car, and bass transducers (or sub woofers), add tactile feedback at multiple locations in the chassis. You can also consider professional grade pedal setups that, through the use of hydraulics, are fully customizable to adjust to the feel of different cars, or direct drive wheels that more closely replicate what a driver would feel in a real car. For those who want the Ferrari of simulators, there are also full motion setups available. While these are not often used for home simulators, they can be. The cost for full motion setups can range from $5,000 to $50,000.
Once you have a home simulator setup, you’ll need to decide what software to use. While there are a several simulation software options available, there are a few major ones that tend to be the most popular. iRacing is one of the top simulations available. iRacing offers online multi-player competition, and does not have computer AI opponents. iRacing is a subscription-based service that you pay to use on a monthly or yearly basis. Included in your membership are several cars and tracks with additional offerings that can be purchased. iRacing can be the most expensive of the available simulations, depending on the number of cars and tracks you want, but has the best drop-in online multiplayer racing, partially due to a safety rating system that promotes clean and fair driving. iRacing also has some of the highest quality track recreations, laser-scanned with great precision, and generally accurate to several millimeters. The physics are generally considered good, but not as good as all other options. 
In most other simulation software, you’ll benefit from finding a group, club, or league for clean online racing, like RFactor 2 and Assetto Corsa. These are two popular simulations that you own rather than subscribing to. Assetto Corsa has some of the best graphics in a simulation and good physics. It has many race cars but also has the best selection of road cars - anywhere from a BMW E30 to a Ferrari 458. RFactor 2 has one of the most advanced physics systems in any consumer simulation. It is able to accept add-on content such as user-created vehicles and tracks, referred to as “mods.” This gives one of the largest selections of content, but the quality of mods can vary greatly. RFactor2 is one of the best places to find obscure tracks and cars that may not be available in other simulations.
A lesser known but rapidly growing simulation is Automobilista. This is my personal favorite simulation and is from a lesser known Brazilian developer, Reiza Studios. It has excellent physics and a more natural feel, giving it one of the most refined simulation driving experiences I’ve encountered. It is also optimized to work well on less powerful computers. There is a great selection of high quality vehicles with good force feedback and the tracks are done well. It also offers many international tracks not typically available, due to the origins of the creator.    
There are other options for software you can find that serve other purposes. If you’re looking for a simulation that includes autocross, then Live For Speed is hands-down the best option, even though it is an older title. If you want to rally, then Richard Burns Rally is an excellent option. There are also console games to consider. Gran Turismo and Forza are considered more of a game than a simulation, but if you already have a Playstation or an Xbox, they may be worth trying.
Whether you’re looking to build skill for track driving or simply to have fun, sim racing has many advantages. Getting started is easier than most realize and there’s a setup for everyone, ranging from simple to extreme, depending on the preference of the individual. Sim racing can be a great tool for some and a great hobby for others. Hope to see you on the virtual track soon!

- Ryan Selsor​​​​​​​