Despite my deep passion and ambition, two things preclude me from becoming a race car driver: a pile of money and innate talent. While racing is arguably the only sport in which an abundance of the former can help overcome the lack of the latter — many race series require amateur “gentleman” drivers with endless coffers willing to bankroll a season — an imminent financial windfall is unlikely.
I skirted the lack of means, for a while; working as an automotive journalist in the Before Times afforded ample seat time in often unobtainable cars at iconic race tracks around the world. Those opportunities are few and far between now, so the closest analog is a simulator setup.
The goal with any racing sim is realism and the hardest thing to simulate is the sensation of torque and G-forces. Professional drivers and teams use hydraulic platform rigs capable of generating up to 2 Gs, like the multi-million dollar Dallara units in Indianapolis and Italy (to the tune of $12,000 per daily rental). It’s the nearest thing you’ll find to a real race car, per your butt-dyno. Naturally, you have to pare way back for a home setup.
“There’s always something missing in a home sim,” says Felix Rosenqvist, a 28-year-old IndyCar driver for Chip Ganassi Racing. “If you haven’t pushed a car to the limits, it’s hard to explain, but you can get close. From time to time, you can think you’re in a real car.”
Rosenqvist, the 2019 IndyCar Rookie of the Year, built his own home sim from scratch earlier this year when lockdown started and he ran us through chief considerations for sourcing all your sim components and about the limits of these kinds of systems. (And, while substantially more affordable than fielding an actual car at an actual race, a decent simulator isn’t what you’d describe as cheap.)
The foundation of any sim is the rig upon which the various components — seat, wheel, pedals, gear shifter (if applicable), even a monitor — can be affixed. You’ll want something beyond rigid, since it has to support you and also all the forces you’ll be imparting upon it as you jam on the pedals and torque your wheel. Rosenqvist has a 90-pound aluminum chassis frame, the SimLab PX-1 ($703), and bolted a Sparco QRT race seat ($1,375) on top. Sturdy? You bet. Expensive? Indeed.
Other chassis options bundle a seat along with the frame, for less money. I chose one of those, a Next Level Racing F-GT cockpit ($499). The seat isn’t a bucket, like Rosenqvist’s, but it sits on adjustable rails, great for accommodating drivers of any height, and the back is adjustable, too. Optional caster wheels beneath the steel frame make moving it around your house a snap, locking in place when you’re driving.
There’s a dedicated place for a monitor stand, and the Next Level wheel and pedal mounting plates have pre-drilled holes to accommodate major component brands without any modifications, and all have height multiple positions to allow for a widely-customizable cockpit. “Comfort is key since you’ll be spending a lot of time in this position,” says Rosenqvist. It’s a small touch, but Next Level includes a back bolster pillow that goes a long way, especially when you’re learning a new track in a new car and realize that five hours have elapsed since you first climbed in.
“The wheel is the heart of the sim,” Rosenqvist says, “because it’s where you get the most important feedback.” You want a force-feedback motor mount, which means that your wheel is connected to a base that has a motor that can provide force along the axis of rotation. In a real car on track, you’d feel how the car was responding to inputs by sensations going through the wheel, pedals, seat, and your body itself. You can tell if you’re approaching the car’s mechanical grip by feeling the car rotate, slide, or shudder. In the sim realm, all you get is the feedback from the wheel, so choosing the right one is vital.
“There are two kinds of force feedback motor bases: direct and belt-driven,” says Rosenqvist. “Belt driven has a transmission between the motor and the steering rack.” That’s in the form of a pulley and the belt. These are great for novices because smaller, more affordable motors are employed, thus they’re cheaper. They tend to feel smoother because the belt can absorb some of the vibrations. That’s a double-edged sword because that dampening means a loss of vital feedback. Belts can also get worn and stretched over time, exacerbating the loss of feedback while requiring greater input. Should that happen, it may only mean a millisecond of extra work for each turn of the wheel, but add those instances up and you could be seconds slower than someone with a newer unit. In a competitive race, that differential takes you from the podium to tenth place.
Option two is a direct drive unit. “That’s where the steering rack sits directly on the motor, so there aren’t any moving parts,” says Rosenqvist. “There’s no loss in the feeling or details of the road, it’s truer to a real car, and there’s less noise when turning the wheel.”
Rosenqvist uses a direct-drive motor called the Simucube 2 Ultimate ($4,085, and that hefty price doesn’t include the wheel itself, which can be another $300 to $1,000). “The Simucube has so much strength; up to 32 Newton meters [of torque]. To activate it, you need to flick a special button and there’s an emergency button to shut it down because that’s enough torque to rip your hand off,” he says with a laugh.
Presuming you like your hands attached and an extra four grand in your bank account, you can definitely opt for a belt-driven unit, which is precisely what Rosenqvist was using before the Simucube. “I have had a Logitech G25 since I was 15 years old. I loved that wheel and it worked great. I did very well with it, too,” he says.
For my system, Thrustmaster kindly sent a Leather Edition TX Wheel, which included the motor base, the wheel, and a pedal kit ($469). It neatly fits onto the F-GT chassis mount and it’s been wonderful to use. I’m not skilled enough to notice any belt-derived latencies that are costing me time, and it gives me enough of the sensation of when I’m approaching losing grip. I can feel the steering ratio differences between, say, a Mazda MX-5 Cup car and a Ferrari 488 GTE. It’s responsive enough to let me catch the car with some quick opposite lock, should things start to get sideways. It just feels like a proper wheel in your hands, too, from the size, down to the fit and finish, and the alloy paddle shifters make a satisfying clack. My only gripe is that after long, impassioned stints, the locking ring that secures the wheel to the base can sometimes get a little loose, even if I’ve cranked the screw, but that’s a minor quibble.
Threshold braking is understanding where the optimal brake pressure is and using that to brake as late as possible without sloughing off too much speed headed into a corner. It’s a skill that will enable faster lap times but a tricky maneuver to master on a real track. Rail the brakes too deeply and you’ll over-slow the car; hit them too lightly and you won’t have enough downforce on the front wheels to bite into the turn and you’ll understeer off the track, into a tire barrier or wall. Getting a brake pedal that feels natural is the second most important sim facet.
“I use Heusinkveld Ultimate Sim Pedals,” says Rosenqvist. “Everyone I know uses them and recommends them. They feel normal and you can hit them super hard without an issue.” Those pedals ($1,415) have hydraulic reservoirs and dual dampeners so that they can mimic the exact feel of a brake pedal in an F1 or Le Mans prototype vehicle.
My included Thrustmaster TX Leather Edition pedals don’t have any of those attributes. And, yeah, you’ll notice that sim brake modulation is difficult without being able to dial in the pedal’s resistance. But Thrustmaster’s solution is genius and it’s included in the box: a little rubber cone that bolts onto the back of the brake pedal. It imparts a feeling of progressive resistance in the same way a hydraulic pedal would and my braking improved infinitely after installing it. It’s nowhere as realistic as Rosenqvist’s pedals, but I ceased careening off the track every time I drilled the stoppers so I’m pleased.
The key spec when monitor shopping is the refresh rate, or the number of times per second (expressed as hertz or Hz) that the image refreshes. Rosenqvist notes that you’ll want one with a refresh rate of at least 144 Hz.
“If there’s a delay in the monitor, you’ll have slower feedback,” he says. “You need to be micro-adjusting things all the time when you’re driving and that’s easier to do if everything responds quickly.” If you’re planning on seriously competing, do some research before you use your TV: Many claim a 240 Hz refresh rate, but it’s really about 60 Hz.
For those seeking ultimate realism, Rosenqvist suggests going with an ultra-wide, curved screen in lieu of a tri-panel set up. “You want the field of view in a sim, and I never understood ultrawide monitors before, but it makes sense here,” he admits. “Looking through your helmet, it’s a similar view; you can’t see up or down, but you can see forward. If [your monitor] is not curved, then it looks weird. Those triple monitors have a break in the field of vision, which isn’t great.”
Asus loaned me the absolute best monitor I have ever had the pleasure of setting eyes upon: the Asus ROG Strix XG49VQ ($899). It’s a 49-inch, super ultra-wide HDR gaming monitor, and I’m beyond obsessed. The clarity is next level — you can see individual pebbles of spent tire rubber on the tracks — and there’s no lag.
It’s the perfect replica view of what you’d see from underneath a racing helmet and that shallower-than-a-TV-height compels your eyes up, looking through the corners, past the apex to the exit, which is the first thing any decent race instructor will shout at you during a real track stint. The built-in speakers are rich and full and loud enough for my wife to implore me to turn it down from the other room. (Asus also sent along a $103 ROG Strix Fusion Wireless gaming headset that has marvelous sound quality, though the USB dongle that affords the wireless connection kept breaking apart.)
The beautiful part is that my whole system will work with an Xbox or a PC, so I spent a chunk of time on both. On Xbox, you can easily run Forza Horizon 4, which allows you to sample more than 450 vehicles, including classics, race cars, and new cars, constantly updated as models roll out in real life. Take a spin around the game in McLaren’s ultimate Senna hypercar or try a 1967 Ferrari 330 P4, an iconic Prancing Horse V-12 race prototype that dominated tracks around the globe or try Ken Block’s Hoonigan Ford “Hoonicorn” Mustang from all the Gymkhana films. The Thrustmaster wheel controls have Xbox buttons that make navigating the fields a snap.
Step up to Forza Motorsport 7 to sample race cars at the laser-scanned race tracks. I spent hours battling a buddy around Le Mans and at Miami’s Homestead circuit in a smattering of GT cars that the likes of Rosenqvist actually drive. The car physics are wonderfully accurate, although you can leave enable driving assists like traction control and brake aids to help you keep the shiny side up. You can, as in real life, turn off all the assists and be left with a full race car, right down to the lack of ABS, but be prepared for a large learning curve, full of crashes and smashes as you get used to the finer inputs required in a sim.
However, the ultimate sim software is iRacing, the preeminent, hyper-realistic virtual racing league. iRacing requires a monthly subscription and it only runs on a PC (or a Mac running Windows OS through Boot Camp). It’s where Rosenqvist and all the pros did battle while awaiting the real racing to return during lockdown.
It’s stupidly realistic. Like turn-the-wheel-while-parked-and-watch-the-nose-of-the-car-lift-slightly realistic. Here, your vehicular options are only race cars, all mapped perfectly to the real variants. There’s a braking and throttle assist feature, though even with those engaged, you really have to understand car control to keep from crashing. When you crash, if it’s during a race, you’re towed back to the pits and cannot leave until an appropriate chunk of time has passed while your car “gets fixed,” depending on how severe the damage is. (Stuff it bad enough, and you’re forced to withdraw.) You serve penalties for crashing and errors, and your license grade is constantly adjusted based on the number of incidents you incur during any sanctioned practice or qualifying session, or race.
All of this requires a top-notch PC. Rosenqvist built his own — “because I like technology” — but I tested two loaner PCs that slotted in at different tiers, according to iRacing’s system requirements: an Asus ROG Strix GA15DH ($1,407) that’s considered mid-range, due to a six-core processor and slightly lower graphics card, and a Maingear Vybe Stage 4 Boosted ($2,649), which qualifies as a high-end system, with an eight-core-plus processor.
With most PC games, the graphics processor is the more valued component since you want all the glorious details that the iRacing engineers have painstakingly imbued the game with to shine through. Things like dust clouds if you’re racing off-road, or tire marks when you lock up the car, or even to see where crud is accumulating just off the racing line on the tracks, as it would in real life. And you’ll want either an Nvidia or AMD Radeon (which are used in the Maingear Vybe and ROG Strix GA15DH, respectively). But the processor matters more for software like iRacing because of all the physics and other calculations required to get the car’s handling to replicate, as best it can, the real thing.
Which tower reigns supreme? To find out, I spent hours on each. I tested them with a wired Internet connection and using Wi-Fi to suss out latency issues. I tried all types of road surfaces, in all types of weather conditions, at all times of day, on all the tracks. I drove NASCAR, IndyCar, Mazda MX-5 Cup cars, IMSA GT3 cars, and Formula 1 cars (poorly, for the most part. See my earlier statement regarding talent). And I didn’t notice a $1,200 difference. That’s not a knock on the Maingear Vybe so much as it’s a statement on my rookie gamer status. I simply don’t know better to know what I’m missing, because the Vybe does contain superior innards.
Rosenqvist sums it up better: “All these sim setups, you can get into the tens of thousands of dollars, buying expensive equipment, but good tech doesn’t make you quicker.” This is very true, considering my multi-thousand dollar rig only saw me finishing mid-pack when I was able to complete a race.
“Get a good computer, a good monitor, and a decent wheel and learn to master the game with those,” he says. “Then you can upgrade your hardware and start gaining time.”