If you’ve been reading my blog, you know I’m a rabid proponent of simulation training. It’s the cheapest and safest way to improve your car control muscle memory. In this post, I want to talk about building a low budget sim rig in mid 2018.
There are two main contenders: iRacing and Assetto Corsa. The downside of iRacing is that it has a subscription and collection fee structure. The subscription part is a monthly fee. The collection part is that you have to buy cars and tracks to add them to your collection. 1 year of iRacing will cost you $200 or more depending on how many tracks and cars you purchase. What you get is laser scanned tracks, great racing, and a really helpful community. I highly recommend it.
Assetto Corsa costs about 10% of iRacing. Most cars and tracks are developed by the community and are generally free. You can also pay for official expansion packs. Assetto Corsa is a lot more tweakable than iRacing and has AI opponents, which iRacing does not. If you want to race as a competitive eSport, stay tuned for Assetto Corsa Competizione, due out this Summer.
In addition to iRacing and Assetto Corsa, there’s also a few others worth mentioning: Automobilista, Project CARS, Project CARS 2, rFactor, rFactor 2, and DiRT Rally. I have all of these, and each has its merits. Some tracks are only available in specific simulators, so if you want to train at that location, you have to get that software. On the downside, learning how to use each platform takes some time. Here’s my recommendation: get Assetto Corsa first. After that, it depends on your goals. If you’re interested in wheel-to-wheel racing, you should be practicing against other people to learn the habits of stupid people, not predictable AI. You can do that with Assetto Corsa, but iRacing is better. If you’re driving off road, you can do that with Assetto Corsa too, but DiRT Rally is better. As you start to train for specific tracks, you may need to pick up Automobilista, rFactor 2, or even the venerable rFactor. And if you want to be blown away by how gorgeous a racing game can be, Project CARS 2 has the best eye candy.
Build or buy? Like building a car, building a computer takes time to research and some technical know-how to construct. If you’re not a computer builder, just buy the cheapest decent gaming rig on Amazon. Generally speaking, you can’t get anything decent for under $500. Sure, there are things marketed as gaming PCs for less than $500, but they don’t have a suitable GPU. The single most important thing in your computer is going to be the GPU. Most computers have sufficient CPU, RAM, and storage, but the GPU is highly variable. How do you check the performance of the GPU? Passmark. Assetto Corsa and iRacing don’t require a high end video card, and you can get away with a Passmark score of 1000. rFactor 2 and the Project CARS titles need higher end cards with a score of 2500 or more. My advice is get an nVidia GTX 1050. It has a Passmark score of 4500 and can be found cheaply whether you build or buy.
A quick perusal of Amazon shows you can buy an iBUYPOWER gaming PC for $499. But it’s got a GT710 video card with Passmark score 677. That’s no gaming PC. For the same price you can get a Shinobee with the recommended GTX1050. But who the heck are iBUYPOWER and Shinobee? Good question. You might prefer buying from a more established name like Lenovo, Dell, HP, etc. Expect to pay a little more for that, but maybe it’s worth it. In any case, you’re looking for a decent video card and probably a cost of at least $500.
If you want to build your computer, go to the Passmark best value table to find your GPU. Sometimes you can find screaming deals. I upgraded a GPU at one point for just $35. Right now, I would get a Radeon R9 350 (Passmark 2265) for $80. This is actually a card made for laptops that they shoe-horned into a PCIE slot. So it requires very little power and cooling. Looking at the local computer surplus supply, I can get a Dell with 8GB RAM for $150. I’d swap out the HDD for an SSD for $70. The end result would cost about $300 and the performance would be good enough. But for $200 more I get a lot of newer parts fully assembled, a warranty, the ability to return it to Amazon, and with twice the performance. So unless you actually like building computers, buy a budget gaming PC from Amazon.
The spectrum of hardware is immense if you consider the boutique companies making high-end products. But since this is a post on building a budget system, there are 3 major manufacturers to consider: Logitech, Thrustmaster, and Fanatec. I have not used Fanatec. I’ve steered clear of them for my own purchases because I’ve heard of too many horror stories with customer support. However, their hardware is really slick and it’s very popular amongst the top simmers. If you’re not building a budget system, look seriously at Fanatec. But for a budget rig, look elsewhere.
I own both Thrustmaster and Logitech products. I like them both. A sim rig really needs 3 things (1) force feedback steering wheel (2) all three pedals (3) brake pedal with progressive resistance. Although it aids in immersion, you don’t need an H-pattern shifter or hand brake.
Most of the recent Logitech and Thrustmaster wheels have good force feedback. Thrustmaster wheels have stronger motors. How important is that? Not very. What is important is the feel of the brake pedal. Most brake pedals have linear resistance due to using a single uniform spring. The more the brake pedal travels, the more brake is applied. Uh, that’s not how real brakes work. They work on pressure. The most authentic brakes push hydraulic fluid onto a load cell, just like in your car. They also don’t fit in the budget category. The inexpensive alternative is to use stacked springs, springs with varying rates, or rubber plugs. Mixing resistance types can give a brake pedal progressive resistance.
If you like tinkering, you can find older Logitech and Thrustmaster rigs on Craigslist or racing forums. Mod the brake pedal and you’re looking at some savings. You can also increase the precision of the sensor outputs with Bodnar cables. My rig is a mixture of Thrustmaster, Logitech, PerfectPedal, and Bodnar parts. The performance is probably up there with the boutique gear that costs $2000 or more. If your goal is sim training and not sim building, just get a Logitech G29. It has progressive brake resistance out of the box.
Expect to pay about $900 for a sim rig. If you build instead of buy, you could cut that in half, but at the cost of your time and labor.
- $20 Assetto Corsa
- $500 gaming PC
- $90 1080P monitor
- $260 Logitech G29