At the start of 2017, there are around 10 platforms that call themselves realistic driving simulators. If you’ve never tried sim racing, I highly recommend it. In my mind, it’s 90% as good as the real thing and so much less expensive. But which software is best? There’s no simple answer to that. It depends on what you want to get out of it. Regardless of the software, you will need a force feedback steering wheel and a set of pedals. Logitech, Thrustmaster, and Fanatec make good gear. You’ll also need a Windows computer. Some of the platforms work on Mac or Linux, and some on Playstation 4 or Xbox One. But performance and stability are generally best on Windows.
The simulators below are listed in historical order in which they appeared on the PC market. Because I’m focusing on PC software, the very popular Gran Turismo and Forza titles are not listed. Although the current price is given for each, it’s the last thing that should concern you. Simracing software is the least expensive part of racing, virtual or real.
My computer has quad 2.67 GHz Intel processors, an nVidia GTX 650ti video card, and a 1920×1080 display. The video card has a 2662 rating on the PassMark benchmark. Keep this in mind when looking at the FPS (frames per second) numbers below. Once FPS gets below 50, it can negatively impact your simulation experience. Purchasing a video card with a higher rating will net you more FPS, but there is generally some software tuning you can do also.
A Word on Modding
There is a long history of hobbyists modifying simulation software to add more cars and tracks to the official distribution. Some of these mods are of the highest quality but others are downright awful. Mods are typically not licensed reproductions (and therefore copyright infringements) and can have major errors. On the other hand, a mod may be the only way to drive a specific car or track of interest. Modding is a mixed bag. Some simulators openly embrace the modding community while others shut them out. Even among the open ones, software updates to the main engine can be incompatible with older mods, which can cause great frustration if you favorite car/track no longer works. I personally have a couple mods I really like, but I find most of them more trouble than they’re worth.
When putting a simulator through its paces, I like to use Brands Hatch (Indy configuration). Brands Hatch is one of the most common tracks and despite its simplicity, the turns have a great deal of variety. Another track I like to employ is Laguna Seca. This is also quite popular and has the added benefit that I’ve raced there in real life. For cars, I like using a Miata and a junior/vintage Formula car. I race a Miata in real life, so I know the properties of a Miata reasonably well. The reason for the junior/vintage Formula cars is that they have a decent power:weight ratio and not much grip. This means they tend to slide around quite a bit, and without any driving aids, this gives one a good feeling of how the sim models vehicle dynamics.
Image Space Incorporated and rFactor play a particularly important part of simracing history. Their isiMotor2 engine is the foundation of not only rFactor and rFactor2, but also Automobilista, RaceRoom Racing Experience, Simraceway, and several older titles. rFactor costs a flat $25 with no fees for additional downloadable content or online fees. It has a HUGE number of free mods, and my personal installation has hundreds of cars and tracks. Quality ranges from good to terrible. Despite its age, rFactor is still popular, and I found about 150 people racing on a Saturday at 1 PM. System requirements are very low. My rig managed 150-170 FPS with all graphics settings on maximum. If you have an older computer, rFactor is the best
game sim in town. Next to the other titles below, it does feel decidedly old.
iRacing is known for having a large online racing community. It is unique in that all drivers must use their actual identity. There is no hiding behind an anonymous avatar while calling people fucktards. I think that’s a good thing. But on the other hand, using your real name online is always a risk. iRacing also has both a safety rating and performance rating. This means you can’t get into a race against the really good racers unless you yourself are a really safe and fast racer. iRacing has no AI (artificial intelligence), so everyone you race against is a real person. iRacing costs $6-12 per month depending on when you renew (so always renew during a sale). The base install comes with several cars and tracks, but you’ll want more, and they run ~$12 each. The combination of fees makes iRacing the most expensive simulator. I found about 4,100 racers online (not necessarily racing) on a Saturday at 1 PM. System requirements are fairly low. I got a solid 85 FPS.
rFactor 2 (rF2)
Studio 397 recently took over development of rF2 from ISI. This is good news because rF2 development was pretty quiet for a while. The main distribution doesn’t have many cars or tracks, but they are all excellent. Like the original, there are mods and the quality varies. Some are carry-overs from rFactor 1 but some are modern laser scanned jobs. rF2 costs $32 and is free to play online (it originally had online fees, but those are now gone). I found about 600 racers online and about half that number actually racing on a Saturday at 1 PM. System requirements are high. The default graphics settings were unplayable but I got 58 FPS by turning off anti-aliasing. It’s not very smooth or gorgeous at 58 FPS though. On the plus side, it feels darn realistic.
RaceRoom Racing Experience (R3E)
While it is advertised as free to play, that only gets you a couple cars and tracks. It’s more like a demo. But the are lots more you can purchase with their in-game currency (which you buy with real money). Once you get a couple car and track packs, you may find yourself $20-100 lighter. It’s a little annoying that they charge you for every little thing, like liveries, but it’s not that expensive and doesn’t affect the driving. I found about 150 racing online on a Saturday at 1 PM. System requirements are modest. I got 60 FPS on medium settings, which look fine. But when switched to high, I got 37 FPS and it was not very playable.
Assetto Corsa (AC)
AC has a decidedly European flavor. There are a nice selection of European cars and tracks, but not so much from elsewhere. Surely that will change in the future. New downloadable content arrives regularly. The $30 base cost gets you quite a few cars and tracks. Additional cars and tracks can be purchased in bundles. AC is very popular. I found about 2,800 racers online and several hundred racing on a Saturday at 1 PM. There are no online fees. System requirements are modest. I got 65 FPS.
Project CARS (pCARS)
Unusually, this title was partly funded through crowd-sourcing. Lots of people contributed and lots of people play. I found about 2,300 racers online and 300 actually racing on a Saturday at 1 PM. Cost is $30 plus extra for more cars and tracks. No online fees. System requirements are on the high side, but the graphics are jaw-dropping. I got 49 FPS, but it plays very well at that frame rate.
DiRT Rally (DR)
Rally simulators are a rare breed. Most rally software is decidedly on the arcade side. The main exception to this is Richard Burns Rally, which is so old that it doesn’t have multi-player support. You can’t even buy it anymore. If you want RBR now, you’ll have to pirate it (I found a download link without too much trouble). However, there’s a better choice.. DiRT Rally is the first modern rally simulator, and it’s awesome. I found 700 people online. Rally is more of a solo thing, but there is multiplayer racing in rally cross. DiRT Rally is $60 and there are no additional fees and no downloadable content.
Automobilista Motorsports Simulator (AMS)
Reiza Studios is from Brazil, and their base simulator features Brazilian racing series and tracks (which are very cool). But they also have downloadable content should you wish to get the typical cars and tracks you find elsewhere. I found about 150 racing online on a Saturday at 1 PM. System requirements are amazingly low. I got 116 FPS and the quality of the graphics was pretty good.
All of these simulators are worth owning. Each simulator has its own character and you may prefer one to another. If your computer is 10 years old, get a new one if possible. If not, rFactor will work but AMS may as well, and it is far superior. If you have a really fast computer, try pCARS and rF2. pCARS may have the best visuals and rF2 feels pretty authentic. If you want to drop into well-organized multiplayer races at any time of the day, iRacing is best. But if your internet is spotty, you’ll be racing against AI, so you don’t want iRacing. If you like driving on dirt then DiRT Rally. Want to try something for free? R3E costs nothing at the outset. If all of this boggles the mind and you just want to start with something good at everything, you can’t go wrong with AC. But if you’re like me, you’ll find something useful in each sim and you’ll get more than one.