Untitled #1

I had a lot of competing titles for this post. Ultimately, I couldn’t choose.

  • ABA testing
  • Logitech vs Thrustmaster round 2
  • Assetto Corsa and Logitech don’t play well together
  • Silky smooth vs. the ragged edge
  • Hardware matters
  • Software matters

When I first started sim racing, I went through several iterations of Logitech gear including Momo, G25, G27, and DFGT. I did a lot of iRacing with a G25 rig. I quickly upgraded the brake pedal to a PerfectPedal hydraulic unit, and I maintain that at $300, it was worth every penny (they now cost $250). I went from G25 to G27 to DFGT steering wheels, each one being a slight upgrade (believe it or not, the DFGT is on par with the G27 and has some nicer buttons). Much of my DiRT Rally time was with the DFGT. I spent a lot of time using Logitech products. They never broke, and I was really happy with them.

For some reason, which I don’t recall exactly, I decided to plunk down $500 for a Thrustmaster TS-PC Racer. I went back and re-read my review at the time and here were the 3 important take-aways:

  1. Logitech is a great place to start
  2. TS-PC Racer offers more feel
  3. I was immediately a little faster with the TS-PC Racer

This week, I hooked up my old DFGT to a set of G25 pedals with an AP Electrix load cell brake pedal. The AP isn’t sold anymore. It’s not as good as the PerfectPedal, having much less range of motion and precision, but it’s better than a spring on a potentiometer. The whole setup is pretty similar to what I used a couple years ago, and I was feeling a little nostalgic to give the old rig a whirl.

So I loaded up Assetto Corsa and here’s the shocking thing I found: I can’t drive it for shit. I can’t sense or catch oversteer at all. I can drive a few fast laps by driving from memory, but I can’t feel the track, and I end up spinning. I hardly ever spin with the TS-PC Racer. I’ve looked at online guides and messed around with various force feedback (FFB) settings, but I can’t get it to feel good. I want to turn up the FFB gain, but that causes clipping, and a total loss of feel.

I thought maybe it’s a problem with Assetto Corsa, so I loaded up rFactor 2 and DiRT Rally. The DFGT works a little better in rFactor 2. I can definitely feel slides better, but it’s like I’m driving with welding gloves on. The same is true of DiRT Rally. I kept asking myself how I drove like this. The Thrustmaster TS-PC Racer isn’t a small upgrade, it’s a huge one. A Logitech wheel will teach you how to be smooth. In fact, it will punish you badly if you aren’t smooth. But it doesn’t let you drive the ragged edge the way the Thrustmaster does. Give me 100 laps with the Logitech and I’ll be able to put one of those within 0.1 sec of the Thrustmaster top lap. But those 100 laps will feature a lot of frustration and spinning. Furthermore, I’ll be driving more by wrote rather than feel, and ultimately, that’s not what training is for.

Update #1: ORP Experiment

YSAR reader Eric asked me to try the Skip Barber at Oregon Raceway Park. I don’t know ORP very well, and hadn’t driven it in some time, so it took a few familiarization laps to get reacquainted. After 12 laps I had posted a 2:03.6 on my Thrustmaster rig. No crashes, no spins. Then I switched to the Logitech rig. I had to be really careful with the throttle pedal because it’s hard to catch oversteer with the Logitech, but knowing that, I changed my driving style. After 15 laps, the best I did was 2:04.4. My last lap was a real burner, and I was a half second ahead when I crashed out. I would guess that I went off course on about half of the laps, and most of those were the early ones.

Eric also asked me to post my difficultly/assist settings. That’s easy because everything is always off. The only time I use any assist is when the car came with ABS from the factory. But my favorite sim cars are all pre-ABS models, so it’s rare that I tick the ABS box.

BTW, ORP is only available in rFactor 2, so this was all conducted there. rFactor 2 plays much better with Logitech than Assetto Corsa.

Update #2: Tiernan Experiment

Let’s see what Tiernan has to say. I think Tiernan’s claim to fame may be that he’s driven more exotic cars than almost anyone on the planet. All at parking lots speeds however. You see, he is hired annually as the official car mover by some famous auction or other. Of course, none of that matters here. What’s important is that (a) he’s a sim racing noob (2) he generally knows cars.

I first set Tiernan up with Assetto Corsa at Laguna Seca in the Chevy Monza in the Thrustmaster rig. After running enough laps to run out of fuel, he switched over to the DFGT rig. At which point he threw up his hands and declared that it was total shit. No feel at all. He did get within a couple seconds of his Thrustmaster time, but he was crashing all over the place. He was pretty frustrated and not enjoying it.

Then I switched the software to rFactor 2 and he perked up an said “this is totally fine”. While he didn’t try rFactor 2 on the Thrustmaster rig, I’m sure he would have liked that even better. But the main point is that Logitech FFB is basically broken on Assetto Corsa.

We’re in the process of building him a sim rig, and the question is this: buy a Thrustmaster T300 RS GT ($300) and play anything or inherit the DFGT (free) and avoid Assetto Corsa? Only he can answer that question.

Conclusions

I still think Logitech products are an excellent place to start with sim racing, but if you’re serious about training, you will be better served with a higher-end steering wheel. I have used Fanatec and direct drive wheels, and they don’t feel much different from Thrustmaster. But who knows, maybe if I used a direct drive for a couple years I could never go back to a belt drive like the TS-PC. I really love my TS-PC and while $500 seems like a lot for a steering wheel, it’s cheaper than real racing stuff.

What about iRacing?

If you noticed above, I didn’t report on iRacing. I had an iRacing subscription for several years, but I recently let it expire. Before I say why, let me say a few good things about iRacing.

  • Everyone should try iRacing for a few months minimum. There are some experiences there that are hard to get elsewhere.
  • iRacing has incredibly useful forums. Whether you want advice on software, hardware, or driving, there is a huge community of helpful people. Unlike most forums, there isn’t much flaming. Possibly this is because iRacing requires you to sign up with your real name. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. This community is really great.
  • The Rookie ranks are worth the price of admission. Whether it’s a 10 car pileup in Turn 1 or getting crashed out by a backmarker on the final lap, the Rookie experience is a no holds barred crash-fest. How can this possibly be a good thing? Because you learn to recognize idiotic drivers and dangerous situations. I think one of the reasons I’ve never had a black flag in a Lemons/Chump/Lucky race is partly because of the iRacing Rookie experience.
  • Lots of iRacers use the iSpeed application to record their fast times and compare telemetry traces. While the application isn’t as full featured as MoTec i2 or AiM RSA, for example, it’s good enough. And the real gold is having access to everyone else’s traces. Oddly, this may be the single best reason to use iRacing, and if you’re an iRacer who isn’t using iSpeed, well you suck at training.
  • In addition to the official race series, you can also find custom races or private leagues. Both Lucky Dog Racing League and ChampCar Endurance Series run private leagues. Some leagues require membership, but I think the LD and CC leagues let anyone race at any time. It’s a lot easier to run a league from iRacing than setting up a private Assetto Corsa server.
  • iRacing has a great collection of high quality tracks and cars you won’t find elsewhere.

So if I’m such an iRacing fanboy, why did I let my membership expire?

  • I wasn’t using it very often. It doesn’t make sense to pay $10 or whatever per month for software I’m not actually using.
  • I don’t really like wheel to wheel racing very much. I like perfecting my craft more than beating the other guy. That said, iRacing does have a time trial system. But it’s not a big enough selling point to keep me subscribed.
  • The cars aren’t crappy or vintage enough. Where are the NA Miatas, E30s, and Civics?
  • The FWD selection is tiny and uninteresting.
  • The force feedback isn’t on par with rFactor 2 or Assetto Corsa (with a Thrustmaster wheel, Logitech may be about the same).

If you’re having a great time in iRacing, keep on doing it. There are lots of reasons why it’s the most popular racing sim. But if you get curious, have a look at Assetto Corsa, Automobilista, DiRT Rally, Project CARS, RaceRoom Racing Experience, and rFactor 2. Each has something interesting to offer.

Shootout: SBF2000 @ LRP

The most famous racecar driving program in the world is probably the The Skip Barber School. In 1975 they started training drivers in Formula Ford style cars which later became codified as the Skip Barber Formula 2000 (aka SBF2000 or “Skippy”). The cars are not very powerful, have hard tires, and minimal aero. This makes them excellent training cars that provide a direct interface between the driver, car, and track. Although the Skip Barber School operated out of several locations, it originated at Lime Rock Park, and the combination of the SBF2000 and Lime Rock Park is an absolute classic for driver education. What’s true in the real world is often true in the sim world, and one of the best ways to develop your sim racing skills is in the Skippy at LRP.

There are several simulators that offer this combination, including my favorite hardcore trio of Assetto Corsa, iRacing, and rFactor 2. Let’s take a quick look at each package as a virtual trainer.

Assetto Corsa

Pros

  • Available on Steam for $20 or as little as $5 when it goes on sale
  • Official DLC (downloadable content) is cheap
  • Huge amount of community-created DLC cars and tracks, most of which are free
  • Supports Race Studio Analysis, Track Attack, MoTec i2, and others for telemetry analysis
  • The Russell Alexis Formula Ford Mk 14 is an even better model than the Skip Barber F2000 (I think)
  • You can modify the grip level of the track to simulate rain, for example

Cons

  • Community-built DLC is highly variable in quality (Lime Rock is good)
  • There is no way to automatically keep your DLC up to date, so you’ll have to manually search for updates

iRacing

Pros

  • Both the Skippy and Lime Rock were just updated in December 2019
  • All tracks are laser scanned
  • Best match-making if you want competitive racing
  • Supports MoTec i2, Track Attack, iSpeed, and more for telemetry analysis
  • iSpeed has a huge database of telemetry data, which is useful for comparing your laps to others

Cons

  • Costs $12 for each additional car and track
  • Costs $12 per month
  • The SB model has way too much grip

rFactor 2

Pros

  • Available on Steam for $32 and much less when it goes on sale
  • Growing amount of community DLC that is easily installed and kept up to date in the Steam Workshop
  • Supports MoTec i2 for telemetry analysis
  • SBF2000 model is the best model of any car in any game

Cons

  • Some good DLC is not in the Steam Workshop
  • Not as many cars and tracks as Assetto Corsa
  • Least popular for online racing

Comparing the SB2000s

If I’m going to sit down for a serious sim training session, my first thought is rFactor 2. The Skippy feels perfect. Every input has an effect on the handling no matter how subtle. I wish every car in every sim had this feel, but they don’t. Some cars are totally broken. Some sims are totally broken. The rF2 Skippy is the best that sim racing has to offer.

The Assetto Corsa Skippy isn’t quite as wonderful as the one in rF2, but it’s still pretty good. However, my favorite trainer in AC is actually the Russell Alexis Mk 14 Formula Ford. It’s a free download, but you can PayPal the author to say thanks (I gave him $10).

I was really excited when I heard that both the Skippy and Lime Rock would be updated in the latest build of iRacing. That excitement didn’t last long. iRacing force feedback offers very little feel compared to AC and rF2. Also, the car grips way too much and there isn’t a way to turn that down far enough to make the car a good trainer. Overall, it’s a real disappointment, and I can’t recommend it.

iRacing vs. others

The most popular driving game is Grand Theft Auto V. The number of people tuned into that is greater than all other platforms combined (I’m using Twitch statistics for the last 180 days). To be fair, GT5 isn’t really a driving game. I don’t think anyone buys wheel, pedals, and shifter to play GTA5. But the number of average viewers, 73,267, is an indication of how popular driving content (ish) can be.

The next most popular game, Rocket League, is soccer played with cars. But the cars don’t really move like cars. They drive up walls, spin and flip in the air, and generally behave like superheroes. It looks like fun. Not like driving, but it looks like it takes a mixture of skill and teamwork. It’s roughly 1/10th as popular as GTA5, but 6,485 average viewers is pretty amazing.

iRacing is the most popular simulation title, and its popularity is climbing consistently. The yearly numbers from 2016 to 2019 are 141, 167, 299, 642, and if you focus on the last 180 days, 732. That’s great, but still only 1% of the viewership compared to GTA5.

Weirdly, Euro Truck Simulator (726) and American Truck Simulator (199) are some of the more popular simulation titles. Apparently it’s more engaging to watch someone navigate city streets than race tracks.

F1 2019 is doing surprisingly well with 415 average viewers. F1 is the most watched motorsport in the real world, so it stands to reason that it would be popular in the gaming world. I’ve never tried F1 2019 or its predecessors. When I buckle into my virtual harness, I like to drive cars I might drive in real life, and have those cars behave authentically. I can’t imagine driving an F1 car in real life, and if I did so in simulation, I wouldn’t have any idea how authentic it was.

It’s surprising how poorly some of the iRacing direct competitors are faring. Assetto Corsa Competizione was designed to be an iRacing killer. ACC is the official Blancpain GT simulator. That license used to belong to iRacing and the GT3 cars were the most popular on iRacing. Somehow ACC got the rights instead, and their competitive esport version of the series has only 42 average viewers. Near the same popularity, 58, is Gran Turismo Sport, another esport attempt that hasn’t proved popular. Other mild failures include Project CARS 2 (48) and DiRT Rally 2 (36), two titles whose sequels were arguably not better than their originals.

At the moment, my 3 favorite platforms are rFactor 2, Assetto Corsa, and DiRT Rally, in that order. I’ll post soon about why rFactor 2 has overtaken Assetto Corsa. But rFactor 2 and DiRT Rally have miserable viewership: 10 each. What’s worse, I’m really looking forward to Automobilista 2, due out in Spring 2020. The original Automobilista has zero viewers, and I don’t imagine the sequel will have a huge impact either.

Why is iRacing winning the relatively small esports racing market? I think there are four main reasons.

  1. It’s the most popular platform. New players will be attracted to the game with the most players.
  2. It’s good enough. Among hardcore sim racers, iRacing isn’t considered to have the best physics. The tire model, in particular is often criticized. However, all the tracks are laser-scanned, and the feel of the game is pretty good.
  3. They have the best racing support. Whether you’re racing in official series or building a custom race of your own, iRacing makes it easy to get into a race, or manage one.
  4. The iRacing community forums are very helpful and a great resource for the improving sim racer. Perhaps the requirement for using your real name reduces some of the toxicity rampant in other esports.

So why isn’t iRacing my favorite title? Because esports racing isn’t my #1 priority when it comes to virtual driving.

The Numbers

  • 73,267 Grand Theft Auto V
  • 6,485 Rocket League
  • 1,344 TrackMania2 Stadium
  • 732 iRacing
  • 726 Euro Truck Simulator
  • 415 F1 2019
  • 302 Forza Horizon 4
  • 199 American Truck Simulator
  • 58 Gran Turismo Sport
  • 51 Assetto Corsa
  • 48 Project CARS 2
  • 42 Assetto Corsa Competizione
  • 36 DiRT Rally 2
  • 10 rFactor 2
  • 10 DiRT Rally
  • 0 Automobilista

Simulator roundup 2017

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.

Evaluation

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.

rFactor

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.

rf1-173

iRacing

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.

ir-85

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.

rf2-58

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.

r3e-60

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.

ac-65

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.

pcars-49

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.

dirt

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.

ams-116

Initial Conclusions

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.