If you missed part one of Craig Lager's two-part guide to getting going in proper racing games, that's here. Now read on for the final part, covering advanced techniques, what high-end kit to pick up and which games will best make you wheely good.
Everyone will tell you that the most important thing with racing is consistency. One really fast lap is nothing compared to being able to do 15 fast laps in a row. You need to do some long races. Pick a circuit you know, set the lap count high and go. If you have it, F1 is perfect for this because you can turn all the assists off, set up a 100% race length race and drive for 80 or so minutes with a few flashbacks in the bank in case you mess everything up on the last couple of laps. When you’re done and happy, it’s time to think about wheels again because we’re heading in to all-out sim territory.
If you bought the Logitech GT or something of equal standard, you probably don’t need to worry. If you bought something cheap and cheerful, you should probably worry. The thing is, with sims you need as much feedback and input precision as you can get, and cheap wheels just don’t provide enough of either. If you’re happy to spend the money (around £230), the Logitech G27 is excellent - it comes with a stitched leather wheel, metal pedals with hydraulics behind to give them weight, metal flappy paddle gears, a H-shift gear selector (like what you find in normal cars), lots of buttons and really good force feedback. It’s the one I use, it’s the one lots and lots of people use, I can’t recommend it enough. Again though, Thrustmaster offer some good wheels in the same price range and a bit cheaper, so it’s worth you looking around if you’re really not sure.
At the moment you have 2 main choices in popular racing sims: iRacing and rFactor 2. The difference between these and the other games mentioned above is, mainly, accessibility and realism - as in, they are both not very accessible but are very realistic. Driving aids do not exist (well, iRacing allows a racing line guide if you’re practicing solo and both will allow you to use an auto clutch and emulate “heel and toe” shifting), there are no flashbacks if you mess up and they have strict track rules. But, it’s fine - it’s just videogames.
rFactor 2 is in open beta at the moment, so there’s no point buying the original now. It costs normal game price (even for the beta), and it’s accurate with its cars along with having a thriving community. At the moment you can only drive 60’s Grand Prix cars, a Megane Touring car and a Formula Williams (a notch below Formula 3), and there are only five tracks available, but judging by the range available to rFactor 1 - there’s a lot more to come. The main draw is that you can race against AI and it has mod support integrated from the ground up (which iRacing has neither at all).
The problem with rFactor 2 though - and this will bother some people considerably less than it bothers me - is that it’s a comparatively ugly package. It looks dated even though it’s brand new, and this extends into the menu systems which are often clunky and abstract. This could be massively improved though before hitting final release, so it’s very much worth taking a look at.
iRacing, on the other hand, is incredibly expensive. There’s a membership fee of around £8 per month which gets you access to 6 cars (2 of which are different specs of Mazda MX5) and 9 tracks. There are extra cars and tracks available, but they cost just over £10 each as one off payments. So, yes, it is very expensive.
Annoyingly, it’s also really good. While still not as pretty as Grid or Shift, and while it’s not got mod support or AI drivers, or even any weather systems other than sunny - I prefer it to rFactor, mostly because it feels slicker with a really nice web interface, and the option to be able to join in a casual (relatively) practice session at any point. Also, the driving school I’ve been going on about all article is a prime example to how much dedication these guys put in to not just shoving you into a car and telling you to get on with it - but to helping you be a better, faster driver.
During and after each session you can get detailed information on your times and watch replays of individual laps. You can join those multiplayer practice sessions I mentioned (which are just people doing laps of a track without being in direct competition), then enter “official” (ranked) races which awards you a safety rating - something which you need to improve to be allowed to enter higher tiered races (it basically stops people messing around and spoiling other peoples fun). There are official competitions - often with actual prizes - and the wheel set up is really easy and slick - it’s a really nice package. But, again, expensive.
After you’ve picked a game and you’re all set up, take a car out and see how everything feels. If you went with iRacing, take the Skip Barber around Lime Rock Park; if you went with rFactor, take the Formula Renault around Portugal. You are going to crash - a lot, but don’t worry. It’s just the same as when you started taking the assists off the other games, it’s fine. You need to just keep going and going and going. Lap after lap after lap, and I only have one piece of advice left.
It’s a piece of advice so important that I’ve started a new paragraph, yes. I read it a while ago on a forum as part of a longer post. It’s been reproduced here, but this is the essential part: “Driving balls to the wall is not the way to go if you’re new. I repeat: driving balls to the wall is not the way to go. What else? driving balls to the wall is not the way to go.
I hope you understood by now that driving balls to the wall is not the way to go? You should have, because driving balls to the wall is not the way to go.”. If you missed the message: do not drive balls to the wall. You have to go steady and gradually build up speed - doing anything else will frustrate you to the point of rage quitting - I know, I’ve done it plenty of times.
And that’s it. You are now doing racing sims. You are driving virtual cars as close to real cars as you can. Hopefully, you feel rewarded - you feel like your eyes have been opened and now mastering a new track or car is it’s own super satisfying learning curve. I genuinely hope to see some of you on the track, because this is one of the things that the PC does best.
The Extra Mile
Ok, a couple more things.
“Craig”, you are saying “I really like playing all these rad games you’ve mentioned and boy this steering wheel is lovely, but I have all this damn money to spend - what should I do”? Well, Sir or Madam, with this being PC gaming there are lots of exciting things you can spend your money on and while you absolutely don’t need any of these things, you will probably want them.
Your first port of call should be upgrading that wheel if you’re not on something like the G27. Something with a clutch and a H-shift gear shift will give you new things to play with and take you a step closer to realism. Even if you do have an already-expensive wheel you can splash out on a really-expensivewheel (which I wouldn’t, really) or invest in some better pedals which are based on pressure rather than travel distance (which is all best explained here).
Next, I’d look at getting a TrackIr unit. It’s a little webcam type thing that sits on top of your monitor, along with a thing that clips on to your headset, and it’s dedicated to tracking your head movement. It’s compatible with all the games I’ve mentioned in this article, it’s incredibly easy to set up, and it really works. It’s not cheap at £110 or so, but honestly, I don’t think I’d want to be without mine now. Being able to quickly check where another cars position is, or to better see an apex as you round a corner is excellent.
More screen real estate is never a bad thing either and most games (iRacing and rFactor definitely) are happy to work with multiple monitors. 3 monitors works the best (you don’t want a split down the middle of the view so I’d take 1 or 3 over 2 or 6), and you can even set it up to work in 3D which I’ve had the pleasure to try once and it was excellent.
Other than these things, you’re looking at racing chairs which will get you in a great posture for racing, (but who has the space?), or even custom chairs with powered hydraulics that will physically throw you around, which are great, but they cost thousands. Or, you know, you could always just buyaracecar but beware that if you do this then you are ethically obliged to invite me to your house so I can have a go. Ok? Cool.
And now I really am done. Phew. Let us know how you get on - and if you have any further recommendations in terms of games or hardware, then I’d love to hear them in the comments.