Monday, 3 November 2014

iRacing: All the gear and no idea!

I love motorsport, it's about the only sport that really interests me to be honest. I follow the misfortunes of my local football club Brighton & Hove Albion, but I'm not a true fan of football. I also play a little bit of Snooker (badly). But I'm not a sporty person at all.

I love my cars though, and I love to watch a race! There's something about the control the drivers have over their machines that fascinates me. I've been a fan of Formula 1 for more years than I can remember. I make regular visits to my local-ish circuit Brands Hatch to watch various races from the now defunct A1-GP, the BTCC, the legends series and most recently truck racing! I also love going to Goodwood for the Revival and Festival of Speed.

It's fair to say I have more than a passing interest in the sport, though I would never think I could actually get in a car and survive even one lap without killing myself! That's where my other love comes in to it, video games...

I've played racing games for as long as they've been around, from arcade classics like Outrun to home console revelations such as Virtua Racing and Gran Turismo. On the whole though, I've been a PC gamer for the most part. I remember starting out with "Grand Prix Circuit" which ran in MS-DOS and moved on to other classic racing games like Geoff Crammond's Grand Prix 2. More recently I've enjoyed the new Dirt rally and F1 games from Codemasters, the Forza games and Assetto Corsa.

To enhance my enjoyment I've used various racing wheels over the years. I started with the old MS sidewinder FF wheel and when the 360 came along I picked up the official wheel for that too. I've also had the slightly less spectacular Nintendo Wii "wheel" accessory for the Wiimote, the less said about that the better!

The MS sidewinder FF wheel was great in its day, but the cheep plastic pedals and lack of a clutch and gear stick left me wanting more. So a few months ago I splashed out and treated myself to a slightly more high-end offering. I bought a Thrustmaster T500RS with pedals and the TH8RS gear stick to accompany it. This wasn't cheap, but having researched the alternatives, namely the Logitech G27 and Fanatec Clubsport range. I decided that in terms of bang for the buck, the Thrustmaster was the only option.

The G27 seems to be a good entry level option, it has the wheel, pedals and gear stick all included and can be picked up for around £250. I'm sure if I'd bought it I'd have been happy enough, but one of the things that put me off my old MS Sidewinder was the size of the wheel. It was much smaller than a real steering wheel and the G27 was similar. It is also almost entirely made from plastic and has a gear driven force feedback system. Reviews suggested it was rather weak as a result.

The Fanatec is supposedly the holy grail of wheels, I'd have one of those every day if money was no object, but the reality is that money very much is the object that stops me getting one of these. The wheel base alone (no actual wheel with that, you buy it seperatly) is £450, the wheels start from £140. Then add on the cost of the pedals (£200) and the gear stick (£150), suddenly I'm looking at spending the best part of £1,000 on a wheel! HAHAHAHAHAHA... If I win the lottery I'll have one, but until then....

So, the T500RS from Thrustmaster was the choice for me, a £350 investment plus an extra £100 for the gear shifter. Less than half the price of the Rolls Royce listed above. It's a thing of beauty too, the wheel is big, the pedals have a fantastic build quality and feel superb. The feedback through the massive motor and belt is enough to rip the wheel from your hands when you have a big crash. It transforms the experience in ways you can only imagine until you've tried it.

Being able to feather the throttle with your right foot, or apply just a small amount of brake to nose in to a corner just can't be replicated with a controller. The feedback you get from the wheel gives you so much information, you can feel the cars grip!

After using the wheel for a while I wanted to take my virtual racing to the next level. I'd heard a lot about iRacing which sort of a bit like an MMORPG for racing. It's expensive, but then what MMORPG isn't? Fortunately I signed up during a half price sale and went for the full 2 years to maximise my savings. It's a big commitment given that I'd never played the game before!

The thing with iRacing is that it's a racing simulation, there's nothing arcade about it. This is all about real tracks, real vehicles and the most accurate physics you'll find! The graphics aren't the greatest, but frame rate is king here and they are more that adequate (I think it looks very nice). The people who play it take it very seriously too, each player has their own license with points attached. Your license level is what dictates which races and vehicles you can access. At the entry level (Rookie) you only have a couple of cars and tracks to choose from.

This seems harsh at first, but it's actually a good thing, as it forces you to get good with the limited access you have. Master the entry level Mazda MX-5 and Summit Point Raceway, then you can improve your safety rating and open up more of the game ... sorry, SIMULATION!

Having grown up playing lots of racing games, I thought I knew a thing or two about racing. Turns out I was wrong, as most rookies, I went into my first race not really knowing what to expect and not having practised enough. I went off the track a lot and got into a couple of crashes, that was my race over and my safety rating took a hammering.

It's all about your Safety Rating in iRacing and it's a brilliant idea. It's what allows you to "level-up". Stay out of trouble and have a clean race and your rating improves, but just going off the track will lead to a penalty. As will losing control and colliding with other cars, it forces you to race properly. You can't just floor it off the line and pile up in the first corner, you won't get anywhere doing that. It still happens at the Rookie level, but beyond that the players... sorry DRIVERS, take things a lot more seriously. You can't afford to crash for fear of losing your licence.

The key to success is practise, practise, practise. You can make as many mistakes as you like in practise sessions, it's only qualifying and racing that will actually effect your rating. So you have to pump in lap, after lap, after lap learning the braking points, turn in points, improving your speed but most importantly improving your consistency! You need to be able to do around 20 laps and not spin off or lose control, keep the wheels of your car between the white lines at all times before you contemplate actually racing. I learnt that the hard way and I'm still stuck in the Rookie class :-( I'm getting better though.

The game looks amazing on my system, I've added a picture of my setup just to show off a little bit. I'd actually love to get myself a racing cockpit for it all, but I just don't have the space for that, and my PC has to do more than just play racing games. Again, if I win the lottery I'll be picking one up just as soon as I can. I've also been tempted to buy some racing shoes, it's tough to do a full race with the pedals while wearing socks. I've tried using slippers but they just don't work

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