The motorsport superstars turning to sim racing.

17 June 2020

Until motor racing is back in earnest, drivers have been keeping their skills sharp through simulated racing.  


The motorsport superstars turning to sim racing.

17 June 2020

Until motor racing is back in earnest, drivers have been keeping their skills sharp through simulated racing.  

A virtual Mercedes-AMG GT3

Mercedes-Benz and Bosch have teamed up to pilot test fully autonomous vehicles in San José. Image: Supplied.

Professional drivers, big name teams and lucrative prize money – the world of eSports has become a serious competition. While computer games were once just a fun hobby, they’re now big business, with thousands of talented drivers racing on virtual racetracks around the world every week.

And as they wait for motor racing to resume around the world, real-life superstars such as Valtteri Bottas have turned to sim racing to hone their skills. Several major categories around the world have launched virtual championships during lockdown, including Formula 1 and Formula E, to help keep fans entertained and drivers’ competitive instincts sharp.

What is sim racing?

If you’re unfamiliar with computer simulators or haven’t tried one since playing Daytona USA at the local arcade, these games have come a long way. In fact, calling them games isn’t the done thing anymore, because they are now highly detailed in every respect.

The virtual cars are specially programmed to be as realistic as possible. They don’t just look and sound the same, every detail down to how the tyre reacts to the changing road surfaces is simulated. Then there are the tracks, which are laser-scanned to ensure every bump is translated into the digital world.

There are several popular titles to choose from. While PlayStation’s Gran Turismo series or Xbox’s Forza titles are popular, they are considered more ‘arcade-style’ games that are designed for fun rather than genuine simulated driving. For something more realistic, titles such as iRacing, Assetto Corsa Competizione and rFactor 2 are known for mimicking the real cars and circuits. In particular iRacing, which is an online subscription-based service that allows players to virtually race rivals around the world, has become a great training tool for professionals because of how accurately it reflects real life.\

And while rFactor 2 isn’t as popular or well-known as iRacing, it’s based on the same software used by professional teams in F1, Formula E and several other major racing categories to train their drivers.

The equipment used by each driver at home can vary dramatically. Some use units bought from a local electronics store for a few hundred dollars, and others race with custom-built sim racing rigs valued at more than $25,000.

The level of realism varies according to the complexity of the set-up. A generic wheel might be made of plastic and provide only mild feedback to the driver, whereas the top-end systems can provide more resistance for accurate steering. Some of the Mercedes-AMG GT3 drivers are using the same wheel as the AMG GT3 race car.

The drivers embracing simulated racing

GT driver Dirk Müller recently upgraded his home simulator and immediately noticed the difference.

“Compared to my previous version, the changes to my new gaming rig are considerable, so that it was almost like starting all over again for me,” Müller explains. “The update included monitors, the steering wheel, the pedals and a competition seat. Now I have a totally different perception of the virtual track. It’s becoming even more realistic and it allows for a better assessment of the conditions.”

Valtteri Bottas, Lewis Hamilton and teammate

Mercedes-AMG Petronas Formula One teammates Valtteri Bottas (left) and Lewis Hamilton (middle) have both delved into the world of sim racing. Image: Supplied.

Mercedes-AMG Petronas Formula One aces Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas have both been tuning up on their simulator rigs at home. World champion Hamilton is a global ambassador for PlayStation’s Gran Turismo Sport game and recently released a special package for players to compare their lap times at selected circuits.

Bottas took part in the official F1 Virtual Grand Prix Series, racing around the virtual streets of Monaco against some of his regular rivals including Charles Leclerc, Alexander Albon and George Russell. In fact, half of the drivers that regularly fill the F1 grid have taken part in at least one of the Virtual Grand Prix.

While these virtual races have become more prominent during this current period without actual races, the reality is eSports has been growing in importance for the past decade.

In 2018 Mercedes-AMG Petronas Motorsport started its own eSports teams, based at the Brackley factory with the F1 team so the drivers can help with the actual simulator that helps tune the outfit’s real cars. So some of the success Hamilton and Bottas have enjoyed in the real world is thanks to the hours spent pounding around virtual tracks.  

By Stephen Ottley