Last summer, I went to the Silverstone racetrack in the British countryside, where Mercedes-AMG had taken over the circuit to shuffle journalists through actual race cars, driven by actual race car drivers. There, I rode in one of Mercedes-AMG's GT3 cars piloted by championship driver Adam Christodoulou, who used the 6.2-liter V-8 and its 550 horsepower to rearrange my innards and bounce my (helmeted) head against the roll cage.
I immediately wanted more. And I wanted to drive.
The best way to make a little money in racing, as the adage goes, is to start with a lot. It’s an extremely costly sport, and a blindingly expensive hobby. Participation in a “budget” spec-series, such as the Mazda MX-5 Cup, can set you back more than $200,000 for 12 races. Even track-spec rental cars start in the hundreds of dollars per day, and leap into the thousands for anything halfway decent.
So what’s an aspiring hot shoe to do that won’t drain a bank account? Get a racing sim and go iRacing.
To be upfront, a solid racing simulator isn’t exactly cheap, either. I tested two loaned setups, with the less expensive option ringing the register at $3,297 and the costlier iteration clocking in around $4,546. (To boot, neither of those sums include tax and shipping.) But while the basic foundational considerations for your setup are generally universal, you can absolutely spend less.
First, you’ll need a sturdy chassis upon which to bolt the seat, wheel, and pedal components. Next Level Racing’s F-GT cockpit ($499) is beyond capable: the carbon steel frame allows you to adjust the seat from a dropped, formula-style position to a raised GT-style one; and the mounts for the pedals and wheel are infinitely adjustable to accommodate drivers of any height — even my lanky 6’2” frame — and are pre-drilled so you can easily bolt on Thrustmaster, Logitech, Fanatec, or Simexperience wheels and pedals. Most importantly, it’s comfortable for long stints. Next Level also makes the F-GT Lite ($299), a smaller version that neatly folds up to save on space.
Next, the wheel and pedals. “The most important things with the sim are the controls,” said Kris Wilson, a professional IMSA and SRO driver. “You have to have the things that make it feel like a real race car. That might not be important to gamers, since they’re used to controllers, but it’s important to real drivers.”
Wilson uses a Fanatec wheel (which starts at $299 and goes up to $649) which uses a direct drive feedback mounting base (those can run you anywhere from $349 to $1,499, though some bundle options exist). That direct-drive motor does afford the best sensation, valuable to a pro — though perhaps overkill for a noob like myself, so I opted for a Thrustmaster TX Leather Edition wheel and pedal set ($470). I’ve not had any issues with it in the cumulative days I’ve spent using it.
When it comes to a monitor, the only basic requirement is a refresh rate of 144 Hz, so that everything is synced up. If you’re banging down the Mulsanne Straight at Le Mans and your monitor is lagging, by the time it catches up, you can easily miss your brake point and careen into the run-off wall. Not great, Bob.
I tested an 49-inch super ultra-wide HDR gaming monitor — specifically the Asus ROG Strix XG49VQ ($900). The graphics are beyond crisp, and I’ve never had any latency issues. I cannot emphasize how much I love this monitor. I never want a flat, normal-sized monitor again.
All of this gadgetry will seamlessly work with an Xbox One, should you want to play Forza Motorsport 7. One of the last tracks that I drove in real life was Miami’s Homestead International in a Ferrari 488 GTB, so I loaded that very car onto that very track in Forza and was tickled by how similar the virtual experience was; the car's rear would step out under early throttle application in the game as in real life, and I used the same advice I received from a Ferrari instructor to negotiate the hairpin that is Turn 8: blink one more time before starting your turn-in.
But the real challenge is iRacing — and for these big leagues, you’ll need a PC tower. The basic system requirements are Windows OS, a solid processing chip, and a top-notch graphics processor. iRacing explicitly notes that, at a minimum, you need an Intel Core i5-4430 or the AMD FX-6300 for the CPU and a graphics processor that has at least 2GB of dedicated memory, name-checking the Nvidia GeForce GTX 660 or the ATI Radeon HD 7850.
I tested two tower options: the Maingear Vybe Stage 4 Boosted ($2,649) and the Asus ROG Strix GA15DH ($1,407). Both systems are more than adequate by iRacing’s spec criteria. That said, iRacing slots the Asus ROG as a mid-range system, while the Maingear Vybe is classified as a high-end one. The difference is allegedly in the details like dirt and shading, but both systems can handle all types of sessions, on all tracks, with the graphics set to high.
Maingear is a mainstay in the gaming community, and the hardware is accordingly bulletproof. It’s a handsome tower that'll dutifully (and speedily) handle whatever you can throw at it. Asus’s Republic of Gamers (ROG) line recently partnered with SRO Motorsports America to be the official hardware sponsor of GT Rivals, a weekly e-sports invitational where real-world racers, sim racers, and invited guests go head-to-head in GT World Challenge, playing via Assetto Corsa Competizione software, a competitor of iRacing.
While I understand that the Maingear Vybe utilizes the newer, pricier, and superior components, to be completely honest, I couldn’t really tell any difference between the two when it came to the racing; both delivered a flawless experience, in terms of processing performance and graphics. Given the imperceptibility, I’d say go for the Asus, only because it’s more affordable.
I spend the most of my iRacing time behind the wheel of a Mazda MX-5 Cup car, for two reasons: a) because that’s the series that is open to rookies like me, and b) because it’s better to learn to go fast in a slow car than in a fast one, even virtually. I heeded the advice of some of the pro drivers I've spoken to, including to wear an actual helmet because it'll force your eyes up. And I took a page from real-life Mercedes driver Dylan Murry, an 18-year-old who competes in a GT4.
“I use iRacing mostly to prepare me for the world that I have not been able to race in yet in real life,” Murry says. “One of them is the Mercedes-AMG GT3. I haven’t had the opportunity to drive that in real life yet, but iRacing is allowing me to get comfortable in it before I actually drive it.”
Unlike Murry, I won’t get to ever get to drive an actual AMG GT3, but I did buy one in the game (and festoon it in a loud teal and purple livery) and promptly took it to Silverstone. The iRacing experience was a spot-on replication of my time there last summer. From the deliciously deafening engine note to the satisfying chunk and vibration of the gearbox translated by the Thrustmaster wheel, it feels as real as it can without actual torque sensations. I’m nowhere near as quick as Christodoulou was...but my times are getting better the more laps I turn.
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