We compare how much it costs you to go racing in the real world versus just racing from your living room

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Every crisis presents itself with a number of hidden opportunities ready to be found by those keen enough to look for them. Sim racing was, and still is, one of those opportunities and every major racing series indulged in virtual racing as everything in the real world had to take a break.

You too can do it and do it at a respectable level without breaking the bank and here we’ll show you how much cheaper it really is than doing it for real.

Sim Racing is where it’s at right now

Dial the clock back to May of 2019 and imagine how it must’ve been like for the folks in charge of companies such as Fanatec, Racetech, Sim-Lab, and others that are in the business of building sim rigs, racing seats, wheels, pedals, and other paraphernalia needed for sim racers. Some of them are industry leaders and the equipment they make can be really expensive - think a few thousands of dollars just to have the seat, pedals, wheel, and ’chassis’ that holds everything together without taking into account monitors and the actual computer or console to run the sim.

It’s easy to see, then, that such companies weren’t really turning huge profits despite there being a healthy sim racing community that has seen steady growth over the past five or so years. Sure, it’s not as big as the MMORPG scene, you won’t see multi-million-dollar prizes for the best sim racers in the world but the scene is burgeoning, that much is true.

Having said that, when you're Racetech or Sim-Lab you're providing for a niche market and while the Forza or Gran Turismo series of racing games sell by the millions, most people buying them are just interested in a casual race against the AI or the odd unranked online tussle with some friends, few really have the time or the desire to take up sim racing and do it properly.

It all changed, however, in March of 2020 when just about the whole world went into forced lockdown in a bid to stop or at least contain the spread of a new virus that we still to this day don’t have a genuinely effective treatment plan for nor a vaccine. That meant hundreds of millions of people ended up stuck indoors with nothing much to do, including all of the professional drivers that are entertaining us every year on the world’s road courses, dirt tracks, street courses, and ovals.

The organizers of the now-frozen racing series had to find a way to get out of the stalemate situation and do it fast. Race teams and race organizers exist to go racing. That’s how they make money, that’s how the business stays afloat. If you’re not racing, if you’re not being seen on TV or wherever the race may be streamed, your sponsors will desert you and you won’t be able to pay the people you’ve employed.

While most racing drivers use simulators to prepare for real-life race weekends, few took sim racing seriously before the pandemic forced them to slide in their hastily purchased rigs and go online racing. It’s not to say that the top pro racers of the world don’t see the benefits of a top-end sim but, simply put, most of these guys just got in the simulator to test out certain things in between race meetings and didn’t have the time nor the desire to indulge in anything more at home.

A race team employs the sim as a means of testing a new setup or getting a new driver acclimatized with the car before he or she first goes out on track to shakedown the thing, or when the driver in question is new to a certain track. It speeds up the learning process and, because you can simulate just about anything in the virtual world, you basically save weeks of real-life testing while also ending up with meaningful data because the sims are realistic enough to teach you stuff you can apply in the real world.

But all of this testing is a bit like a boring day at the office. You hop into the sim and are told to drive around and test a new anti-roll bar setting or a new damper setting. It’s all very specific and the most you can hope for is a race simulation where you drive around on an empty track with the same setup you’re about to use at the forthcoming race to try and see where you are in terms of pace and consistency. But nobody slides in a racing team’s sim planning to race against other people. That is, after all, what they get paid to do in the real world.

With no real-world to go out to, the sim became the end all be all of the racing world.

Everybody turned to Assetto Corsa, iRacing (that gained some 5,000 new players since March 17th, rFactor 2, RaceRoom Experience and a number of other sims to run their seasons behind closed doors from the comfort of their homes. We ended up with a virtual NASCAR championship, a virtual IndyCar series in iRacing, as well as a number of officially-sanctioned F1 Grand Prixs online. The premise for all of the above is the same: get as many of the real racers as possible together on the grid and, if possible, have them do battle with established sim pilots that have been there and done that to see how they compare.

The lessons we learned were many

We’ll discuss more on the subject of how real racing compares to virtual racing in a different article but suffice to say that we’ve learned a whole lot. This impromptu experiment of moving all of the world’s key racing series from the real circuits to those re-created in what are, effectively, over-engineered games meant to simulate reality taught us that there’s no substitute for real racing. In spite of all the development work going on behind the scenes aimed at improving each and every aspect of these sims.

Historic racer and journalist Andrew Frankel said that watching virtual racing is akin to "watching someone drink alcohol-free beer."

While we’ll agree that the thrills you get from watching a race trackside and all of the excitement that derives from seeing the drivers and their wild machines in the flesh can’t be replicated in the confines of a computer’s processor and graphics card, we can’t say that sim racing is boring. The final iRacing IndyCar race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway was exciting as were many of the Race All-Stars events.

It’s also true that the cars don’t behave 100% as they would in the real world and this is especially true when you watch a crash unfold in a simulator as the physics of an accident aren’t quite ’there’ yet but just about everything else is realistically reproduced. Having said that, the pro guys that don’t have a background in sim racing found it hard to adapt to the sim and often had their backsides handed to them by the sim racers which was quite embarrassing but not unexpected. If the experiment was to be reversed, the sim racers too would need time to adjust to racing for real. But, after they understood what they had to do to be fast on the litany of platforms available (again something we’ll discuss more in-depth in a different article), they were there, on pace and battling with guys with years-worth of experience.

The biggest lesson boils down to costs

That racing’s become obscenely expensive at just about any level over the past three decades isn’t news for anyone. Life as a whole is more expensive for us than it was for our grandparents but it’s still impressive to see just how cheap it can be to get going in sim racing - especially after mentioning in the first part of this piece that sim rigs are really expensive.

That’s because you really don’t need range-topping equipment to get to grips with sim racing and get going. Sure, as you get faster and faster you’ll realize that you need to get more feel from the pedals or the wheel and that’s where stuff like hydraulic pedals or direct-drive steering wheels come in and those are expensive. But if you’re a rookie, you don’t need to spend too much at all to be able to start your iRacing or rFactor 2 journey.

For the purposes of this comparison, however, we’ll compare ACC with real GT3 racing to better underline just how big of a gap it is between sim racing and real racing. So, we’ll stick with the basics. You’ll need a wheel with pedals and a shifter. The best entry-level option is Logitech’s G29 (link to Amazon) that works with this shifter. The G29 can be plugged into your PC or your PS3 or PS4. If you use Xbox One, Logitech offers the G920. Shifter aside, Logitech’s dual-drive force feedback wheel will set you back just under $400. There’s also the option of going for Thrustmaster and its TMX PRO Racing wheel (Xbox One & PC compatible) which is just $200, again, without the shifter (the add-on Thrustmaster TH8A is almost as expensive as the wheel at $166, though). The Thrustmaster T150 is the version compatible with PS3 and PS4.

Let’s also assume you don’t have the budget for a rig but you don’t want to simply latch the wheel onto your desk either. Your best bet is one of Playseat’s entry-level options such as Playseat Challenge chair that also comes with a metal chassis to support the wheel. It costs about $250 and that’s because the seat is very basic - merely a padded piece of fabric with some side bolstering. For a proper seat, you’ll have to fork out $400 for the Playseat Evolution. All of the above don’t, however, accommodate any screens. GTR Simulator’s GTS-S-104 chassis is a good entry-level option if you also want to have a rig that supports at least one screen.

With all of that out of the way, you need to choose between Xbox, Playstation, and PC. Luckily, Assetto Corsa Competizione will soon be available for consoles too and either way, you’ll have to pay $45 to get it on Steam. While the consoles range between $340 and $370, building a PC that can run ACC, one of the most aesthetically-pleasing sims out there, is a bit more costly. The basic system requirements list reads as follows:

  • Requires a 64-bit processor and operating system
  • OS: Windows 7 64-bit Service Pack 1
  • Processor: Intel Core i5-4460 or AMD FX-8120
  • Memory: 4 GB RAM
  • Graphics: GeForce GTX 460 2GB, Radeon HD 7770
  • DirectX: Version 11
  • Storage: 50 GB available space
  • Sound Card: Integrated

For the sake of the argument, you won’t get off cheaper if you want to go the iRacing way (not to mention that besides iRacing initial purchase price of about $15, you’ll have to pay a $13 monthly subscription to keep playing it and it adds up over time).

With any system, you must look for the numbers related to the CPU, GPU, and RAM. An entry-level system would feature something like an Intel Core i5-9400F processor ($120) or an AMD Ryzen 3 3200G ($95), and an i9 9900k 5.0Ghz ($530) or AMD Ryzen 9 3900X 4.6Ghz ($420) towards the high-end side of things. You must then add to that a graphics card - anywhere between the $140 AMD Radeon RX 570 and Nvidia’s $180 GTX 1060 and the sky-high Nvidia RTX 2080Ti that is $1,400 alone. Gigabytes of RAM aren’t that expensive to pile on but, still, at the end of the day you’re looking at an expense in the region of $1,500 for an entry-level machine and as much as $7,000 for an ultra-fast machine able to run online games with dozens of competitors on high visual settings.

So, let’s add things up. ACC, as mentioned, is one of the more ’needy’ sims in that it eats your resources alive and if you also want to stream yourself gaming it’ll turn your computer to toast unless you spend some good money on really good parts. Let’s say, then, that you’ve spent at least $3,000 on the PC but you kept it plain and simple for everything else with a $400 wheel+pedals+shifter combo and a $500 rig chassis plus at least one 49" curved screen that’s about $860.

In all, you've spent under $5,000 and you're ready to go racing.

Now, there are many options you can pick from in the real world but even if you go for the cheapest national, grassroots-level racing series, you’ll still be spending tens of thousands of dollars a year to compete provided you don’t like Chumpcars but even that amounts to about $3,500 a weekend although you share the cost with your co-drivers.

If, however, we stick to our original comparison of Assetto Corsa Competizione vs. real GT3 racing, you can easily see that sim racing is the best value-for-money thing ever. Dailysportscar just this week began a series covering the costs of GT3 racing and it’s insane.

If you want to run your own team, you first need a car and something like an Audi R8 LMS GT3 Evo will set you back at least $450,000 {without} spares. End of the argument right then and there, don't you think?

So, buying a car is too much of a burden before even beginning to think about running costs, hiring mechanics, and all of that. The option is to buy a seat with an already existing team. For an entire season of European GT3 racing, you’re still looking at a $350,00 bill and that is if you don’t bin the car. IMSA’s GTD division (that’s open to GT3 machinery) is similarly expensive if not a bit more than the GT World Challenge Europe/America.

The takeaway here is simple: sure, virtual racing won’t give you the chills down your spine that you’d get from going (almost) flat out up Eau Rouge and through Raidillon in a Ferrari GT3 car but, at the same time, you don’t have to be the heir of one of the Waltons to afford to race from the comfort of your bedroom...

Michael Fira
Associate Editor and Motorsport Expert - fira@topspeed.com
Mihai Fira started out writing about long-distance racing like the famous 24 Hours of Le Mans. As the years went by, his area of interest grew wider and wider and he ever branched beyond the usual confines of an automotive writer. However, his heart is still close to anything car-related and he's most at home retelling the story of some long-since-forgotten moment from the history of auto racing. He'll also take time to explain why the cars of the '60s and '70s are more fascinating than anything on the road today.  Read More
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