So far, I've discussed HPDE (track days), Autocross and Rallycross as motorsport activities with a relatively low barrier to entry. You pretty much need a fully functioning car or the ability to scrounge up $600 to $1,000 to participate. They all have their virtues and issues and you know how I feel about each of them. There is one category of motor "sport" that is becoming so popular and so relevant that I'd have totally missed out, not to discuss it. That category is sim racing or e-racing as some call it.
This where it gets weird. Unlike any other video game... a good sim racing game can actually teach you good habits and skills that translate to better performance in the real world. But, is that enough to make it a real motorsport? I will absolutely answer that question, but first let's discuss the games that have informed my decision. And even before that, let's discuss the games that didn't even make it to the conversation.
Gran Turismo - Sorry, Sony fans. I have an Xbox and didn't feel the need to buy and set up a Playstation to write this blog. If you think leaving it out is a tragic mistake, please do say so in the comments.
iRacer - This sim is disqualified for my post because I'm speaking about the everyday driver. Everything I read, says that iRacer can feel like work or an obligation that one has to attend to for a long period of time. For me, that's not quite "everyday driver" friendly.
Forza - Forza is a game that seems to have very little consequence. Have a bad launch? No worries, you'll catch up. Have a crap set up? Not possible. Every mod and tweak you do to your car is right. Make a mistake? Rewind to the exact moment you should have initiated smooth, hard braking. And who needs those pesky apexes anyway. Now... that is not to poo poo on Forza's merits as entertainment. I own Forza Horizon 4 and I love to jump into one of the game's meticulously crafted and generous assortment of cars and just go for a cruise. One car I love to cruise in is the 1991 Volkswagen GTI. The interior brings be right back to the one I had in college. But motorsport, Forza clearly is not.
So who did made the cut?
Project Cars 2:
This is a game that ushers you through it as if you truly are an up and coming driver. The interaction is really quite motivating. Sponsors reward you for podium finishes. The chief engineer gives you pep talks and advice as you lap. An essential aspects of Project Cars 2 is proper vehicle set up and how it leads to success or failure on the track. The physics are really quite accurate and sensitive in this game. I always like to set my simulators to the realistic settings and remove everything but the most essential of assistance, like ABS. One of the negatives when I do this on Project Cars 2, however, is that the physics are really become quite sensitive. Contemplate nudging the wheel half a degree in the wrong spot on the track and Project Cars 2 will toss you into the gravel faster than a frightened child on a merri-go-round. This means I've literally spent hours adjusting my entire vehicle set up to make the car compliant enough to pilot to podium. Then, on the next track, it's time to adjust again. And we're talking more than just switching tires and adjusting down force. Toe-in, Camber, brake bias, anti roll bar stiffness and many more adjustments must come into play. As much as the realism is appreciated, sometimes it can feel a bit over the top. That said, I love this game's no-nonse approach to driver responsibility including the purposeful lack of rewind button. I'm sure if it wouldn't have made the game un playable, the Project Cars 2 team would have removed the restart button to and simply made you stack up DNFs. It does make you a bit of a better, more realistic driver. If real cars were quite this twitchy, though, none of us would make it to the grocery store alive. To be fair to Project Cars 2, perhaps I have a bad set up... call me.
In game Project Cars 2
Verdict. I love this game. You just have to be in the mood to bring your A+ game every time you fire it up.
Quite the opposite of Project Cars 2, the good people at Assetto Corsa really seemed not to care about anything you do outside of the act of driving. No voices or coaches to guide me through the game (though they may have it in Italian). The user interface is honestly terrible. Try as I may, I still don't know how to adjust my tire pressure, so I've gone without. It's as if they spent 5% of the budget getting the player into the driver's seat and the rest of the money making sure it was the best experience possible once they're there. While other adjustments seemed not to be usable at all, the seating position menu is absolute petrol head heaven. Up, down, left right tilt and my personal favorite, perspective, can all be adjusted in real time as if you are sitting in the cockpit and adjusting the seat in your favorite car. And the sound track (the engine noise, not the music) is spot on. Most sims engines come in slight variations of 3 or 4 flavors. Tiny I-4, V-6/I-6 mashup, Universal V-8, and supercar/race car mystery power plant. Not Assetto Corsa. Choose the Nissan 370Z and yes!... you get the screaming trombone. I love it. Best of all, while the physics in the game absolutely do matter, they feel a bit more fitting. It's not quite the rap your knuckles with a ruler for not transferring weight at the right time handling of Project Cars 2. I can actually recover from oversteer in this game and no, it doesn't feel faked. It feels like I just reacted how I would have in my real car and things work themselves out like in real life ...with enough talent and luck. In the sim world, I love nothing more than grabbing a front engined, rear wheel drive, manual transmissioned sports coupe and screaming around Spa De Francorships. The noise and the realistic driving really let your imagination place you in the driver's seat. Warm up the tires properly and you really find yourself in an enjoyable rhythm enjoy a symphony of combustion.
In game Assetto Corsa
Verdict: I wish there was a little more concierge service, but if there was only enough money or time to provide that excellent on track experience... I forgive you.
I couldn't finish out this series without mentioning a rally racing game and in my opinion, Dirt 4 does it best. If you recall, the physics in this game were so spot on that my day at Dirt Fish Rally school actually made me a much better Dirt 4 player. Unlike many other games that offer loose surface tracks, Dirt 4 doesn't just crank up the oversteer a little and call it a day. If you don't adhere to lift brake, turn or properly execute e brake or pendulum turns at the hairpins, the job doesn't get done. At least, not fast. Also, the amount of visual realism they bake into this game is staggering. The training ground for Dirt 4 is Dirth Fish rally school. From the school house, to the wearhouse, they really must have scanned every pebble to ensure maximum accuracy. It was honestly trippy how driving this course in Dirt 4 took me back to my day at the real location. The flow through the game is somewhere in-between Project Cars 2 and Assetto Corsa. I didn't feel quite like a child being dropped off at his first day of school with only the faint words "tuck and roll, kid" offered as guidance the way I did with Assetto Corsa. But it wasn't a super high end first class experience either. The co-driver calls and accurate and useful.
Verdict: I personally think it's the best game at what it does.
I know I said I'd give you my answer after the three critical game reviews, but I have got two honorable mentions.
#1 Truck Driver
Truck Driver Xbox one has nothing to do with realism or racing. But if you like to drive and only feel like bringing your C game and still having a blast, nothing is more soothing than Truck Driver. Hop in a virtual 18 wheeler and haul precious loads around a beautiful virtual country side. Cool story line too. You can play this game while on the phone or having a glass of wine. I've even played this game while having a casual conversation with my wife. Try it out. You'll see what I mean.
#2 Rush Rally 3
Have you ever been sitting at the airport and thought to yourself, "Sh!t! I wonder if my rally driving skills are fading?:" Anxiety washes over and you know you must practice or suffer the consequences of... well, I don't know. Well, it's time to breathe a sigh of relief. Simply crack open a session or 2 of Rush Rally 3. Real Rally physics apply. I think this game is genius.
Now that I have demonstrated to you how much I adore and use racing simulators, I hope I have earned your trust that my answer to to the featured question will be fair and honest. I grew up on pole position, test drive, graduated to Gran Turismo and have eagerly awaited almost everything in between. So...is sim racing a real form of motorsport? Sadly, no. It can be a great teaching tool and an amazing form of entertainment. But it cannot come close to the act of strapping yourself into the belly of a real mechanical beast and hurling actual human body around at speed. The danger isn't there, the consequence isn't there, the sensations of sweat, and smell of burnt rubber and petrol aren't there. The teamwork that you see even at an autocross event aren't there. Most importantly, the reward of interacting with the real world at peak levels of concentration is not there. I love sim racing and will continue to do so, but it can never replace true motor sport. Now, please excuse me as I go drive a virtual lap or two.
This is the end of this particular motorsport tourism series. I still have more disciplines I want to try like, Nascar, drifting and even racing license. I'll be back to it when things open up a bit post COVID. You'll like my next post though. It's about The man with the golden collection.