Cars with Jan Coomans. Racing in times of Coronavirus (computer required)

русская версия | english version
Авто с Яном Коомансом: гонки во время коронавирусной чумы (вам понадобится компьютер)

With pretty much all sporting activities at a standstill, which obviously includes racing cars, it’s true that things can get a tad dull if you’re a fan of motor sports. But on the upside, that means you’re lucky enough to love a sport for which there actually exists a semi-alternative: sim racing.

Sim racing has been around for ages. I still vividly remember playing the Grand Prix 2 computer game which came out in 1995 – a game which is still considered one of the best ever Formula 1 simulations even though the graphics are unwatchable now 25 years later. Legend has it that Jacques Villeneuve, the 1997 Formula 1 world champion, used the Grand Prix 2 game for familiarizing himself with the F1 circuits when he made his move there from the American IndyCar series in 1996. But it probably wasn’t until the he original Gran Turismo game for Sony Playstation came out in in 1997 that this genre of computer games was popularized for the masses. Actual racing teams have also long been making use of simulators to familiarize their drivers with new cars or tracks, or to test theoretical updates to make their racing cars go faster.

Gran Turismo Sony Playstation, 1997

But as I suspect that the current Covid-19 pandemic has done little to stifle human impatience, I’ll skip right to the present time and talk about what’s going on right now. If you’re a motorsport fan and you’ve gone onto the internet (particularly YouTube) lately then you’ll certainly have noticed that there is something of a virtual online racing revolution going on right now. To the point where NASCAR, the biggest motor sport in America, is running a sim race which gets broadcast live on the usual TV channels with most if not all of its real-world drivers participating. And the official Formula One channel on YouTube has also uploaded sim racing content with some of its real-life stars like Max Verstappen and Lando Norris. For better or worse, sim racing is getting the biggest break it’s ever had right now.

Watching famous drivers crash their virtual cars into one another online is all well and good, but if you want to break your boredom proper then you may want to do a bit of sim racing for yourself. So let me share some of my experiences over the last two decades to get you started with that. First of all, the decision will have to be between using an actual PC or a game console like Playstation or Xbox. For sheer processing power and wide choice of games, a PC is going to be the best option so I’ll focus on that. Some of the same things that I’m going to mention are available for consoles as well though, so those are still an option too.

Авто с Яном Коомансом: гонки во время коронавирусной чумы (вам понадобится компьютер)

The bad news first – some of the things you’ll need aren’t very cheap. I mean, they’re extraordinarily cheap compared to what real racing costs, but compared to something like a carrot or a banana you’ll find some of the required components a bit more expensive. The computer you’ll need, for example, should be at least somewhat up to date with a moderately powerful processor and graphics card. No need for top of the line stuff costing thousands of dollars, but a few hundred dollars’ worth of PC hardware is generally a requirement. If you want to have at least a vague sense of actually driving a car, you’ll want to use a steering wheel and pedals. If you go online, you’ll see a large offering of wheel/pedal kits that you can plug into your PC’s USB port but there’s (again) no need to go for the highest priced items. Something in the middle will do fine, but even the cheapest wheel is a lot better than no wheel at all.

Авто с Яном Коомансом: гонки во время коронавирусной чумы (вам понадобится компьютер)

Finally, for the ultimate immersion into virtual racing, there is VR or Virtual Reality. This basically means strapping a VR helmet or headset to your face which then lets you see the virtual world as if you’re actually in it. This is an incredible piece of technology from which, once you’ve used it, there is never any going back to staring at flat computer screens. But it does have its drawbacks, most obviously financially as they require very powerful computers to run and the headsets themselves aren’t exactly cheap either. I’ve also found it difficult to wear for longer sessions, 45 minutes to an hour is about the longest I can manage before it starts feeling like my forehead is about to melt. But it’s the closest thing to actually driving a virtual car right now.

Авто с Яном Коомансом: гонки во время коронавирусной чумы (вам понадобится компьютер)

So let’s go over the simulator software that I enjoy using – there is an element of personal taste here so your mileage may obviously vary. The most serious title in sim racing is probably iRacing. It was founded in 2008 and is majority owned by John Henry, the same bloke who owns the Boston Red Sox baseball team and Liverpool football club among other things. This is as serious as online racing gets, which means that it’s probably too serious for some of you. Each player has his own ratings for overall performance and safety, which is used to automatically group players of similar driving talent into the same races and the safety rating is there to avoid you being crashed into all the time by 12-year-olds who just want to cause trouble. If your safety rating drops too low i.e. you’ve crashed too many times in official sessions, then you won’t be able to drive in most of the races.


The driving physics are very good but the primary appeal of iRacing is that it provides the highest quality of online racing there is. There’s a huge amount of participants and the software to allow all these users to share virtual pieces of racetrack is unrivalled. But it is an expensive game with a subscription model and nearly all content costs extra. At the moment of writing, they are running a 50 percent discount promotion which means you pay $6.50 a month or $55 for a whole year. There are a couple of basic cars and tracks you can try once you’ve installed the game, but after that each track ($12-15) and each car ($12) that you want to use needs to be bought. For this amount of money, each virtual racetrack is a laser-scanned version of the real thing accurate to a couple of millimeters. Cars are also scanned and as realistic as they can be with maximum cooperation with the actual manufacturers. There’s a huge variety of car brands available, but only actual race cars. No regular road cars are used in this sim. My top tip, though, would be to start off with the freely included Mazda MX-5 Cup car. It’s superb.


Assetto Corsa, by contrast, is amazingly good value. It can be bought on Steam for a few hundred Russian Rubles and there’s no extra payments after that, unless you want to buy some extra cars in their “DLC” packs but even those cost a fraction of what iRacing charges for a single car. The physics are just as good as iRacing’s in my view, but definitely different. There is an online component to this sim, but it isn’t nearly as good as iRacing. That need not be a problem though as there are many offline races you can take part in, and this game is also fun to drive just for the sake of driving (or practicing) as it includes many regular road cars which you might own (or want to own) in real life. On top of that, Assetto Corsa is open to modding. There’s a large community of modders who create their own cars and tracks which you can then download. Some are crap, others are sublime. But almost all are free. There’s also no real limit to what kind of car these mods can create. So you can go racing 1000 horsepower camper vans or even lawn mowers. The sky is the limit.

Assetto Corsa

There’s also a newer, slightly more serious version called Assetto Corsa Competitzione (you will have guessed that the authors of this title are Italian, by this point) which emulates GT3 racing specifically. This is regarded by many real-life drivers as the closest approximation to real life GT3 race cars, but it is still a work in progress and the online racing software isn’t quite as reliable as it could be, yet. And because it only focuses on one particular corner of motorsport (it’s the official game of the Blancpain GT series) it is the opposite of the regular Assetto Corsa universe where anything goes. Still, for some serious racing on a reasonable budget, this is highly recommended.

Assetto Corsa Competizione

RaceRoom is a slightly less well known simulator that I got to try recently, and it has a lot going for it. A huge selection of cars on tracks – thought most of them need to be purchased separately just like on iRacing. It even has a version of Moscow Raceway available, which is great as it’s usually hard to find virtual versions of Russian racetracks. I didn’t find their model of Moscow Raceway to be very much like the real thing sadly, probably because they just used video footage rather than laser scanning to build it. The physics engine is excellent, though slightly behind the others I’ve mentioned, but the online racing experience works well and without any obvious bugs.


That’s all well and good Coomans, I hear you say, but what if we want to practice our Rally skills? Well you’re in luck as there’s plenty of those as well. Arguably the best one ever made was Richard Burns Rally from the blessed year 2004. But despite its age, I don’t think it has ever been rivalled in terms of the realism of its driving physics. The game is currently being kept alive by a modding community which keeps it up to date with new content, though obviously the old graphics engine is a bit of a limitation to how good it looks on your screen. This is the game you want to play if you want to take virtual rally driving seriously, but it’s not easy. If you’re prone to bouts of anger after crashing your not-quite-real rally car into trees, houses, stones, hedges and other life-like obstacles then you might want to look somewhere else.

Richard Burns Rally

Like DiRT Rally 2.0 or WRC 8, perhaps! I’ve heard great things about these games, though I’ve not yet had the time to try them for myself. That could change now of course that we’re stuck indoors for the foreseeable future. While these should be prettier looking and more user friendly than Richard Burns Rally though, the universal truth behind any rally game is that they’re pretty difficult when you’re trying not to crash. The downside to these newer titles will also be much higher system requirements for your PC if that’s what you’re using.

DiRT Rally 2.0

Finally, just a couple more things to keep in mind when you start sim racing. First of all, prepare to look a little bit silly. Seeing a grown man or woman “play” around with a plastic steering wheel in front of a TV or computer screen can be perceived as quite hilarious by some. Definitely if you add the whole VR helmet thing. You might want to find a space in your house and flat where you can be alone for this. There is also quite a steep learning curve for any game you play, as none of these computer cars drive quite like the real thing. Your brain needs a bit of recalibration. The thing is though, that real life racing drivers are using these things for a reason. They are useful for training. It helps your reflexes and reactions stay sharp during the winter months, or pandemic months in this case. And in case you’ve never driven a real car on a real racetrack, they are great for teaching you a basic understanding of how to place your car and carry speed through corners. Which you can then apply to real life once this prison ends. Eventually. Until then, try to have some fun while you’re at it!

10 апреля 2020
Jan Coomans для раздела Авто