The Rise Of Virtual Motorsport At ASI

If there’s one takeaway I had from Autosport International this year, it’s that the rise of esports and sim racing is profound.

Much like my little hot take (well, lukewarm take) on electric motorsport, I reckon it might be best to again put my cards on the table. Initially, I was quite dubious and considered sim racing as a sort of advanced play thing for gamers, and as absolutely no substitute for the real thing. My social media feeds have been awash lately with live streams of people racing against each other virtually, with even major automotive manufacturers running their own series. So, dubious, but open minded.

At best, I would consider myself a part-time gamer and prefer to drop in and out of games when I have time. A controller is more than enough for me to get my kicks on Need for Speed and the like, especially since I normally spend most of my time building and tuning cars rather than racing. Art imitating life, and all that. (Actually, if anyone from the studio is reading this, can you wire me some credits so I can spend more time in the garage and less time being harassed by the Palm City Police Department?)

It was a bit of a surprise then, when upon walking into the first main hall at Autosport International last week, that a huge amount of floor space was dedicated to virtual motorsport. The first, dedicated to motorsport games featured four different games for punters to try their hands at. Some featured relatively fancy wheel and pedal setups, while others made do with just a controller.

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Outside of this was another area dedicated to competitive gaming with multiple rigs and a large seated area for spectators to watch on.

As I wandered the show floor, there were a significant number of stands with their own sim rigs, designed to attract people to come and have a closer look at their products while enticing attendees to set a lap time against their friends, family or co-workers.

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Somewhere around the impressive Formula E stand (again, with its own host of seated gaming rigs) I found some friendly faces from Digital Motorsports diligently preparing for the weekend ahead, along with both Shanahan brothers, Jack and Conor, getting some (sideways) seat time around a virtual lap of Mondello Park.

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Conor and Jack aren’t exactly two drivers that I would consider to be in need of practice, with Jack having recently won the final round of the Drift Masters European Championship at Mondello Park at the tail end of last season. Despite their young ages, they’re both considered veterans of European drifting, so I was curious as to what benefit they were getting from this.

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My initial thought watching Conor complete lap after lap was that I certainly couldn’t do what he was doing. The footwork, the hand-eye coordination between the wheel, sequential shift lever and hydraulic handbrake were as if watching on-board footage. Jack told me that he and his brother try to put a lot of time in on their own sim at home, between drift practice and rallying, to keep them both competitive and sharp. He added that he has used it to practice a track he had never driven before in reality, which proved massively beneficial when he eventually competed there.

With the two brothers taking turns at drifting Mondello Park, I spoke with Niall Maher and Rob King from Digital Motorsports to try and get some more insight. Niall explained, “There’s now basically three types of person and a setup to suit each one. The first is the casual gamer who wants something a little bit more immersive. The second is the serious sim racer competing online against other drivers from around the world. The third is the club or professional racer looking to stay sharp and develop their skills when out of their actual car.”

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As if by way of reinforcing this final point, they were joined on the stand by Northern Irish race driver Charlie Eastwood. Charlie is a current Aston Martin factory driver, having previously won the 2017 Porsche Carrera Cup GB championship, the 2019 Dubai 24 Hour, the 2019 Spa 24 Hour as a ProAm, and the 2019 Blancpain Endurance ProAm driver and team championships, amongst other things. Essentially, he’s quite good.

Niall told me that they were developing an AMR-style race wheel in collaboration with O’Keefe Design, similar to that in Charlie’s proper race car, complete with the correct buttons, switches and toggles, in order for Charlie to be able to fully immerse himself in his own home setup. “As a professional driver, he’s expected to put in hours everyday behind the wheel to hone his race craft and keep himself race sharp. The addition of a perfect copy of his own race wheel assists in developing muscle memory for when he’s competing in reality.”

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Charlie then took the opportunity to set some fast laps around Brands Hatch before making an appearance on the main Autosport stage for a public interview, but not before watching on as Conor Shanahan tried to beat his time. Listening to the drivers talk about the differences in driving style, and how the drifters were always trying to use the throttle to rotate the car on entry versus Charlie’s approach of primarily concerning himself with the pitch of the car under braking and acceleration, was absolutely fascinating. I was finally starting to appreciate the benefits.

Not only has the software advanced to a barely believable point, but the hardware has come a long way since my days of clamping a basic steering wheel to a desk. The force feedback and feel through the wheels is really something else, and pedal setups are now capable of imitating brake fade.

I actually tried out their VR setup featuring a BMW M2 around Mondello Park which while I initially found disorientating, after a lap or two was fully immersed.

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Incidentally, the rig that the Shanahans and Charlie Eastwood were using actually belongs to James Deane, as the crew from Digital Motorsport were putting the final touches on it before it’s delivered to the Cork man’s home. They were hoping to scan the interior of James’ E92 Eurofighter at Autosport, so that they could position his seat, wheel, shifter and handbrake in precisely the same place as his real car.

I’m sure you’ll agree that James is not short on talent, so it’s interesting to see another accomplished driver still trying to further himself in order to find and create any advantage he can find over his rivals.

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I’m still learning about the hardware and technologies involved here which are advancing everyday, so please consider this as just me dipping my toes into the virtual world. While I understand that some will always be dismissive of these things as just ‘games’, and that it’s an aspect of our world which is very difficult to document with words and photographs, I just hope that we can all be open minded about it. Who knows what we might learn?

What I’m also curious about is what setups you guys are running at home? Have you built your own custom rigs or perhaps relied on an off-the-shelf solution? Where do you think is the best place for someone new to this area to start?

I’ll see you in the comments.

Paddy McGrath
Instagram: pmcgphotos
Twitter: pmcgphotos



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Didn’t think it was possible for a Speedhunters article to make me laugh, but you did it Paddy. Great read man!!


Go ahead and add the likes of Tony Stewart, Nicki Thiim, David Perrel (sp?), and Lando Norris to that long list of professional drivers who find sim race a lot. The hardware (wheel pedal rig) are really good nowadays so simulation isn’t limited to gigantic race teams anymore. Also consider that real cars require money every time they turn a lap, whereas sim racing can be done at home for the low cost of some electricity and internet connection. Sure sim racing is missing some of the visceral aspects of real racing but with decent hardware you can still “feel” the car and the racing is just as intense as the real thing (as all racing can be)!


it's like firing airsoft gun and real guns


Absolutely, how much is a proper test day? It's going to be $$$$$ easy for any serious club or pro team by the time you factor in track hire, tyres, fuel, staff etc. just for basic seat time.

I seen Alex Albon joined the guys during a recent online session, too.

Matthew Everingham

I've got a Sparco seat and G27 mounted to some flexlink, it's quite primitive. After finally acquiring an Oculus Rift a couple of weeks ago I only got to play it for about 20 minutes before I felt a wave of nausea.

If anybody has any tips for easing into VR racing I'm listening!


Baby steps. Play 10 minutes then quit for a few hours. Keep doing that. Get it up to 15. Then 20. I can race pretty much unlimited time now. Need to develop "VR Legs"


I thought I wouldn't have a hope with VR, based on past experiences, but once I got the headset sitting right, it felt fine. It's probably the way I'd go TBH over an expensive multi-screen setup.


I find the best way to avoid puking is to put the screen further away. TV screen manufacturers recommend the screen be 2.5-3m away while watching, dont see why that shouldn't apply to sim racing as well. I use a 55" tv across the lounge from my sofa. It also has arms that support beer or wine glasses quite nicely. Try that in you stripped out race car! hahah! ;)


It takes a little bit to ease into it. First you do like 20 min or so like you did, then a half an hour, etc. Once your brain is used to it then the nausea usually doesn't come back unless you spend a very long time away from doing VR stuff.


I'm surprised to see a Speedhunters article on the virtual stuff. Good article Paddy!

Rig: I have one of GT Omega's Pro ones. Do not recommend, the welds were......a bit to be desired.
Wheel & Pedals: I have Fanatec's CSL v1 Base and a couple of the universal hubs, one with an oval wheel and one with a GT wheel. Pedals are the V3 ClubSport's with the Brake Inserts swapped for the ones in the kit that they sell to stiffen up the pedal some.


Yes, agree with Mr Levin, great article Paddy! Hopefully there'll be a few more like this as well. I'd be interested to see how Gran Turismo stacks up against all the other sims on the market these days. ( from a drivers perspective, not a couch potato geeks one. )


GT is little more than an arcade racer compared to the real sims out there.


I'm just curious as to the real world benefits i.e. if there's a part of a local track I'm struggling to nail, can I spend some time in a sim practicing different lines and approaches without consequences and will what I learn transfer to the real thing?


Paddy McGrath - Yes you can (if the track is done well and car has correct psychics model - not always happening in assetto corsa). Train in sim and then when you are on track you'll get your "base line" higher.


I enjoy the fact that I get to practise on the Nordschleife without having to spend big dollars and time getting there. Yes, I feel that you can practise racing lines, braking points, acceleration points quite well in the sims. Its also interesting to be able to practise in different weather and lighting conditions without getting soaked. It helps muscle memory a lot. In short, I feel that when I'm on the road, I'm a better driver because of the practise on the game, but sims also have their shortcomings, like pedal feel, steering feel, screens not being immersive. Maybe you should go and do an interview with the guys at Digital-motorsports and put your thoughts/concerns to them and let them answer.


Great article Paddy. You should definitely try sim racing. It's loads of fun.

Looke like these guys are legit then? Stumbled on their website late December and cannot believe the amount of sim products they are available to supply worldwide. Definitely going to get a proper at their website and getting stuff from them in the near future.


They're based in Mondello Park, and are currently transitioning from their previous entity of 'Virtual Race Academy' – They're a good bunch of people.


Now THIS comment (from Paddy) is what makes Speedhunters stand head and shoulders above any other auto journo's! Its why I've been coming to Speedhunters since they started.


Sim Rigs/Sim racing is a very deep rabbit hole. I've ended up with a motion simulator with all up about 4kW worth of servo motors on it (usually found on CNC machines!), the motion platform itself can move upto 250mm/sec give or take, and has a "Direct drive" wheel (steering wheel mounted to a ridiculously powerful servo drive) that can replicate wheel forces upto all but the gnarliest of 90's F1 cars. Learned lots, especially building the motion platform including 3d printing.

Here's some vids : (Dirt 2... more showing what the motion rig can do) (Assetto Corsa Comeptizione, great GT3 simulator) (rFactor2 with an old school BMW IMSA mod)

All up I've spent more hours in the garages with my mates having fun, setting times and heckling than I have in the track toy.....


That is so impressive. I like the subtle motion of the platform as opposed to some of the crazy ones which require an entire room to fit in.


Cheers Paddy. You can build one yourself - the actuators that move the platform are an open source design, as compared to historically expensive ($$'$$$) units. It's not really conveyed in the videos however it truly comes alive on laser scanned tracks - there's so much detail that gets transmitted through the rig it's uncanny. The different types of curbs on tracks, braking undulations, dynamics between say a short wheelbase 911 and a battle barge Bentley, all very noticeable. My next evolution is to add "g-seat", moveable panels inside the seat that "cue" g-forces....(e.g. turn left; right side of the seat squishes you) my first prototypes it was absolutely uncanny, coming off a curb on and feeling the car load/unload/load again as the tyres/suspension flex/compress - you feel it. Ridiculous the levels sims & hardware are at now :)


I learnt very quickly over that weekend just how serious people take sim racing, ours was set up in a very child friendly way to cater for everyone and boy did i hear about it aha! But as you've stated, our F4 driver we had on stand spends countless hours on a sim learning tracks and finding the best places to shave off that 10th or 100th of a second.


Love the fact that you are apparently not allowed to actually name the shown titles lol. I mean I sure know why, but EA isn't even trying to compete with real sim racing titles


To be fair, there was no order not to mention the other games, it's just a respect thing considering how much NFS puts into Speedhunters from both a financial and resources POV. It's nice to be nice, sometimes.


I don't really understand the justification. The NFS series are just arcade games not racing sims. This is a different market.


Absolutely. Thanks for the reply (and while I'm active in one of the titles on those screens shown, I did start of with Need For Speed: High Stakes back in '99 ;)


That's some serious rev limiter abuse! Is the PSVR limited compared to a typical VR setup?


lol, yep. There's no chance of an engine blowing, so rev the piss out of it. Changing gears = often times you're going way too fast and you don't have the response/torque at lower RPMs in that car at all.

I think it's a far better headset than Vive or Occulus, but the graphics are not as detailed... but there is less SDE and it's more comfortable. For 3-4x the price of a PSVR setup, I would think the Vive/Occulus should be a lot better than PSVR, but it isn't.


No offense, but PSVR is old tech now, as are the other first gen headsets, so better get one of the newer devices. Also I don't quite understand why someone would cheap out on the display device when It's all about immersion. I'd say get the best one you can afford, and there are far superior options than PSVR now, like the Valve Index, or the Vive Pro.


No offense, but I think the headset is more comfortable (subjective) and better. The resolution is not as high, but due to the way they use the display/lenses, it looks more clear due to lack of screen door effect. PSVRs biggest flaw is it's motion controllers, for driving games that's kind of a null point.

But you're right, I could spend $1500-2000 instead of $3-500 and get marginally better graphics. I just don't see how 3-4x the price is worth it.