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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.