So you want to go virtual racing?
Photo Credit: iRacing
We take a look at the breadth of virtual racing software currently available and to help you choose which platform may be best suited for your price point, hardware and skill level.
So You Want to go Virtual Racing?
Has watching the NASCAR, Indycar, and F1 esports races made you want to try out virtual racing? Great! It’s a wonderfully fun hobby for any racing fan. You’ve picked a good time to try it out too - we’re in a golden age for serious racing sims, with lots of high-quality games and properly good equipment available. And while you could certainly get a $50,000 sim rig if you wanted, you can realistically get started for the price of taking the family to the races for a weekend.
Of course, all those options can get a bit overwhelming, so this article will help break down your options, especially if you want to race Indycars.
The first choice to make is what platform you use, but that’s a pretty simple choice - for serious race sims, the PC is the only choice. There’s a few decent games on consoles, but most of the sim racing community is focused on PC gaming.
The second choice will be what wheel to get. While the likes of Jacques Villeneuve can be competitive in sim racing with a gamepad, most of us mortals will need a wheel, preferably one with force feedback. The price range for new force feedback wheels runs from about $200 for a basic Thrustmaster TMX wheel to over $2,000 for a Fanatec direct drive wheel. For my money, the best value for a beginner is the Logitech G29, which runs $400 new (including pedals). If you want to save some money, look for used wheels on ebay. Finding any wheel can be tough these days - the recent surge in sim racing’s popularity means that a lot of places are sold out.
The next choice will be what game to go with. There’s a lot of options available, and most of them are very good. Choosing which one to go with will depend on your budget, your PC, and your personal tastes.
In somewhat random order, here are your options:
Project Cars 2:
From the makers of the much-loved GTR2 and the less-loved Project Cars, Project Cars 2 has a huge list of cars and tracks spanning a wide variety of series and eras, including plenty of Indycar options. It’s easily the most polarizing sim on this list - some people love it, while some people loathe it. It’s one of the few games on this list that’s available on consoles.
Pros: On paper, it’s got everything, night racing, wet weather racing, road courses, ovals, street courses, rallycross tracks, modern cars, historic cars, open-wheelers, sportscars, road cars, you name it. And for Indycar fans, it’s got IMS, plus aerokit-era Indycars, a 1950s roadster, Jim Clark’s Indy-winning car, and even a turbine! It also looks great and has full wet weather and night racing. When you get the right car/track combo, it’s superb to drive and the AI will give you a great race.
Cons: The game is wildly inconsistent. It has some magical moments, but most of the cars are pretty lousy to drive, with incurable understeer being a main complaint. There’s some evidence that the underlying physics model is strong, but it’s let down by terrible force feedback. It’s pretty expensive for a 3-year old game, especially if you want the DLC packs. You’re not going to find many people racing it online unless you join a league.
Verdict: If you want variety out of the box above all else, this is the game for you. And if you want to race modern Indycars on ovals, road courses, and street courses without racing online, this is the best option you’ve got. But while this game does a lot of different things, it doesn’t really do a lot of them well.
Indycar Equivalent: Sage Karam. Tons of potential, and races anything, but results haven’t matched potential with Indycar. Has some passionate supporters, but ignites a virulent hatred in some fans.
It’s 5 years old, but it’s still one of the most popular games out there. It’s got a good car list, although there’s no Indycar content out of the box. There’s tons of 3rd-party content, including modern and recent Indycar stuff.
Pros: The physics model is terrific, the tracks look great, and a lot of the cars also look great for being a 5-year-old game. You don’t need a great PC to run it, and it’s cheap to buy - $20 for the base game, $40 for the game plus all the (terrific) DLC. It’s got a great collection of cars out of the box, especially road cars, and it’s also got a massive variety of 3rd-party content, both free and paid.
Cons: Getting top-notch racing competition is tough. The AI is acceptable but not great, and the public online racing is a giant crashfest. The only way to get good online racing is to join a league. Some of the original cars look a bit dated, and the quality of the 3rd party mods ranges from stupendous to atrocious. To get any good Indycar content you have to buy 3rd-party mods, and there’s very, very little oval racing. If you’re new to gaming, the 3rd party mod scene can be a bit overwhelming. Out of the box, you can only race in the day and the dry, although some mods can change that.
Verdict: It’s not the most beginner-friendly game out there, but if you’re looking for a game to turn laps in, the value of AC can’t be beat. If you’re looking for pure racing, it’s still good, but there are better options. And if your main interest is racing Indycars in their natural environment, AC isn’t the best place to do it.
Indycar Equivalent: Will Power. Not flashy, but among the very best for a long time. Best when turning blistering laps alone on the track. Might be near the end of the road, but still has a lot to offer.
Assetto Corsa Competizione
Assetto Corsa Competizione
It’s one of the newest games on this list and has quickly become a community favorite, but if you’re looking for Indycar content, look elsewhere - the only thing you’ll find here are GT3 cars.
Pros: It may not have much quantity of content, but boy does it have quality. It’s the best-looking game out there, the physics model and force-feedback are top-notch, and you can find great racing both online and offline. Real-life GT3 drivers have said that ACC is the most realistic game out there, even beating iRacing. Considering the quality of the content, $40 isn’t bad. Real life GT3s are designed for less-experienced gentleman drivers - they’re easy to learn, but hard to master - and ACC reflects that. Unlike its predecessor, it has night racing and wet racing.
Cons: GT3 racing is all you’re getting here. You can’t get an open-wheel car anywhere, not to mention an Indycar. There aren’t that many tracks to choose from either. You’ll need a top-notch PC to run it.
Verdict: If you’re looking for Indycar racing, look elsewhere. But if you want a great sim racing experience and have the PC to run it, take a good look at ACC.
Indycar Equivalent: Charles Leclerc. Brilliant newcomer with great pedigree who’s going to have a stellar career. Unfortunately, highly unlikely to ever have anything to do with Indycar.
From the makers of the highly-regarded series of EA Sports F1 games from the early 2000s, and former community favorite rFactor, rFactor 2 had tons of promise when it first came out back in 2013, but got left in a somewhat unfinished state after the developers ran out of steam. It’s been rejuvenated with new developers who took over a couple of years ago. It’s still a bit unfinished, but for realism it’s still at the top of the heap, and it’s got modern Indycars.
Pros: It’s got a decent variety of cars and tracks, including the original-spec DW-12, two RTI series cars, and Indianapolis. The hardcore sim racers and real-life drivers put rFactor 2 in the top tier for realism. While most of the American esports events during the COVID pandemic have been in iRacing, the Europeans have held their best events in rFactor 2. New content is still coming out for it on a regular basis. The AI is quite good, and you can race in the rain.
Cons: It’s not the best-looking game out there - some of the older content looks especially dated. The game still has an unfinished feel about it, with a clunky interface and a steep learning curve. You’ll need a pretty good PC to run it, and there’s not much of a public online racing scene for it.
Verdict: If you’re just getting into sim racing, this isn’t the best place to start. It’s a place to finish your sim racing journey, not start it.
Indycar Equivalent: Fernando Alonso. Among the very best, but could have accomplished so much more. Lots of different kinds of cars on the resume, and Indycar has mostly been a sideshow, not the main event. Best days are probably in the past, but career might be getting a second wind too.
Another game with its roots in the old GTR2, this one has been around for a while and has kind of gotten overshadowed by some of the newer games. It’s got a unique free-to-play model - the base game is free, and you can add a wide variety of paid cars and tracks, including an unofficial aero kit-era Indycar.
Pros: The free-to-play model means you can try it out without committing to it, and can spend as much or little on it as you want. It’s got a very good physics model, tons of available content, and it doesn’t require a great computer to run. The AI is excellent, and new content is still coming out.
Cons: If you decide to commit to it, the cost can escalate pretty quickly. It doesn’t look as good as the newest games. Finding online racing can be tough unless you join a league. The Indycar content consists of one car, and there aren’t any ovals to race it on.
Verdict: If you’re just starting out with sim racing, this is a great place to start, especially if you race offline. But if you’re looking for an Indycar game, you won’t find much here.
Indycar Equivalent: Rubens Barrichello. Took a while to get going, but eventually became really good, although a half step behind the very best. Very approachable. Easy to forget about the Indycar aspect.
The 800 lb. gorilla of sim racing, at least in the US. This is the game Indycar and NASCAR have been using for their official esports events. Descended from the legendary Papyrus studio, its ancestors include the NASCAR Racing games of the early 2000s, Grand Prix Legends, and the Indy 500/Indycar Racing games of the early 90s. It operates with a unique subscription model that can be tough on the wallet.
Pros: There’s a reason the pros race this - its physics model is among the very best (although it’s not without its critics). For Indycar fans, it has the DW-12 with the UAK-18 aero kit and most of the tracks on the Indycar calendar, including ovals. Indy Pro 2000 and USF 2000 cars are coming out this summer. It’s got a highly-structured and thriving online racing scene, and its license system means the public racing tends to be more civilized than in some other sims. It’s also got a huge variety of cars and tracks to choose from, and a lot of them are excellent.
Cons: All that quality comes at a cost. You don’t buy iRacing, you subscribe to it. The normal cost is $13/month or $110/year (although sales are common). And that only gets you a handful of cars and tracks - if you want another car or track, each costs another $10-$15. Those numbers add up quickly. And all that money doesn’t even get you wet racing or much offline racing - the AI’s only available at a few tracks, although that’s expanding. Some people don’t like the highly-structured license system for online racing. There’s a few duds among the cars. The physics model tends to get more praise from NASCAR drivers than from Indycar drivers.
Verdict: If you have money to spend and want to race Indycars online, this is your game, end of story. But if money’s an issue, there are other options that can give you a lot (but not all) of what iRacing offers at a fraction of the total cost.
Indycar Equivalent: Team Penske. The best of the best in Indycar and NASCAR, plenty of success in other series, and an unmatched pedigree that goes back decades. But the budget’s also bigger than that of its competitors.
A rather obscure Brazilian game built on the old rFactor 1 engine, it’s become a cult classic with a very dedicated following. Its eclectic mix of cars and tracks, mostly from Brazil, are supplemented by a nice collection of 3rd party mods, including an excellent late 90s CART mod.
Pros: It’s excellent value for money - right now the game, plus all the DLCs, can be had for under $20. So for less than the price of one car plus one track in iRacing, you get a top-notch physics model with great force feedback, a great (if somewhat oddball) variety of cars and tracks, and an AI that will give you an excellent race. All the best mods, including the CART mod and some great tracks, are free, and you can run it on a pretty modest PC.
Cons: It’s based on a 15-year old game, so the graphics are pretty far behind those in the newest games. If you’ve got a fancy VR headset, you can’t use it in this game. While it has some oval mod tracks, the AI doesn’t know how to race properly on them. There’s not much of an online racing scene for it, you can’t race in the rain, and it’s about to be succeeded by a new game.
Verdict: For under $20, you can be racing 1998 CART cars against virtual Greg Moore and Alex Zanardi at the old Rio roval. It may not look as great as the most modern games, but if you’re an Indycar fan just getting into sim racing and don’t want to spend much money, this is a great place to start.
Indycar equivalent: Roberto Moreno. This Brazilian isn’t very well-known, but is very respected by those in the know. Plenty of cars are on the resume, and Indycar didn’t really feature until later on, but great with late-90s CART cars. But best days are probably in the past.
Better-known as AMS 2, this game is still in early access, but has a lot of promise. The team behind Automobilista is building their new game on the Project CARS 2 engine. Unfortunately, there’s no Indycar content on the horizon.
Pros: The hope is that it will combine the car handling, force feedback, and AI of Automobilista with the great graphics of Project CARS 2. If it does this, it’ll be one of the best single-player games available. Indications from early reviewers suggest that they’ve gotten the car handling and force feedback right, and that it doesn’t need a very powerful computer to run. It also adds the wet weather racing and night racing that its predecessor lacked. The developers have a track record of great support for their product, so the game is likely to improve for a while.
Cons: Both the AI and online racing are still big question marks - the former isn’t very good at this stage of development. There’s no Indycar content on the horizon. 3rd party mods, which were a big part of Automobilista’s appeal, probably won’t be available in big numbers for AMS 2.
Verdict: It’s probably going to be a great game and a very good value, but it’s not going to be the place to get your Indycar sim racing fix.
Indycar Equivalent: Felipe Nasr. This Brazilian has tons of promise, great pedigree, lots of past success, but it’s not clear if the Indycar connection will ever happen.
F12019 by Codemasters
Most sim racers would say this latest entry in the current series of official F1 games doesn’t belong on a list of sims, but we’ve included it because F1 has held its esports events in it. Unlike most of the games here, it’s also available on consoles. Since it’s the official F1 game, you won’t find anything other than F1 and F2 cars here.
Pros: It looks fantastic, has a real career mode, and is probably the best representation of current F1 cars in any sim. The physics model is a big step forward from previous games in the series. Some of the historic F1 cars are a nice touch, and it’s pretty affordable these days.
Cons: The physics model is better than previous games in the series, but it’s still a clear step behind games like iRacing and rFactor 2 when it comes to realism. When F1 announced it was holding its esports series with the game, the real life F1 drivers who were big sim racers made it clear they hadn’t bothered to spend much time with the official game. Of course, you won’t find any Indycars or ovals here.
Verdict: If you’re an F1 fan who’s new to sim racing, this is a solid choice. If you want realism, or want to race Indycars, you’re not going to get your fix here.
Indycar equivalent: Renault F1. Produces some good-looking stuff, and better than it used to be, but ultimately just not good enough. And very centered on F1, so not coming to Indycar.
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