In January of 2019, Italian driver Enzo Bonito defeated the Formula E champion, Luca Di Grassi in a one-on-one race. But why should that be of any interest to you? Because Enzo Bonito had only raced a handful of times in his life, that is… in a real car. 

The 23-year-old Enzo Bonito gained most of his racing experience behind the wheel of a simulated car. This victory leaves little doubt that racing simulators are approaching reality. In this article, you’ll learn about the technology that’s making simulated racing so realistic and how it compares to real-world racing. 

Where It All Began

All the way back in 1982, the video game developer Atari released the racing arcade game Pole Position. Today, the game seems rudimentary at best, but at the time it was celebrated for its “unbelievable driving realism.” As inchoate as the concept was, it proved to be enough to spark serious interest in developing it further. 

Pole Position 2 was released soon afterwards. In a few years, racing games were all the rage on consoles and computers. With titles released every subsequent year, the genre gained a devoted following. 

Indianapolis 500: The Simulation marked the schism that would divide the industry into arcade-style games and racing simulations. Released in 1989, the game saw the first efforts to incorporate real-world physics and telemetry to a driving game. 

Fast forward a couple of decades and today’s advanced graphics accelerators and processors are powering pro racing simulators that are almost indistinguishable from the real thing. To some, that may be an overstatement. But there’s no denying that even professional real-world drivers are using racing sims to work on their skills in a safer environment. 

Is It Really That Good?

If racing simulators are actually as good as all that, what’s the point of real-world racing practice at all? Well, the truth is that they’re pretty good, but not perfect. And how could they be? It would take a nigh-infinite amount of processing power to faithfully recreate real-world physics. 

While the visual experience of driving is quite good, the kinaesthetic experience still has a long way to go. Today’s rigs are quite advanced and are pretty good at simulating the inside of a race car. But there’s no practical way yet to simulate acceleration, g-forces, and impacts.

But that doesn’t mean that they’re not useful. Far from perfect, they’re pragmatically sufficient to help drivers get quality practice in the “qualifying mindset.” This is the form of racing practice where a racer driver is focused solely on getting the most out of himself and his car. It’s expensive and dangerous to drive like that, but if you’re using pro racing simulators, it’s neither. 

The biggest barrier of entry to motorsports for the average person is the exorbitant costs of participating. Racing simulators are a good way to get a reasonable facsimile of the experience at a fraction of the cost. 

Where It Falls Short

Now you know that, while useful, racing sims aren’t quite the same as the real deal. Here are some of the ways in which simulated racing has trouble achieving the same feel as reality:

  • Braking pressure and deceleration. There’s very little feedback that you’ll get from a racing simulator when you slam on the brakes, except the visual response of slowing down. You won’t actually feel like you’re slowing down, nor do you have any real inertia to carry your body forward. It also fails to faithfully recreate the nuances of braking pressure and the minute differences that are achieved with a light touch versus a stronger push. 
  • Acceleration and power. The raw power of an automobile is very difficult to recreate if you’re not feeling the acceleration as it happens. Again, you see motion on the screen, but you aren’t actually moving. 
  • Chassis movement. By now you’re probably noticing a trend. The area where sims can’t compete is in actually tossing you around in a moving vehicle. Barring that feeling, you’ll be getting a less complete, but probably just as fun, experience.

Become the Next Formula 1 Champion

Are pro racing simulators good enough to turn you into a Formula 1 champion without ever setting foot in a car? Probably not, at least not yet. But they’re pretty close, as evidenced by Enzo Bonito and new technological developments will surely push them further in the years to come.