Simulated motorsport is a rapidly growing scene, attracting real-life drivers to virtual competitions, and iRacing is right at the centre of it.
All screens via iRacing.com
I'm sat at the wheel of a McLaren Le Mans GT car, just about to exit the pit lane. It's a couple hours before the start of 24 Hours of Daytona, a legendary endurance race that runs for, you guessed it, 24 hours.
Every driver is taking part in a qualifying session – the faster your lap time, the higher your starting position on the grid. But it takes an incredible amount of concentration to complete even a single lap without losing control of the car. Every time I try to cut into a corner, the steering jolts in my hands as the car bumps over trackside curbs. I'm constantly struggling to keep control of my vehicle. After just under two minutes of white-knuckled driving, I clock a time good enough to place me in the top ten for the race proper.
But I can go faster. I begin another lap, eager to improve on my time, and my screen goes black. My computer's power supply is fried. There's an hour to go before the daylong Daytona ordeal begins, but the race is already over for me and my co-driver (after all, one man can't race for 24 hours alone).
Naturally, I wasn't competing in the real 24 Hours of Daytona – the whole screen snapping into silence thing might just have been the giveaway. The actual Daytona ran on January 30th and 31st, with Pipo Derani leading the Ligier-HPD Honda home in first place after 736 laps at an average speed of almost 110 miles per hour. I was experiencing the event – or, at least, the build up to it – on iRacing, a racing simulator regarded as one of the most realistic available, at the forefront of a virtual racing community that's edging into the eSports picture.
The iRacing Daytona attracted over 500 teams and 2,000 drivers, split between 15 lobbies arranged by skill level. I might have been putting in some intense practise, but even at my best my team and I were still rock bottom in the lowest-ranked lobby available.
That's no surprise, though – the top iRacing lobbies are strictly for professionals, and I do mean that literally. Alongside drivers who've only ever raced from the comfort of their homes, with an HD screen and expensive wheel for company, several competitors with plenty of real-life experience are getting involved in the simulations. NASCAR driver Timmy Hill won the Nationwide Series Rookie of the Year in 2011, and is regularly involved in iRacing events. So too is Mitchell DeJong, an X Games gold medallist in rallycross.
DeJong and his team, Virtual Racing School Coanda Simsport, dominated the top Daytona race and ultimately took the win. If anything, DeJong spends more time racing in iRacing than he does in Global Rallycross, a series that he was the champion of in 2014.
"Besides testing on the day of a race, the only other driving I get to do is in the simulator," DeJong tells me. "How I look at it myself is that the physics of the car in iRacing are really similar to the real thing – you just don't have that same seat of the pants feel that you get in real life. You have to kind of use your other resources, like what you see, and the sounds of the car to compensate."
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With the level of competition raised to the level of pro-drivers, it's not as if you can just jump into an iRacing lobby and get stuck right into a race. Especially when it comes to endurance events, the amount of preparation work involved is enormous. Even in the bottom tier, my team spent a couple hours every day for a week leading up to Daytona. You have to figure out transmission, suspension and aerodynamic settings that fit not only your driving style but also those of everyone else on your team. Setting up the car is complicated – go for something forgiving for a newcomer, making the drive easier, and you'll also be running slow. Setting up a car to be snappy and tight can lead to it being impossible to drive – unless you've put in some serious hours of practise, expect to crash, and crash, and crash again. Quite possibly for 24 hours straight.
Tuning is a long arduous process, and it doesn't get more complicated in sim terms than it does in iRacing. The game's screens are a dancing orgy of numbers, on which you can change the very slightest details, from spring rates to compression ratios on the dampers. And no, I've no idea what that actually means, either.
"It's quite a lot of work," DeJong says. "Lots of people spend a lot of time preparing for these races, and you have to absolutely be perfect."
Because the game can be so difficult to understand, and the equipment to play it can be quite pricey – an "entry level" racing wheel costs around $100 (£70), while top end ones can cost upwards of $1,000 (£700) – the level of competition is fierce. And that means DeJong has to be as on his game in the simulator as he is when racing for real. Such high standards are seeing competitive simulator racing creep into the eSports market, with iRacing at the very centre of its drive.
Just like well-known eSports games like League of Legends and Counter-Strike, top-tier iRacing events are broadcast to a growing global audience via the internet, and sometimes even on regular television channels, like the pan-European Motors TV.
Wil Vincent is the co-founder of Racespot, one of the biggest broadcasters of iRacing. He's been commentating on races for two years now, and one of the most striking things about iRacing broadcasts is that they're almost exactly like the real-life equivalent. With live timing, screen overlays, comments on driver records and even commercial breaks, the only real difference is that the racing is virtual.
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The realistic broadcast style is unique to to sim racing, but it also highlights why iRacing might lag behind other eSports when it comes to breaking into the mainstream and bringing in big money. "You can't have League of Legends' products or DOTA's products in real life," Vincent tells me. "I can't go to a football stadium and actually watch people doing real-life League of Legends. But I can buy a ticket and go to a speedway, or a club race, or Formula One."
Vincent thinks that eSports needs to become mainstream enough to live on "regular" television before enough people will accept watching a virtual race rather than, or as well as at least, a real one. So while he's confident that eSports will be widely broadcast on mainstream sports television within the next five years, he believes that sim racing is about another ten years away from the same status.
Right now, though, it isn't as if sim racing is a tiny spectator sport by any means. Racespot has about 10,000 core viewers according to Vincent. That same number of people tuned in to watch the virtual 24 Hours of Daytona. In some of iRacing's other events, like its version of the IndyCar Series, Vincent says that a higher number of people are watching Racespot's broadcasts than are actually attending some IndyCar races in for real.
For everyone involved, though, the hope is that iRacing will make it big in eSports. Vincent believes that in five years he could be commentating on virtual iRacing races full time. And while DeJong is a real-world champion in the Global Rallycross Lites, he has high hopes for iRacing's future, especially with how much time he spends playing the game. After winning the 24 Hours of Daytona with his team of four other drivers, he went on to win the 8 Hours of Sebring on the same weekend. "If it becomes as big as some of these other games, I think that would be incredible for a lot of people that don't get the opportunity to race in real life," he concludes.
It's lack of opportunity that's the reason for iRacing to exist at all. Racing for real is highly expensive, not to mention dangerous, so for the Average Joe to get close to the action, sim racing is the easiest option available to most. It's certainly the closest I'll ever get to racing around in a sports car costing the best part of half a million dollars. Even DeJong only gets that "seat of the pants feel" on race weekends, making iRacing another place, or space, where he gets a shot at being in the spotlight. And if it can thrill him, having done it all with his own body on the line, imagine what it'll do for you.
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