While motorsport simulator iRacing has been around since 2008, at launch it wasn't that tempting a prospect for even relatively hardcore European racers. A bias toward North American racing and circuits, plus the combination of a subscription fee and paid content, made it more of a professional driver tool than something gamers might dabble with. Compared to traditional sims, it was a very expensive way to pretend to be a racing driver.
Then in October 2009, the service cut its subscription and DLC prices by around a third, and began a dripfeed of more Eurocentric content. Suddenly, iRacing is a more palatable prospect for people like me, who cut their teeth on GTR 2 rather than the go-kart track.
Don't get the wrong idea, though: this is still the most serious recreation of motorsport you'll find. One of the reasons this is a subscription service is that iRacing actually boasts its own sanctioning body, called FIRST, to ensure the community conducts itself professionally. Which explains why, as I lined up for my first proper race, having done my best to learn the lines around Lime Rock Park in a Pontiac Solstice, I was genuinely, armpit-soakingly terrified of causing an enormous accident and becoming some sort of community pariah.
Each driver has a licence with a safety rating. Any of a number of infractions results in your safety rating dropping like a stone, regardless of blame, eventually causing you to drop a licence level. So drivers are more careful and incidents less frequent. Normally heading into the first corner in a racing game, I'd have my foot to the floor, looking for tiny gaps to dart into to mug other racers of their position, but in iRacing, I was driving like I had an eggshell under the accelerator, tip-toeing my way around like an 80-year-old in a Micra. As an empowerment fantasy it failed – I felt nothing like Lewis Hamilton – but the sense of relief and accomplishment when I crossed the line, plumb last, having avoided punting any of the other competitors off the road was comparable to victory in other racers I've played.
It's a clash of two flavours of nerd – gaming and motorsport – but if you're used to online races that begin with a first corner pile-up as some kid with an allergy to the brake pedal comes spearing through the pack, iRacing is a refreshing change.
iRacing is built specifically as a platform for competition between human racers, so you won't find any AI drivers to practise against. Your only options for fettling your racing lines and mastering your braking points are the testing sessions, where it's you, the circuit and a stopwatch. As a result, much of iRacing is a lonely experience as you gradually work your way up to racing speed. Attempt to dive straight into one of the hourly scheduled races without adequate preparation – a mistake I initially made in my eagerness to play against others – and you're likely to end the race facing backwards with your safety rating plummeting like a lemming that just watched Das Boot. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, though – much like the satisfaction of simply finishing a race was pleasing in of itself, I found pounding the virtual tarmac alone and watching my slow progress toward a respectable lap time enormously rewarding. There's so much subtlety to the handling and circuit modelling that you feel you're learning every square centimetre of the track and developing a genuine mastery of your chosen vehicle.
Formerly of Papyrus, the development team already have recognised pedigree, based in no small part on their work on the astonishing Grand Prix Legends, but the level of detail in iRacing's on track experience is unparalleled, hence its popularity as a training tool. For a start, a steering wheel setup isn't an option, it's a requirement. Mastering the subtleties of the more lively cars would be impossible without the precision of a wheel and pedal set.
The sim also boasts the most accurate circuits we've ever seen in a PC racer – the dev team's proprietary laser scanning system does an incredible job, and you'll discover bumps and undulations that simply aren't there in sims using handcrafted tracks. For example, I came hammering out of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway's pitlane at top speed in an IndyCar and caught a wicked bump that very nearly chewed me up and spat me into the infield. Trying to keep control of a 230mph racing car when it's behaving badly is a combination of restrained precision and blind panic. It was only after I'd rescued the wayward rear wheels that I realised I'd been holding my breath.
The upshot of all this realism is that the game is extremely difficult. There are none of the mollycoddling driver aids you find in the majority of sims – the only concession is an automatic clutch, and that's begrudgingly included because some PC steering wheels don't come with a separate clutch pedal. If you're overenthusiastic with your right toe, you're going to spend an awful lot of time facing backwards.
A licence system prevents you from racing in the most powerful cars straight away, and with good reason. The slower ones are less terrifying to drive and are as close to an easy ride as you'll get in iRacing. Even these require hours of solo testing for all but the most naturally talented drivers before you'll be in a position to finish mid-pack, let alone win. With my standing in the community on the line as well, I found it so much easier to crack under pressure during races and make head-slappingly moronic mistakes – this is as hardcore as sim racing gets.
Sadly it's not comprehensive, and there are certain features that have been present in other sims for years that aren't part of iRacing. The most obvious one is different weather conditions – every iRacing event happens in blazing sunshine, a hangover from its NASCAR roots, where at the merest hint of rain the entire travelling circus packs up for the day. Fine for the oval portion of the game, but for the road courses, it's not really on in this day and age. The other omission is a dynamic track surface, which has been a feature of racing sims for years now. Failing to simulate the changing grip level of the track as it 'rubbers in' to an extent undermines all the laser scanning surface work.
The biggest sticking point for most people though, in spite of the recent drop in fees, is still going to be the pricing. While the subscription model is tolerably cheap, what you get for that is only a handful of circuits and three vehicles. If you want anything beyond that, including the British tracks, you need to shell out an extra fee. With rFactor offering hundreds of cars and circuits, albeit community-created, for a one-off fee that amounts to about three months' iRacing subscription, the latter is a much more expensive option. I can't help but think that axing one or other of the two fees would result in a huge influx of sim racers who, like me, couldn't quite justify the expenditure for a hobby that's a subset of a wider interest in games. With rFactor 2 lurking threateningly over the horizon, packed with features that iRacing is currently missing, it's only going to become more of a battle. What iRacing does have in its favour are a couple of impressive licences in the shape of NASCAR and IndyCar. Both of these championships are recreated in the most detail they have ever been, and oval racing becomes infinitely more interesting when you're expending most of your brain's capacity on keeping the car facing in the right direction.
Of course the team at iRacing would argue you're paying as much for the professional atmosphere and community as you are for the engine – the premium pricing results in a better calibre of racing than the usual crash-fests. What's more, with the challenge attached to mastering every circuit and vehicle to the point where you're competitive and the fact you can't race the more powerful cars without the appropriate licence, the early content should keep you busy for several weeks, if not months.
In spite of all the positive aspects of iRacing, it's impossible to recommend to anyone other than dedicated sim racers. Not only are the hardcore the only ones who could justify the expenditure, they're the ones who would benefit most from such a specialised community and fierce competition.