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.