I’ve been playing iRacing – generally considered a gold standard for sim racing – for a few weeks now with my brand-new Fanatec ClubSport setup. I’d never had a good enough wheel setup to really feel granularity; I’ve been loving Assetto Corsa and rFactor for years and controllering it up on Forza Motorsport for over a decade. Trying iRacing out was eye-opening, but not in the way I expected.
I approached iRacing with heavy, heavy skepticism. For years it was the sim that was just beyond reach, a bit too expensive for a kid on their parents coin, or a college student working part-time. I’ve been both, and I couldn’t make it work budget-wise.
Today, I can finally afford a good wheel setup and a few months subscription to iRacing, so I gave it a shot. But I already have a lot of gripes. First is that you can’t own the game. You’re tied to a subscription model that costs kind of a lot of money: $13/month, $33/3 months and $110/year. Now that wouldn’t be too bad in principle, but once you get through the several hour long install process, you quickly realize that most of the cars in the game are paid downloadable content (DLC) too.
Games like Forza charge around $10 for a DLC car pack of 8 or so cars. That seems to be generally the consensus across the industry. iRacing charges $12 per car and around $15 a track. That is monstrous money on its own, but especially when you’re paying $110 a year at the low end. There are literally dozens of cars and tracks to buy just to compete in most of the lobbies in the game. I caved and bought a single car, a Porsche 911 GT3 Cup car. But I couldn’t bring myself to dump money into content that felt old and stale, if very well modeled.
Now I have my very expensive car, on my very expensive game, with my very expensive wheel, I can race now, right? Nah – from here I have to start with the absolute basic cars, like Global MX-5 Cup cars. Don’t get me wrong, the plucky little ND Miata is a fun car to thrash in iRacing, but I need to license up into the fun stuff.
That kinda sucks, hard. I get it, they want to keep the riffraff out of iRacing, but it feels excessively gatekeepy to me more than anything. It’s supposed to be a real racing sim on all levels, but the room for fun seems immediately limited. I honestly feel a little suffocated interacting with this game, and that’s before I even hit the track.
Getting to a track is a challenge on its own. There are a lot of practice lobbies, but races only happen on the hour (every hour) strictly. I was doing a lot of idle practice, not having very much fun.
But the worst aspect of all, for me at least, was setting the wheel up for the first time. The default force feedback settings on iRacing suck. I spent two hours tuning my Fanatec ClubSport into a setup I considered merely driveable. I wasn’t a huge fan of the force feedback from this game, it introduced a level of difficulty I didn’t expect. It’s the classic “pure” FFB ideology that kills extra effects being communicated in the wheel. I yearned for Assetto Corsa’s natural force feedback. This FFB certainly seemed many steps back.
The FFB isn’t bad in a lot of ways, but it takes a bit too much refinement for most. It seems unnecessarily hard to setup and get going for casual sim racers looking to step up. My primary issue was that I could never shake the gravelly nature of the FFB, and though it had natural responses to my inputs and from the in-game track surface, it wasn’t satisfying to use. It didn’t feel intuitive or fun, but like a tool that just sorta works. You see, some sim racers love a “pure” feeling FFB, which doesn’t have a lot of detail, shaking, or vibration. All they focus on is the torque curve for the wheel, which is basically the curve that says how much the wheel is going to fight back in your hand. I’m not sure why they like it this way, but some do, and iRacing feels like it takes it and runs with. For me, it feels distinctly un-car like. I can’t tell whether my tires are at their braking limit, or lateral limit, instead I rely on my visual and auditory senses to alert to me this. I’d much rather prefer the steering to be “corrupted” with information that I think is essential to driving, rather than have a squeaky clean but boring FFB.
After spinning my GT3 cup car for two hours on a pretty ugly looking Laguna Seca, a track that I regularly do well at, I finally hustled into an AI race; a race against computers in the cup cars. Did I mention that the game looks old and ugly? I feel like I’m in 2008 again, what with the old textures, subpar lighting model, and generally dead visuals that the game offers in the name of dispassionate simulation. Anyways, the race went surprisingly well.
The focus and proactive control it took were draining, but I actually found some fun. OK – I was getting kind of hooked. I roasted these computer drivers, and won my first race. Something clicked with the difficulty of the game, and learned to understand it a bit better. I actually found the infamously tight tire model to be forgiving and more natural than I was lead to believe. At the very least, it did a decent job of simulating the tire slip angles of all four tires, with the ability to hold gorgeous limit-of-adhesion slides through the apex. I worked extremely hard for it though, and not in a good way.
After some actual driving I was starting to get the appeal of the game. Still, it isn’t quite there for me yet – I’ve never been so weary of managing traction in a Porsche 911 in any game. Sometimes, the tire model would just fall apart and do really stupid stuff. Most of my early spins came from weird corner-exit tank slappers, and the sensation of braking (for the nerds, I have a loadcell pedal) is very strange and not fun.
I decided that I felt comfortable enough to get into a race session with the ND Miata cup car. I hopped into a server at Oran Park, a fun, flowing Australian circuit. The track surface model felt great, but visually was outdated like Laguna Seca. It was in the Miata that everything made a little more sense. It was fun, tossable, with better force feedback. The game rigidly adhered to the gospel of momentum driving, punishing mistakes severely, and rewarding cleanliness.
Yeah, this Miata Cup Car is actually pretty badass. I settled into the practice session, learned the track in three laps, qualified first, and led the race to my first online win by 13 seconds. I get it now. The game is supremely easy to be consistent with, only telling you what you need to know, and doing it well. The game isn’t overwhelmed with the Miatas, and works pretty OK. Even if the FFB still felt like I was driving on gravel, I adapted to it by a few hours of gameplay. Somehow, the game could really manage the Miata well where it couldn’t do the faster 911 Cup Car as well.
I clicked out of my lobby with a sense of supreme satisfaction at my skill.
What did I do next? Join another iRacing lobby? No, I couldn’t be bothered to wait an hour.
I booted up ol’ faithful, Assetto Corsa, hopped in a McLaren F1 GTR, and drove into the wee hours of a Tuesday night in Los Angeles, with my mind on a sun-burnt Tuscan race track called Mugello. This is what sim racing is all about. I paid once, I can get into a race lobby at will, and I just get in and play. Here’s the real nail in the coffin, I got in the car, started driving, and it felt like I was steering A Car. Not a video game car, but a natural, nice, smooth FFB that tells you everything. At that point, I decided that I couldn’t be bothered with renewing my iRacing subscription.
Reader, play what makes you happy. iRacing is a cool simulator, with funish driving physics. The highlight of the sim might actually be rallycross racing. But it takes itself too seriously, and costs way way too much money. For all that licensing and pricing garbage, I still got almost taken out on purpose by an experienced racer, and can’t be bothered to spend money on tracks that I can race in other games. iRacing is fun, but it’s not the best sim out there. Certainly not for old Chris.