Sim racing has been catapulted from fringe enthusiast activity into mainstream automotive enthusiasm thanks in large part to the entire year most of us spent stuck inside. With no sports and no racing to watch, we turned to different kinds of entertainment. Race drivers couldn’t race in real life but they could spend a few thousand dollars on a racing simulator and do it virtually. With that, a new era of sim racing was born.
Suddenly, big-name companies sponsored sim racers, governing bodies like the FIA started sanctioning virtual race series’, and millions watched as most of the Formula One grid raced in virtual F1 cars in lieu of the real thing.
That rapid inflation of interest and content in the sim racing world has lent it sizable credibility. Enough that race teams and car manufacturers are taking it more seriously than ever before. The biggest step yet is this: the Mercedes-AMG Petronas F1 team has lent its seven-time championship-winning engineering might to industry-standard simulator iRacing to create something special for sim racing fans anywhere.
Welcome to Headlight. This is a daily news feature that lights up one current event in the car world and breaks it down by three simple subheadings: What Happened, Why It Matters, and What To Look For Next. Look for it in the morning (Eastern time) every weekday.
iRacing has released the 2021 Mercedes-AMG F1 W12 E Performance to its subscribers for $11.95. It is the very first current F1 car to be released on a true simulator in general (the F1 series does not count), and one of a few F1 cars in sim racing to be developed with heavy assistance and technical support from the racing team that constructed it.
This is the first of two Mercedes-AMG F1 cars coming to iRacing, with the 2022 Mercedes W13 coming next year. This 2021 car comes after nearly a year of close development with the F1 team since the start of 2021 according to James Vowles, Motorsport Strategy Director of Mercedes-AMG F1.
According to Vowles, a “unique and close relationship with the developers” has allowed the iRacing team “to create as accurate a representation of W12 as possible” for racing fans and casual sim enthusiasts alike. This unique relationship has resulted in interesting techniques that I haven’t quite heard of before. For example, the Mercedes team tested within iRacing and made suggestions to the developers that resulted in changes to the physics model that have since been applied to all users.
In fact, Mercedes sought out what they felt was the ideal simulation team to work with. Steve Myers, Executive Vice President of iRacing.com, spoke to Car Autance on the subject. “The F1 team spent an incredible amount of time testing all of the sim offerings,” Myers replied in an email, “and contacted the developers to learn more about their processes and what they felt was wrong with their simulations…we took the data they offered us and we improved all of our open-wheel cars in the service before we even signed a deal to build the Mercedes F1 cars.”
With F1 cars in simulators, it’s rare for the developer to have access to the data and clout of the team itself, usually relying on piecemeal data and some factory support. This presents a serious shift in how companies handle gaming and simulators. Normally, developers approach companies with the hope of featuring its cars in a game. Now, powerful entities like Mercedes are seeking exposure on their own.
“I don’t honestly believe there has ever been an F1 car created in a retail offering that was built with more data and support from an F1 team than this car. They held nothing back from us and collaborated with us every day…this relationship absolutely takes us to a new level in terms of collaboration with what can realistically be called the greatest race team and car of this era and others will certainly take notice.”
Why It Matters
The power and reach of sim racing and gaming is something that has needed serious attention from the automotive industry for a long time. There is immeasurable value in bringing the magic of the machines we love to life and I will argue every day that there is a new generation of car enthusiasts today because of video games.
I’m here, a professional car writer, because of games. If “Need for Speed: Porsche Unleashed” didn’t exist, or if any of the “Forza Motorsport” games didn’t happen, I have no idea what my vector into the car hobby would have been. My parents don’t care about cars. I never got a magazine subscription to my door. Even those have limited appeal compared to the truly mass appeal of gaming.
The pandemic was and is still a difficult time for everyone. The little bits of joy and escape we can feast on has become more precious than ever. When we couldn’t drive, some of us sim raced. A lot of us, in fact. There is value in that escape and in the democratization of driving. Most of us will never drive a supercar, but a fair few of us can afford a basic force feedback steering wheel that clamps onto a desk and plugs into a console.
Admittedly, iRacing is the opposite of that. It is the very high end of casual sim racing and it requires serious gear to have fun with. But if we do the math of what it costs to sim race an F1 car vs the real cost of an F1 car, this is the closest thing we will ever get without having to sell that spare yacht we all obviously have. Point being, this is still a way to make F1 cars more accessible. It seems that nearly every detail of the car has been modeled in some way, even the infamous “brake magic”, brake migration, hybrid engine modes, and any parameter that a real F1 driver would manipulate during a track session.
One of the major issues with sim racing is the varying quality of simulation and feel across every single title. Developers are often not car engineers or car builders, but very smart programmers and can make sense of data. Problem is, most racing teams and automakers don’t care to share that data. For Mercedes, the seven-time F1 world champions, to proactively test a crop of simulators, reach out and tell developers what they’re doing wrong, and offer everything they can to the sim racing community, feels unheard of.
Much as real driving is my preferred method of exhilaration, the roads are changing. Traffic is getting worse. The roads we used to enjoy for peace and escape are becoming commuter highways and the spirited driving we love to do is becoming increasingly dangerous. Not to mention, Johnny Law doesn’t think much of it either. This close, passionate collaboration signals something incredibly positive for the sim racing community. Most of all, it means that our beloved hobby is finally getting the credit and attention it deserves.
What To Look For Next
iRacing plans to release the W13 next year, with no exact release date yet. For now, fans can get the W12 E Performance in-game.
Surely, this will make the industry pay more attention to sim racing. So far, fans of iRacing love the new car. I’m excited to see how this will evolve into more simulators and more developers. Perhaps, the next generation of sim racing is upon us.
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