How To Start Sim Racing As Cheap As Possible
Like pretty much every pastime, sim racing can get pretty expensive if you let it. It’s all too easy to look at the shiny rigs on display at eSport events, or those used by erm sim racing influencers and come to the conclusion that the sim racing is a great way to turn a small amount of money into a large overdraft in the blink of an eye – but, that’s really only one side of the story.
I’ve lost count of the number of comments I receive telling me that I could get out and do some real racing for the cost of my sim-rig. Those people are waaay off the mark, but that’s a story for another day. There is merit to the underlying premise though, you really don’t need to spend a lot of money to get started sim racing. And, based on my experience, spending lots of money really doesn’t gain much, if any competitive advantage either. I’m not going to be covering that aspect here, but if you’re new to the channel, check out my video about whether sim racing is pay to win to hear my thoughts on that subject, and to see me test my high end wheel and pedals against an entry level setup – spoiler alert, my laptimes were near identical with both.
So, if selling your soul at the crossroads, or your kidney to a back alley surgeon isn’t necessary, what then is the cheapest route to entry into sim racing? I’m going to be breaking down the options in the following areas: platform, controllers,, rig & software and taking a look at the most budget friendly options, and discussing the merits of each.
This is probably going to be the most convoluted of the subject areas, since most people interested in starting sim racing will have somewhere they can start from, and there are big plusses and minuses to each option. The big debate for most people getting started is whether to go console or PC, and this may be heavily dependent on what you already have available. It’s no secret that PC is the platform that’s best catered for in the sim racing world. The open nature and flexibility of hardware integration that comes with windows PCs provides an ideal environment for sim racing to flourish. And, that means that there are more software and hardware options available for PC than there are for consoles. On top of that, the open nature of many PC titles alows for third part software and community generated mods to be used which further enhance the experience. But, that doesn’t mean that you can’t start out sim racing on a console, far from it. Both Xbox and Playstation offer a range of driving games, from outright arcade racers to fully fledged sims. For example, the popular Assetto Corsa and Project Cars 2 are available on both Sony & Microsoft’s consoles, and each has their own exclusives that are worthy of note. When I got back into sim racing again around 4 years ago, it was on a Playstation 4 – and really it was the modding scene that eventually dragged me over to the PC platform.
So then, if you’re starting out with nothing, then a console is by far the cheapest route to entry. And with both platforms due for a generational refresh next year, there’s a strong argument for buying second hand. These are localised prices, so they will likely vary based on where you live, but the prices on pre-owned current gen consoles are very reasonable these days.
That being said, a lot of people have a PC in the house that may well be capable of playing some sim racing titles. One of the real positives of the sim racing community is that they have traditionally favoured physics performance over shiny graphics, which means that many older titles are still very popular, despite not looking quite as spectacular as the newest of the new. And, many of these can be run on older hardware, but more on that later. So, you may well be able to run racing sims on the PC you already have, or perhaps with a modest upgrade
Sim Racing Wheels & Controllers
With the thorny issue of gaming platform out of the way, let’s look at input devices – which broadly breaks down into joypads vs wheel & pedals. While there are a good number of fast drivers out there making use of the humble joypad, I think it would be fair to describe this setup as, err, less than ideal. And the majority of users will perform better with a wheel and pedals. And, that’s mentioning nothing of the immersion factor. Driving racing sims, particularly those with more representative real world physics, is all about precise, measured control inputs. And, the 900 degrees of rotation most wheels provide, definitely encourages smoother and more deliberate control inputs than the handful of millimetres of travel on a thumb-stick or other joystick. And the same goes for dedicated pedals. Moreover, if you want to drive cars with manual gearboxes, it quickly becomes nightmarishly difficult to do so on a controller. But, if your budget won’t stretch to a wheel, don’t let that put you off, get stuck in and see if sim racing is for you.
Beyond the precision of input that a wheel and pedal set provide is the small matter of force feedback. If you’ve not used a sim racing wheel before it could be easy to overlook this as similar to the vibration you feel in a game pad, but this is a very different beast. When your’re driving a real car out on the road or track, your body provides information about how the car is interfacing with the environment, you feel G-Forces, vibrations etc. that let your brain know how the car is behaving. When you’re sat in a chair playing a video game, you have none of this – which can make driving games quite tricky. However, if you have a force feedback wheel, racing sims provide highly useful information through the wheel about how the car is interacting with the road surface when everything is going well, and with other objects when things are going less well. The resistance on the wheel increases with the loads on the simulated car, giving you essential feedback about how the car is behaving. Without force feedback, feeling the grip limit is impossible, and you have to rely on visual cues, which is, simply put much more difficult. But, with a force-feedback wheel, you can feel the car go slightly over the limit, the wheel feels lighter, and you can instinctively correct the car with the appropriate control input, usually counter-steer.
So, most people will be looking at some sort of wheel and pedal setup. And the two big players in the entry level space are Thrustmaster and Logitech. At the moment, in the UK at least, it’s hard to recommend anything other than the Logitech G29 or G920 for budget concious buyers. The new prices are at what is pretty much an all-time-low, and the pre-owned prices have followed suit. I recently spent a month with a brand new G29 in preparation for an upcoming review and honestly, it’s hard to fault it for the price – you get a lot of wheel for the money. Furthermore, older models like the G25 and G25 are also suitably inexpensive on the second hand market, and are functionally very similar to the new models. Just to avoid confusion, the G29 and 920 are pretty much identical, with the 29 being setup for PC and PS4, and the 920 being PC and Xbox compatible.
As a final note, in the past, I’ve recommended that perhaps spending a little more on the equivalent Thrustmaster offering would make sense, but with the Logitech prices being so low right now, I don’t think that makes a lot of sense for budget concious consumers. Of course, your mileage may vary.
Sim Racing Rig
For me, this is the easiest section – you don’t need a dedicated sim rig. Most wheel and pedal sets, including the recommended Logitech offerings include a desk mount of some sort. So, all you need to do is make a bit of space and start racing. And, If you are using a desk clamp, make sure your chair isn’t going to roll away when you stamp on the brake pedal using whatever method you like really. But if you do want some sort of dedicated sim rig, there are some great budget conscious choices. And then of course, there’s always the DIY route. I’ve seen some great sim cockpits made from wood, PVC pipe, steel tubing or whatever the maker is most comfortable with, often paired with an old car seat from the scrapyard, or ebay. And, it’s probably fair to say that many of these rig will be much more robust than the entry level commercial offerings.
Sim Racing Software / Games
Obviously, software is going to be pretty much platform dependent. If you’re going down the console route, in terms of full-blown sims Project Cars 2 and Assetto Corsa are available on both main platforms, as are the slightly more accessible F1 & Dirt games from Codemasters. Furthermore both Microsoft and Sony have their flagship exclusive racing series, Forza and Gran Turismo. If I were starting from scratch, I would opt for Playstation, on the basis that GT Sport is superior to Forza Motorsport 7 from both a physics and competition perspective. Though, of course this may change with the next generation.
As I mentioned earlier, the PC platform has a lot of choice in the racing sim sphere, with titles like RFactor, iRacing, Assetto Corsa Competizione, RaceRoom, Automobilista, Dirt Rally, the aforementioned Assetto Corsa and Project cars as well as a number of older titles that still hold up. I have a separate video comparing the merits of the main racing sims for those new to PC based sim racing which you should check out to get a feel for the landscape, especially if budget isn’t your primary concern. However, if you’re using an older PC, titles like RaceRoom, Assetto Corsa, iRacing RFactor 2 and Automobilista can be run on pretty humble equipment if you’re willing to turn some of the settings down. Newer sims, like Project Cars 2, and especially Assetto Corsa Competizione need a bit more horsepower to support their more modern visual engines, so it’s very much a case of looking at the minimum specs and seeing if your setup meets the requirements.
As for the actual cost of the software, again the age of some of the sims really leads to some great bargains, especially when it time for the Steam seasonal sales. Assetto Corsa, AMS and RFactor in particular frequently have deep discounts and great content bundles. So if it’s worth keeping an eye on historical prices on a site like steamprices.com to look out for potential future deals.
The two outliers are RaceRoom and iRacing. The former is free to play, with limited content and the expectation that you will purchase more cars and tracks as you go. This is great for giving it a try without spending any money, but buying content can get expensive if you buy it piecemeal. If you like Raceroom and want to buy more than a handful of content, the massive discount offered by buying everything at once is the most cost effective option, but it’s a pretty big outlay. But, that outlay ain’t got nothing on the monster that is iRacing. There’s a subscription fee to use the service, which is far from insignificant, and on top of that, you’ll need to buy all of the content you intend to race after you get out of the Rookie Class, which is typically priced between 12 and 15 dollars per item. There are of course discounts to be had, especially as you add more content – but it does add up. Now, fans of iRacing will point out that they get great value for their outlay, and I consider myself in this group – but if you’re on a tight budget, iRacing might not be the best place to start.
Like any hobby, sim racing is going to cost. But, presuming you’re starting out with literally nothing, you could easily pick up a pre-owned console, wheel, pedals and some games for under £300 in the UK. Now, that’s not an insignificant amount of money but I think it’s fairly inline with the costs associated with a lot of other pastimes, or to put it another way about 1 and a half beers a week for a year at my local. And if you’ve already got a PC that’s moderately capable, things get even cheaper. You can save even more money by forgoing the wheel and pedals, but at that stage I think you’re starting to harm the quality of the experience. Finally, I think it’s important to acknowledge that cost and value are highly subjective, and what seems reasonable to me may well be prohibitively expensive for someone else, or if they’re lucky, pocket change. Whatever the case, if sim racing is a hobby that you truly enjoy, it will likely find a way of extracting as much money from your wallet as it physically can. This is very much gateway drug territory, consider yourselves warned!
So that just about wraps things up here. I hope you enjoyed the video, if you did it would be great if you could hit the like button and subscribe to the channel so you can see more videos like this in the future. So, all that’s left to say is goodbye, thanks for watching and enjoy the rest of your day.