Maintenance and gear

How to get started gaming and racing cars online

by James Mills
11 December 2020 6 min read
How to get started gaming and racing cars online
Gran Turismo Sport Group C cars

If the lockdown has provided car enthusiasts with one thing, it’s time. From checking over the classic or modern classic car to organising the garage, cleaning and polishing to repairing or replacing, we have time on our hands to do everything but drive. But there’s even an answer to that last frustration: start gaming and racing cars online.

Sure enough, millions amongst the car community are driving, and they’re not risking a telling-off from the authorities or disapproving looks from their neighbours. They’re driving in the virtual space, and you could be too.

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Ever since 1980, when electronic games including Space Invaders swept the world – prompting the Bank of Japan to triple its production of 100 Yen coins to keep up with the demand for spending time and money with arcade machines – the gaming industry has been gathering momentum. And today, esports is big business, with an estimated 600 million players. Plenty of those are gaming and racing cars online, sometime with friends, sometimes with people on the other side of the world.

How to get started gaming and racing cars online

For those not born into the digital age, or anyone who lapsed at the time gaming transitioned to online participation – perhaps because family and work were put before joypads and hot laps – knowing where to start if you want to try your hand at virtual racing may seem as daunting as when you took your driving test. And arguably, to hit the road smoothly requires more homework than a casual glance at the Highway Code.

To start gaming and racing cars online, picking console or personal computer is the first hurdle, and expense, to tackle. How much should you spend? Which is better? What are the differences? Next comes the huge selection of games, both past and present as well as those looming on the horizon. And then there’s the practical side: to be good, should you add a set of steering wheel, seat and pedals that would look at home in a Porsche 911 RSR Le Mans racer, or would the experience be just as enjoyable if you used the console’s standard controller?

Hagerty brings you James Baldwin's guide to gaming and racing
James Baldwin, winner of World’s Fastest Gamer

To get to the bottom of this, Hagerty asked two leading figures from the gaming and car community to lend their knowledge. James Baldwin is winner of 2019’s The World’s Fastest Gamer – yes, that’s a very real thing – so what he doesn’t know about gaming isn’t worth downloading. He now divides his time between virtual tournaments and driving a McLaren 720S GT3 car in the 2020 GT World Challenge for Jenson Team Rocket RJN, which is backed by Jenson Button.

And Nick Trott is a former editor of evo and Motor Sport, who founded TwentySeven Works, a data and digital trends agency. As he puts it, he’s the sort of gamer who values the escapism and sociability that the online community can offer.

This is their advice for getting started in online gaming.

Decide how serious you want your racing

Hagerty's guide to getting started gaming and racing online

Do you see yourself battling against the virtual world’s best drivers, slipstream-to-slipstream, wheel-to-wheel, scooping a substantial prize fund at international tournaments? Or would you prefer something a little more relaxed, with friends old and new alike, and no real pressure to perform?

It’s worth remembering that to be a truly great driver in the virtual world, you will need to put in the hours. Not just one sneaky hour before bedtime; a comprehensive training regimen across different games and platforms is needed to be a top-level player. It can be as good as a full-time occupation, and will require specialist equipment that doesn’t come cheap.

During the Covid-19 lockdown, James Baldwin has been racing in a variety of games and events, against the likes of Lando Norris, the McLaren hotshot. “In the F1 esports exhibition races, the level is so, so high,” says Baldwin. “It’s not gone too well for me in the last few weeks, to be honest, because I haven’t been finishing at the front, which is what I want. It’s been a bit of a learning experience where I will probably take on less to focus on fewer races” highlighting the need to stay laser-focussed if you’re to stay ahead of a chasing pack.

Hagerty's guide to getting started gaming and racing online
Clip that apex…

For the majority of gamers, a casual approach will be the preferred route to gaming, with familiar, household-name consoles and a take-it or leave-it approach to accessories, depending on your budget.

Games like Gran Turismo, says Nick Trott, can be no different to a bar or coffee shop, somewhere to meet with friends and let off steam. “They provide a wonderful opportunity for escapism for petrol heads. You can clear your mind and enjoy social interaction – something proved that’s especially important during the Covid-19 lockdown.”

Choose which platform is best for you

To know which platform is best for your needs, decide how seriously you want to take your virtual racing (see above). If you want to enter formal competitions and stand a chance of winning prize funds, steer toward a personal computer (PC) built with gaming in mind.

“All the gaming I do at the moment is on PC,” says champ racer Baldwin. “My entire setup, in terms of my gaming room, has about £9,000 of equipment, but I started off with an old [Microsoft] Xbox I had, and a rig with a seat, steering wheel and set of pedals that I bought in PC World that was on special offer. The whole lot was about £400, and I was getting podium results, but after a year I had to upgrade to PCs to be really competitive.”

A PC that will let you be competitive in gaming and racing cars online will cost between £800 and £1000, says Baldwin. Its advantage is its power, which allows it to render more frames per second than a console, which can give gamers an edge.

For everyone else, informal gaming can be enjoyed to a competitive and realistic level using platforms such as the Sony PlayStation and Microsoft Xbox. The PlayStation 4 costs from about £230, while the Xbox is from roughly £250. Both provide a host of other services, including TV streaming. The latest PlayStation 5 and XBox Series X costs from around £360, and range to about £450, depending on the hardware.

Whether opting for a PC or console, you’ll need a monitor or television, and should consider whether you can plug in a router Ethernet cable to your gaming device, giving the optimum speed, or will have to rely on WiFi.

Pick from the best driving games

Hagerty's guide to getting started gaming and racing online

There are blockbuster games for casual players, and specialist titles for gaming purists. “You’ve got roughly 14m players alone on Forza Horizon and 8m playing Gran Turismo Sport,” says Trott. Both offer an excellent starting point for driving new and classic cars and racing cars alike, on a wide mix of circuits and environments and allow for solo play or virtual, multiplayer racing. Prices start from £15.

Gran Turismo Sport also gives a gateway to races officially sanctioned by the FIA, the same body that oversees the likes of Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton and organises Grand Prix.

Baldwin says he plays informally and competes formally in F1 2019, iRacing, Assetto Corsa and rFactor 2. These are ideal for those that know their braking point from their apex point to their exit point, and cost from £20. He’s also recently been getting into Dirt Rally 2.0 “…playing with the old Lancia Delta Integrale, which has been great fun.”

Accessories elevate the experience

Guide to gaming and racing online accessories seat and steering wheel

The realism of circuits and the way cars replicate their behaviour in the real world is greatly enhanced by the latest generation of steering wheels and pedal sets.

“If I put you in a Porsche 911 with that set up,” says Trott, “but the view was the bumper-camera, you’d know within 20 seconds you were in a 911. You can feel the oscillation and the way it coordinates the feedback through the wheel to your hands, and the way you hear the revs flare, is pure 911. It’s quite special.”

Trott says he uses a Thrustmaster T300 RS steering wheel and pedal set (about £300), but adds that even Jacques Villeneuve – who raced recently in the gets by just fine using a standard hand controller. James Baldwin uses a Logitech G29 wheel and pedal combo (around £200), and both recommend Playseat for those that want to bring the whole package together in a comfortable and adjustable seating position.

Watch and learn from the pros

Hagerty brings you James Baldwin's guide to gaming and racing

“Twitch is probably the most powerful sporting platform, more powerful than any sports broadcaster, in the world” believes Trott. To the uninitiated, Twitch is a live streaming service that allows gamers to be watched by their fans, whether on an informal basis or tuning in to see a world championship contest. It can be a good way to pick up tips when trying to perfect racing lines or techniques to smash a personal lap record, or simply watch well-known gamers do their thing.

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