By Matt Hunter of The Online Racing Association (TORA).
Back in January I was asked by a member of the motorsport industry what the value of ‘virtual motorsport’ really was. It’s an interesting question and one which has gained a lot of momentum in recent years.
My first ever recollection of a top level driver using sims as a tool was Jacques Villeneuve back in his F1 days. He claimed that driving around on the Playstation assisted in initial track knowledge of venues he’d yet to visit.
That sentiment is probably shared by professional and amateur drivers more and more. With technological advancements, the accuracy of track modelling and relative physics it can be extremely useful to grab a few laps on your sim at home before jetting off to a new circuit and heading into FP1 with at least a general appreciation for where the circuit goes!
What about looking a little deeper though? How does virtual driving/testing then become proper racing in its own right? There will be a number of people who would, fairly, argue that it can never be considered a real part of the sport as you’re not really ‘driving’ in the true sense of the word. However, the competitive aspects are all there whichever way you look at it. From out-qualifying a team mate, engaging in a race long battle, sharing a car in an endurance race or even discussions on balance of performance, it all happens and this is why places such as TORA and other similar communities exist.
Increasingly, virtual drivers are now able to prove their worth on the real race track as they make the jump from gamer to real racing driver and clearly there are some exceptional talents. There are also two distinct routes to the race track. Competitions such as the GT Academy are fantastic ways for big numbers to try their hand at an entry to what has become the most prolific virtual driving competition in the world. The initial stages are largely based around ‘hotlapping’, essentially producing the fastest time possible. Once whittled down, the finalists find themselves in real cars with traning that many of us can only dream of.
On the other side there are the growing virtual racing communities run by fans of the sport often using categories of racing that are popular such as GTs, touring cars and grand prix style racing. Where the process differs here is that while those drivers making the transition are extremely fast, by being ‘brought up’ in the sim racing community they have learned a lot about acceptable racecraft in a safe, secure environment. I would argue that this was the better way around. Surely it’s more acceptable to have a safer driver who becomes quick over one who may be extremely fast but often prone to errors in judgement?
I believe this is the other major benefit of virtual racing. With proper procedures and rules packages in place and being able to mirror the expectations of the MSA, TORA and others like it are fantastic environments for budding racers of all ages to develop a range of skills from team management and livery design to set up work and media coverage. Most of all, however, competitors can safely learn acceptable racecraft without incurring expensive bodyshop bills at the end of the day!
For eight years we’ve made it our mission to be as close to reality as possible and that’s why I think a good number of karters, club racers and enthusiasts use our championships to get a feel for what it may be like should they ever reach that far up the ladder. It’s why we have the trust and support of major teams, drivers, technical partners and championships like British GT.
There is clearly a change occurring and virtual motorsports is rightly taking its place in the e-sports arena as an exciting alternative to actually being there. Virtual series even get coverage on tv nowadays. It’s a safe, cheap way to go testing for professional teams. It’s a learning tool for those drivers heading to new circuits for the first time. It’s a great way to learn about real world championships and it’s also a fantastic amount of fun!