Get off the line!

“It’s race six of the 1994 season, Mika and I have worked so hard on development to bring the McLaren-Peugeot into contention for wins, though I seem to be the only one to have taken any wins so far. The opening race at Sao Paolo was mine, with Jean Alesi taking second I got a leap on the championship battle that was to emerge with Michael Schumacher in his Benetton-Ford B194.  He won at Aida, then Imola, where I got third behind Hill. Monaco was all about the two of us but I emerged as the victor.  Sadly, in Barcelona Michael had it all his own way.

Now we’re in Montreal.  Michael stuck it on pole, with me on the front row beside him. We got away well and now I’m tracking behind him as we approach the first pit window. Hill in third is over twelve seconds back and battling hard with Mika and his team mate David Coulthard. My tyres are starting to struggle and Michael has a clear edge in the braking areas, I don’t think I can beat him here, unless I can work the pit stops to my advantage, he’s pushing hard as we come up to the pit window.  We chop under the bridge into the braking area for the turn eight chicane and I notice Michael has gone deep, I brake at my normal point, where I have the last twenty laps, he locks his inside front hard and pushes wide, over the chicane. I take the gap, I see Schumacher’s blue and green Benetton bouncing on the grass to my left, and then in my left mirror, sideways, rejoining the track wildly as I power down to the hairpin. I didn’t expect that, a grin spreads across my face. Still, there’s a long way to go in this one.”

Wait a minute, that doesn’t sound like the 1994 Formula One season. The season Senna started as favourite until that tragic weekend in May, the season that McLaren’s move to Peugeot engines began a dry spell that would last till 1997, the season that Schumacher took second place in Barcelona, despite his Benetton being stuck in fifth gear.

That’s because it was my 1994 season, as it played out in Geoff Crammond’s seminal simulator “Grand Prix 2“.  Such was the depth of this sim, the atmosphere, the attention to detail, that one could sculpt a story around it, build a fiction that could encapsulate a simracing mad teenager’s mind so much that focus on that next practice session took precedence over any suggestion of pesky homework.

I spent too much of my time in this cockpit.

It wasn’t just Grand Prix 2 (GP2), of course, I had lived through four full seasons in its predecessor, as well as two full Indycar seasons in Papyrus’ “Indycar Racing” the sim that allowed simracing legend David Kaemmer take the fight to Crammond, in which similar stories could be pieced together from races.  I still remember a white knuckle lap around Laguna Seca to steal pole from Bobby Rahal’s Lola after an hour-long tussle for the spot. I remember throwing a 32 second lead into the wall at the Vancouver street race due to a lapse in concentration and my parents being baffled at my inexplicable rage through dinner.

This depth allowed a racing sim to take over all of one’s free gaming time, which when I was fourteen was quite a lot, and it was in these sims that the foundation of what I now get to call a hobby was born.

Back in these days online racing was just a dream, and once or twice I hooked a 14.4bps modem up to a friend to manage a two player punt around in GP2 and speculated on a future where one could race random people the world over on the great race tracks of the world. Back then conceptions of online racing never got in the way of good, offline racing, against AI that, in some cases, was believable and immersive. I effectively decided I disliked Paul Tracy due to the way Papyrus made his on-track persona, and I respected and loathed Schumacher for his devastating race pace that allowed him to beat me on more than one occasion.  At season’s end, I would concoct a plot for the driver market, and move drivers between teams using mod tools to make sure the right helmets were in the right cars, and even contended a season in a midfield Tyrrell. The headlines roared out about my mistake, how would he get out of this contract in an uncompetitive car?

It was a time when every sim offered this kind of immersion. You could compete in a full season racing the guys you see on TV in Formula One, Indycar, NASCAR, by 1997 Codemasters entered the fray with TOCA Touring cars featuring the (then vibrant) BTCC series.  There were many directions for one’s imagination to race, and then came Grand Prix Legends (GPL), and the immersion stepped up another notch.

Racing Jim Clark, Graham Hill, Jacky Ickx, Lorenzo Bandini, in a sim? In 1998 I had only a passing knowledge of Formula One in 1967, now I am a noted expert on the subject!  GPL gave us accurately reproduced tracks of the era, along with cars that sounded like sheer heaven, and sometimes drove like sheer hell, accurate race program covers, an interface with that aged look and feel that we normally only got with World War two flight sims.  A full season in GPL took its toll, and my insistence on driving a Ferrari also meant that the best I could hope would be to beat Bandini over the season. A move to Lotus for my next season saw me repeatedly crushed by the genius of Clark in computer form, over and over. Never has a robotic version of a world champion garnered so much grudging respect as had Jimmy Clark back in the winter of 1999.  But then came VROC, and everything changed.

When the clouds of reverie disperse, we find ourselves in 2012, only seven years before Bladerunner will take place, where cars will fly, and androids may or may not dream of electric sheep; the simracing arena has changed,  and online racing is the focus of every sim out there that has any claim to the name. Major licences such as Formula One and NASCAR are given offline blasts in games that any serious simulation enthusiast would regard as “arcade” and a multitude of online only simulators own the serious simmer’s time, with examples of cars from the aforementioned series available as a “weapon of choice.”

Forums are naturally alight with competitive gripes, with lengthy discussions on better tyre physics or stronger realism, and in a sense, immersion. But is some of that immersion lacking from the very nature of the sim?  Can the immersion of racing against a field of drivers you see racing on TV, week-in, week-out be comparable to racing against a series of names you’ve never heard of?  Is racing Jimmy Smith the same as racing Jimmy Clark?  I think not.

In recent times, the issue that the offline sim has had, is poor AI. Games such as GTR2, GT Legends, the P&G add-on for GTR2 (It’s too close to being a completely new game to be really called a mod) and a number of others suffer from using ISI AI code that was seemingly thrown in as an afterthought to a sim that would be focussed on online play.  With AI that can do curious things, like line up and park behind a car that has spun, or turn in mercilessly on a human player that is alongside it into a turn, how can you be immersed? How can you run a full season against AI that does things that can only be classified as “daft as a brush?”  You can’t, and so the online packages get adopted.

But for many, online racing is not satisfying. At times you can get onto a server and spend hours just trying to get within a second or two of the incumbent drivers.  You could race for years without having a shot at victory, car choice gets limited to the fastest car or nothing, and when the race comes to an end, unless you race in a league there is little point to it, no championship points, no long-term campaign.  Even if you win the race any elation you have is not shared, there is no cinematic cut-scene with a champagne bottle cork launching into the air, nothing but back to a menu, and back to staid, real life.

Of course, this is the thing about online racing, it is real life. You, and all the other people in the race are really in there, doing this race, making it happen. It’s a great, great thing, but do we not sometimes like to play with simulators to explore our imagination?  Most Falcon 4 players don’t want to really be in a theatre of war, but they love their sim because they get to explore the depths of their imagination to see what it could be like.  When a Flight Simulator X player completes some insane challenge to land a Sea King on an Aircraft Carrier in extremely turbulent weather, they feel a sense of achievement, where the real life Sea King pilot would much prefer a nice, calm, sunny day.

Simulators of all forms, on the most part, give us the chance to drive vehicles we wouldn’t get the chance to drive in real life, and they can put us into situations that are tough. When we race online it’s sometimes too close to the bone, too real, and emotions run high, who needs the stress? We’re supposed to be doing this for fun.

There was a long period in video gaming when many a game would offer both an online and an offline component, appealing to both ends of the market.  I feel, in the modern era, when we look at the relatively small niche of simracing that encapsulates anything that can seriously be called a simulator, that offline play is neglected.  Is there no call for a serious simulator that takes on the IZOD Indycar series anymore, for instance? Whilst I understand that the global popularity of series such as Formula One or NASCAR have such broad appeal that a game has to be playable by a wide audience, there are many series out there that could be developed into a solid, deep and time consuming offline sim: DTM, GP2, GP3, Grand-Am, WEC, ALMS, even the Lotus Cup UK!

This isn’t an offline Grand-Am sim…

Throwing a Lotus 49 into an online sim doesn’t give the offline player the chance to be 1967 Formula One World Champion any more than chucking a Porsche 911 GT3 in would let you virtually battle René Rast for the Porsche Supercup title, and offline racing, indulging in our imaginations, is where this whole business started from.

With some good AI, attention to detail and realism, any racing series could be a great challenge for the offline simracer. It gives the player the chance to play the time of day that suits them, to save their game and come back to it if their five year old kid piles into the room mid race, to enjoy poring over tyre management (Crammond’s GP series enforced F1’s tyre restriction rules of the era) in their own time, and to be able to adjust the performance slider to fit in with their pace to make sure that they get the kind of enjoyment from their driving simulation that they want.

When I compare that to the Lion’s den of online racing, I have to assume that someone might want to give it a go.

Posted in SimRacing | 3 Comments

Automation, the start of something special?

V8’s are coming to Automation!

Hands up who knows what I am talking about?  Of course, I refer to the new game in development over at Camshaft software: Automation.  Presenting a detailed car industry simulation, Automation is proving quite addictive in its early stages, where no industry is yet possible; for now, we just have an engine builder, and it’s a lot more fun than I ever imagined.

A V8 is prepped on the workbench.

Many will be excited by the potential for this “car tycoon” game in the form of the industry simulation, and building up your own car brand to be a world beater. Creating a world leading supermini or luxury sedan has never really been my thing, but putting the thing together does fascinate me, and the early engine builder demo had me locked right in when a proposal was put forth for me to build a high revving, low capacity engine for single-seater racing cars.  Studying the laptop screen intensely, as I was, the blonde asked me what I was up to “Oh, just trying to achieve the perfect cam profile”, she left the room promptly.

As the development of Automation moves on there could be more and more of this sort of thing, and the chance, I hope, to develop racing cars from scratch, engine, gearbox, suspension geometry, you name it, but where does it go?

This is where it gets fun, for me. The potential of Automation could well span across more than just the genre it encapsulates, it could become an institution.  Let me explain:

The Automation forums are teeming with people who are excited about this game. People who, engineering background or not, enjoy the creative aspect of designing and building cars, whether for the road or the track. Knowledge of the simracing community is not a given but what is reasonably common is that these people would like to be able to try out their creations in some manner of vehicle simulator.  Sure, they may just want to pootle around and may not have the desire to be bellicose with competitive spirit, but some hints have suggested that the Automation guys have thought about talking with sim developers for some kind of cross-over of vehicles built within Automation, to a simulator environment.

Quite how far this has or has not gone I do not know, but allow me to dream for a moment…

At present iRacing have world championships for both road and oval side racing. These series, we are given to understand, attract the fastest simracers in the world, competing every few weeks to be crowned at the end of the season and receive a nice big cheque.  One of these series is based on a Formula One car, that being the accepted pinnacle of road racing.

But F1 racing, in real life, is not like this, it is not a championship where everyone drives a Williams Toyota FW31, but rather a team based sport where technical endeavour has always been a driving factor. Sure, great drivers make it to F1, but they do not always make it to great cars.  The true spirit of F1 racing, from the earliest days of pre-war Grands Prix, to the modern era, is about a team of people pulling together to create a car from the ground up. They may buy in brakes from AP or Brembo, or sparkplugs from Champion, but the main basis of the chassis is made in-house, and in some cases the engines are built in the same factory.

So, for simracing, we have driver championships, but how about replicating this team spirit?  If a deal were struck between developers, what is to stop teams of people getting together to develop cars to race? With differing aerodynamics and suspension design, built within fairly loose criteria (Give it 50 years for the rule book to hit the 200 page point!) defining dimensions and engine rules, and then let those teams hire top simracers to race their creations in a serious bid at a virtual F1 series.

With a common in-game economy there could even be dedicated engine builders, for off the shelf units to be picked up by teams, or even custom chassis design consultation from engineers.  All of which leading to a point where your driver runs your creation on track for the first time, races it competitively and scores points for both constructors and the driver championships.

The top guys may want something more modern than this!

Where this gets even more exciting, would be a collaboration with the developers at iGPManager, which could bolt in and provide a web-based race interface for the team managers to use during races, to decide on fuel strategy and pit stops. Leaving the driving to the driver.

Feeder Formula could help drivers develop, at the same time team owners build up their skills by running in spec F3 or GP2 series, with off the shelf chassis being allied to engines built by Automationeers keen to build the strongest low-capacity engine they can muster, building up their coffers by supplying engines to teams, with the hope that one day they will have the funds to build engines for the F1 series.

But hang on, what is this, three developers, talking to each other? Making a collaborative MMO styled game that offers a potential interest point for budding engineers, strategists as well as quick drivers?  Where a team of like-minded, if differently skilled people get together to truly achieve something special in a virtual environment, could it happen?

I believe it could, and at the same time it could create a merging of communities to create a genuine virtual motorsport industry, with teams eventually pulling in real world sponsors, broadcasting deals, and teams of people building bonds across the globe based around victory in a genuine virtual team sport.

Over to you developers.

Posted in SimRacing | 1 Comment

rFactor 2 beta coming along nicely.

When I saw the announcement for build 85 of the rFactor 2 beta a few weeks ago, there was a small re-awakening within me.  It had been some months since I had done much driving in rFactor2 (rF2), as Alex Martini had lured me into machismo fuelled contest during iRacing’s first season of 2012 which had more or less consumed all of my simming time since the rF2 beta surfaced around Christmas 2011.

However, Alex’s assumptive attitude that virility, courage, strength, and being able to do fast laptimes in pretend racing cars, are concomitants of masculinity was soon assuaged, and the season fizzled to a unremarkable end like a squib that had been left in a toilet bowl.

The result of which was that all involved felt it was time for a change. It often remarks me in the simracing community how many people stick to one sim for their simracing times. Sure, we all have limited time to spend with our hobby, and chopping and changing can really affect competitive performance, but there can often be an attitude that one sim is the greatest and all the others are somehow hugely flawed. Partly propagated by the tendency for exaggeration and questionable literacy on online forums, this attitude is more or less common to all sim communities, and it’s a saddening reflection on a genre that, in reality, is provided for with some very strong products across the board.

What remarked me on the release of the rF2 beta, was how many people there were that decided it was no good (and demanded a refund) within what surely could not have been more than an hour after download.  The rF2 forum was alight with people saying “it’s a beta, it’s not going to be perfect” which rings some truth, but at the same time, how can anyone truly judge any sim without getting some serious laps under their belt?  I’ve been doing this a pretty long time, and I would say it still takes me a good few hours, sometimes per car to assess how good or bad a given sim’s various simulated components hold together. Sometimes this can be an even longer process if one’s mind is attuned to another simulator, where hours and hours of gameplay leads one to adapt to the foibles of a given product.

The early builds of rF2 were a blend of good and bad. the graphics were not top notch in the first public betas, and certain hardware configurations had strange problems here and there.  The driving model itself felt good, much of this feel came from the superb force feedback, but it was not without its faults.  The tyre model, whilst a clear improvement on rFactor 1, still felt very “WIP” (as it, quite rightly, still is), and so there seemed to be a rather severe drop off sometimes in rear tyre grip, and combined loads were not being dealt with very well by the physics engine. At the same time, temperature modelling and slide recovery, allied to the high speed controller response, felt natural and very drivable.

It varied per car, and in the first builds I would say the the above characteristics were more apparent on lighter cars, and on the Formula Renault, which was slick shod, it was far too apparent.  In recent builds, this has been greatly improved, and the Formula Renault has become very much a joy to drive fast.  No longer does it feel on a knife edge in the fast stuff, and spin like a top in the slow stuff.  Now you can push the tyre, especially under heavy aero loads, and whilst is sometimes skips over the bumps in the surface in a rather gratifying way, you never feel like the car is barely under your control.

The Formula Renault single seater in rF2 is greatly improved in recent builds

In a brief return to the aforementioned overly competitive nature of our hobby, I promptly start to get questions from friends who are planning to try out the new build, the first almost always being “What laptimes are you running?”

As was alluded to in my rF2 article in the December 2011 issue of AutoSimSport, such a question is not so easy to answer any more.  You see, running laps in rF2 s not the same as most other sims. To simply say “I did some laps at Sepang” is not enough, this could mean any number of varying track conditions that could bring a similar number of different potential laptimes.  If you want to tell someone about how you popped out for a spin in rF2, you have to write a little story.

“I arrived at Sepang International Circuit as the sun was just cresting over the top of the palm trees to the east beyond turn four. The track was clean from the previous night’s rain. At 8 am the oppressive Malaysian heat was rising up from the overnight lull and it was already 27 degrees as I peeled onto the circuit, with a mere 12kmh northerly breeze to take the edge off.”

The morning sun majestically peeps over the palm trees lining turn four at Sepang.

Of course, the story above made for clean, fast laptimes flowing nicely, tyres keeping themselves tidy and in a good heat zone. But then, as the day progressed and the Malaysian sun beat the temperatures up to a hearty 36 degrees, setup changes became inevitable, my on-board HUD telling me that brake and engine temperatures were nudging into the red, and with each passing lap keeping the tyres within their performance envelope became a chore. In I came: “Bigger brake ducts, adjust radiator opening, to hell with the drag, and drop a few PSI out of each tyre, my good man!” I bellow at my non-existent race engineer, imagination on overload.

Much like real life, running a laptime in rF2 is very much about the time and the place. On a nice, rubbered in track, under light clouds and favourable breezes, a 1.55s lap at Sepang may be a doddle.  On the same track, not rubbered in, on a 38 degree midday sun and a heavy southerly wind making the direction change in turns five and six more of an adventure, you may struggle to get into the 1.56’s. But this is how it is, and anyone else on track at the same time has it the same way.  This, in itself, becomes the antithesis of the simracers laptime quoting urination contests, as finding the right wind and track conditions, and having the AI punt around for an hour to rubber things up, can produce times well above what you may be able to run in a race session. And let’s remember, its how the track is when you’re all on it that matters.  The fact that the track is oriented correctly for the sun, and that shadows move in exactly the same patterns you see on the TV, only adds to the experience (How long will it be till someone creates a mod to automatically update to real world weather every 15 mins, MS Flight sim style?).

What this does contribute to is atmosphere.  rF2 oozes atmosphere, especially after the graphical changes brought with build 90. The colours so deep and involving, the shadows, in the right place at the right time, it feels right, believable and not at all static and pre-engineered. It gives the driver more to think about than just finding the fastest time, it makes them think about how the circuit is behaving, where the grip is, will that part of track be cooler in the shade? Will this part still be damp from the rain half an hour ago?

For me, atmosphere has been something lacking from many of the “online only” brigade of sims that have propagated over the last ten years. Crammond’s GP series was lush with the kind of detail that really got you involved in the moment, and GPL made me both despise and respect the AI version of Jim Clark, for his unerring pace, immeasurably.

Build 90 of rF2 introduced the officially licenced 1966 Brabham BT20, and with it the Brianza historic track, which to the uninitiated is a representation of Monza from an age before chicanes. This track, filled with so much history, and passion from the annals of motorsport is a joy to drive. Beautiful in almost every detail, powering through the trees, in side-by-side slip-streaming battles with good friends almost brings a tear to the eye.

Morning sunlight dapples through the trees at Lesmo one.

With a highly accomplished sound engine that almost allows you to place braking points using the ear alone as you “whoosh” past heavier trackside objects, an ever growing portfolio of tracks and cars, and flawless netcode, rF2 is shaping up into what looks like a very promising package in the long run.  After the over-serious and dry atmosphere seen in some racing sims, rF2 is a breath of fresh air where, in recent days, for me, the fun has really been put back into simracing.

Powering out of Curva Grande, with the Repco V8 on full song.

Posted in rFactor 2 | 12 Comments

Managing those round, black things…

Quite a few column inches over recent weeks have been dedicated to seven-time world champion Michael Schumacher’s rant about the current situation with tyres in Formula one racing.  His concerns, that in races drivers have to drive to delta times in the early laps so as to maintain enough rubber for the latter part of the stint, so as to avoid tyre “drop off” has launched divisive debate in the motor racing community at large.

Putting aside the obvious point: that old Mike might not complain so much were his Mercedes WGP-W03 a little easier on tyres, the debate is something relatively new to the sport.  In the past, racing to deltas has been important for a number of reasons: the main one being tyre wear.  At various stages of the sport, tyre wars have caused manufacturers to push tyres to the limits to gain optimal performance from them, this has resulted in unexpected situations, where a given circuit’s abrasiveness or surface variation has meant drivers have to look after their tyres if they are to make it through the race.  At other times, there were rules imposed to manage tyres, such as the 2005 season, when tyre stops were banned mid race, and drivers had to make one set last the distance.

But this is different, in 2011 and 2012 Pirelli have been asked to spice up the show, to present tyres that will give the teams a headache. In the past tyre manufacturers were making the best tyres they could, sometimes that would not work out, other times it would.  It was a judgement call for Michelin in 2005 to bring tyres to the US Grand Prix that would be as fast as possible, if they could not cope with the loadings through the banked 200mph turn then they would find out on the day, which they did, and they were wrong. They made a mistake and the tyres did not work.

Now, Pirelli are essentially making tyres that do not work, and for some this goes against the spirit of the sport, but for many it is not that defined. Many, it seems, feel that the spirit of the sport should entail the drivers driving balls out, every lap, and never having to be concerned for the longevity of their tyres.

Whereever you stand on this debate, it is hard not to appreciate that since the very beginning of motor racing, drivers have always been concerned with their tyres.  It is fair to say, I think, that during a race the average racing driver thinks about their tyres more than just about anything else. Perhaps F1 should be the pinnacle, and this should not be a concern, the best tyre technology should be available. But, maybe, the best drivers in the world should be challenged in more areas than in sheer pace?

Remember this? It’s a racing car simulator.

Working, as it is my want, this post around to the simracing world, it is quite clear from watching the best simracers in the world on live broadcasts that they run balls out, and whilst tyre temperature could be a concern, they are rarely concerned about wear. Pit stops in iRacing World Championship GP Series are always for fuel, and even though new tyres are always fitted, the general consensus is that they could go the distance with relatively little drop off in performance.

This seems to be a theme in iRacing, particularly with the NTM.  Having run races in the LMP2 Honda ARX (which admittedly, would have longer lasting endurance tyres) and the Dallara Indycar, it seems to be that I can run a full tank of virtual fuel through these cars and still have very strong tyre life. Is this right?

Well, not in my real world experience, where I have always found tyres go through a wear cycle naturally, and after a certain number of kilometres are good for nothing but bolting on to practice car control on a skid pan.  The only sim that truly reflects this, in the current market, is netKar Pro.  Other sims make a stab, and in many a sim you have to manage tyres, but in netKar Pro the tyre’s lifecycle is there to see. You head out of the pits on a cold set, then on your first flying lap there is solid and reliable grip, it feels great, but then, with every passing lap the tyres slowly deteriorate and you have to adapt your driving.

Last year, when I was racing with the guys over at Race Department netKar Pro club in the very impressive Formula KS2, I fell victim to more experienced drivers in my early races due to this.  I could extract the pace needed for a great grid position over one qualifying lap, but as the race wore on I lost pace, and had to learn how to adapt my style and drive the car in slightly different ways, to maintain reasonable laptime on tyres that were slowly degrading.  My inexperience meant that in the mid-point of races I was losing time as it took me a few laps to adapt my style, then the pace would come back, only to find the tyres going away more and more in the final laps, and more adjustment needed.  In other words, doing exactly what you see drivers in GP2, Formula Renault 3.5, Indycar and any other race series with notable race lengths.

This added to realism, this added to immersion, and presented me with a challenge as a virtual racing driver that was far above the challenge of nailing the same apex, lap after lap on good tyres.  As the fronts start to wear, the turn in point for any given corner changes, as does the braking point, the point at which you get off the brakes, and the speed you can carry through the turn; as the rears start to wear you have to adjust how early and how hard you get on the throttle.  If the tyres don’t wear, you do all of these things at the same time every lap, particularly when there is no variance in track temperature and grip.  So your sim-race becomes more about muscle memory than anything, favouring those drivers with more practice time to hone their perfect lap over and over.  In real life, tyres are organic and change all the time, replicating this in a sim is the challenge of a lifetime for David Kaemmer, Stefano Casillo et al; It may never be perfect, but representing this variance in performance and behaviour should be a factor in any sim.

Having spoken to a few iWCGPS drivers on this subject, it was to no great surprise that many disagreed. One particular driver was quite effervescent in his disagreement “Look at F1 now” he brayed, in his dulcid, posh tones, “exciting drivers like Lewis Hamilton have been castrated, we should be watching them at the peak of their skill on every lap, pushing the car to the edge.” Perhaps Lewis would agree, but would Jackie Stewart? Or Stirling Moss?  Surely an ability to control tyre performance should be part of the top line grand prix driver’s armoury?  “Maybe JD” responded my suave opponent “…but no one wants that in their simracing do they? You want to go balls out, every lap pushing, on the edge, anything else just isn’t fun. And tell me this JD, isn’t simracing supposed to be fun?”

This is supposed to be fun you know!

It’s a fair point, but it’s also fair to assume that fast drivers will always prefer a situation that allows them to go faster, and oppose a situation that causes them a headache. The curious thing, is that at the same time many of the same fast drivers push for more and more realism in their sims, pointing to, once again, that crucial dichotomy between competition and realism in simracing.

Those of you that know me will know that i always fall on the side of realism. But, if you ask me, regardless of what Michael Schumacher has to say, F1 has thrown up some surprising races this year, paradoxically, the iWCGPS has not. Would a heavier aspect of tyre management add some spice?

I’m willing to bet it would.

Posted in iRacing, iWCSRR, Kunos Simulazioni, SimRacing | Leave a comment

Assetto Corsa.

As some of you may know, I wrote about my recent trip to Vallelunga to visit the guys at Kunos Simulazioni and try out an early pre-alpha version of their upcoming simulator “Assetto Corsa,” in the last issue of AutoSimSport Magazine (available here).

Aris Vasilakos made a brief video of me driving the sim, nothing too special, and no HD or magical cameras in sight. This is a video made with a mobile phone on the fly, with very poor lighting conditions, that I hope gives you brief teaser into the state of development that Assetto Corsa is at.

As it stands the physics engine is in early stages, this test was in March, and a lot of progress has happened since then. However, it shows a lot of promise as to where the sim can go with further development.  The video is a brief trip by me at Imola in the Formula Abarth single seater, the main things to note are the crisp turn in of the car, and the pressure put through the steering wheel force feedback under heavy braking:

You can also see in the Rivazza corners how confidently the driver can lean on the car at speed.

A brief teaser I know, and hopefully in time I can bring you more. I need more coffee, so a flight to Italy will be on the cards again soon!

Posted in Kunos Simulazioni | 5 Comments

Is one tyre model enough?

Everyone in simracing these days, and every day for the last fifteen years, seem to be on about tyre models, a new one here, an old one there, another one that no one likes and several million opinions on all of them.  It seems in this day and age a sim is judged almost entirely on its tyre model.

Before we get too deep on this one, I would like to apologise to my American readers for spelling tyre with a Y. Over here in old blighty we spell it this way, and not with an I, as is popular in the United States.  It may seem an odd apology, I know, but some of my American friends (Bob) have had a real thing about it for a while, so I am sorry if you tire of me spelling it “tyre”.  Just remember I for fatigue, Y for round rubber thing.

In recent times there have been some reasonably notable advances in racing sims when it comes to tyre modelling, to the extent that our sims are becoming more and more realistic to drive with every major release.  Every new tyre model gets the Spanish inquisition on every forum from both the completely clueless and the vastly knowledgeable alike, everyone has something to add because if you’ve driven a car or kart or anything in real life it almost definitely had tyres (Caterpillar excavator and tank drivers excluded).  We all feel we know how a tyre feels and thus how it should feel in a sim.  If it doesn’t feel like what we know or what we have experience of, it is wrong. If it does, then it is spot on and a great sim.  But hang on, is this how it works?

With the right tyres I might have been on that white line!

In my experience, tyres can be very divergent beasts. A tyre from one manufacturer can feel very different to a tyre from another, and even two tyres that are the same make and model can be different, in subtle ways.  When out on track doing practice laps one can get very “Zen” about the tyres under your vehicle, and subtle changes in track temperature can merrily change the way they behave from one corner to the next.  It’s not unusual that, say, the front tyres behave with a wonderful turn in bite on a specific corner on one lap and it inspires a great confidence as you come around the next time, knowing the sidewalls will hold up, and that the grip is there, you push into the corner faster than before, and it holds on, it feels glorious as you exit at a speed higher than ever before.

The next lap you come around, and note the track is darker, a cloud has come over the circuit blocking the blazing sun from warming the tarmac, you twist the steering wheel with the same gusto, expecting that bite, and it doesn’t come, the fronts slip instantly, giving in to the demands of the driver and scrub speed away. You take remedial action and scrabble through the corner, wide of the apex, and note it in your mental rolodex for future laps.

This variance is implicit in nearly every circumstance. You can run the same car on the same tyres over two days with a slight variance in humidity, temperature and tyre wear, and they can feel very different to drive, you make minor adjustments to driving style and lap times can be similar. In real life, the interrelation between a driver and their current set of tyres is a symbiosis, both change constantly and adapt to one another’s input and response.

Then, if you switch to a different tyre manufacturer, the whole vehicle’s performance can change. This is hardly surprising, when variances in tyre pressures can change so much in a car’s feel.  When I switched my Lotus Exige from Yokohama to Toyo rubber there was a sea change in the way the car felt. The Toyo’s had notably less strength in their sidewall construction, this caused instability at the rear as the tyre jounced over bumps, the front end also failed to respond to entry inputs as cleanly as it had on the Yokohamas.

But, once this entry behaviour was over with, the Toyos delivered more mid-corner grip, and were able to maintain heavier lateral loading in faster turns.  The Yokohamas were considerably more tolerant of combined longitudinal and lateral loads, so you could carry the brakes deeper into the turn without overwhelming the front tyres and understeering, as well as being able to get back on the throttle earlier in the turn, but, on the Toyo’s, provided you braked in a straight-line, were smooth and turned in precisely, they were able to carry more speed through the corner.  One car, two different tyres, two very different styles and virtually the same lap times.

So, given that the driving experience was notably different on two different sets of tyres, how can I drive a simulated Lotus Exige and pass a judgement on what is “right” or not?  How can anyone be so clear and precise when they judge a racing sim and decry its tyre model to be “wrong”, when in real life one tyre can feel much more “right” than another?

Developers of racing sims are often party to direct data from tyre manufacturers, and this can help with granting a given car an accurate feel, often along with help from real world drivers. But what about sims that are open to mods? What about tyre manufacturers that might want to protect their products by keeping certain data close to their chests?  It’s a tough call, and it seems more and more the case that sim developers are creating their own “brand” of tyre, based on creating something that feels good to drive in most circumstances on the given car it is applied to.

Obviously, a tyre that runs on a NASCAR and one that runs on a Formula one car have to be markedly different, so it has long been not quite enough for a sim to have “a tyre model” when it is essentially modelling lots of different tyre types. But who is defining the character of a given tyre?  And is it always defined tightly by real world feedback, or is an element of test driver preference coming into it?  One tyre can behave in a certain way that notably benefits one style of driving, if you drive that way, you will like the tyres, if you drive in a different way, you won’t.

Could this explain why there has never been, and may never be a unanimous agreement in the simracing world as to which tyre model is best?  If one tyre that works best under high lateral loads, but is very sensitive to combined loads, is bolted onto a GT2 car, is it not quite feasible that one driver could find it perfectly to their taste and yet another find it nigh on undrivable?

As sims become closer and closer to reality it is a truism that they also get closer and closer to one another in feel; it is considerably easier to jump from one sim to another and maintain good pace now than it was five years ago.  The closer they grow in feel to real life also brings parity to the differences in driving style, and driver preference. So, with this being a competitive marketplace, how can developers keep everyone happy?

With more choice, simply.  If a driver, when taking out their virtual motor car, can choose between virtual Bridgestones, or virtual Pirelli’s (Or whatever they want to call them) then perhaps a balance can be found where two tyres can bring up similar lap times if driven the right way, and thus multiple driving styles can be covered.  Hey presto, everyone likes the sim and the level of forum tyre ranting reduces by 90%.

Posted in SimRacing | 3 Comments

Where I’ve been…

If anyone who is a subscriber here is missing me, this is just a quick note to point out where I have been.

A new issue of AutoSimSport has been released and I have put out several articles, as well as the old “Vodka Diaries” column for your delectation.  Check it out here:

Enjoy the read.

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Monte-Carlo or bust.

The blonde and I have knocked up another video of the upcoming rFactor 2 beta, once again in the historic F1 car around the tight and twisty streets of Monaco.

The rendition of this historic track is sublime and over many laps I found myself going into an odd trance state given the concentration required to keep it out of the walls/lamp posts/harbour.  I hope you all enjoy it, not long now…

Posted in rFactor 2 | 5 Comments

Remember when your sims came in a box?

Some of them still do, I know, but who can remember those huge, chunky cardboard boxes with a sleeve and a manual that weighed as much as a housebrick?  Where did it all go?

Ever since the late 1990’s there seems to have been a big focus in the simracing community for racing online.  It’s a natural thing, in the days of VROC racing with other humans in online races was a relatively new and exciting thing, and, for many of us, after racing AI robots for years this seemed the natural progression for the genre.  The result being that sim developers started to push more and more weight behind their online components, abandoning the way sims of old had been made for ten years or more.

The template laid down by Crammond in 1992’s F1GP was what defined racing sims for a decade after it. An immersive experience, where one racing series (In the case of Crammond’s game, Formula One) was reproduced in great detail, that allowed the player to  race alongside the same drivers they saw on TV in a full season of racing, set around the parameters they desired.  Simracing masochists, like me, could disable all drivers aids and set race distance to 100%, practice sessions to full length, and live a race weekend in their own home, going wheel to wheel with Schumacher, Alesi and the gang.

Not long after, in 1993, Papyrus Design Group arrived with their follow up to 1988’s “Indianapolis 500“, “Indycar Racing” (ICR).  ICR upped the game for graphics presentation and driving physics, but gave us that same structure of an immersive game where we could play the role of an Indycar driver in the current season, going wheel to wheel with Andretti, Fittipaldi, Scott Goodyear (I seemed to find myself mostly racing virtual Scott), and the rest of the pack.  I remember at the time being so immersed in my little world that I would think all the way home from school about how I was going to prepare for the next practice session, where I hoped to qualify, and what I was going to try with my setup.  These games had atmosphere, they let you feel like you were really taking part in a campaign that kept you focussed for night after night, your own private racing series.  Papyrus then went on to release Indycar Racing 2 and the NASCAR Racing series, each largely evolutions of one another in terms of the driving experience and the eye candy, but all offering this same feeling of immersion that defined what racing simulators had become.  Then came Grand Prix Legends, and with it’s great AI, historic tracks and endearing ’60’s feel many who had no idea about historic F1 fell in love.  That atmosphere, that sense of fantasy, left many finding themselves evolving their enjoyably rare diversion into a passionate hobby.

Jump to 2012 and it’s all change. With sims like Live For Speed, rFactor, netKar Pro and iRacing the focus moved away to multiplayer racing, with AI becoming a background interest for developers and players, or, in some cases, not there at all.  The online simracing community was born and leagues were setup, governing bodies established, forums filled with tantrums and obscenely acronymed magazines written.  So did we all stop playing offline?

The consensus would say not.  A rudimentarily hobbled together series of statistics I was made party to revealed that for every racer regularly competing online there are ten or more racing offline, but why?  Isn’t racing online fun?  Of course it is, but it comes with far too many constraints for the average human.  Not only do you have to turn up at a certain time, but you may have to obey certain rules, race for longer than you can, and put aside hours of practice to build up speed and setups so that you don’t disgrace yourself.  You may find that you are simply not fast enough to compete at the top level and race consistently for tenth place, you may find that your five year old kid comes in to show you his Lego mid-race, you might find that someone turfs you into the wall at the first corner and all that build up was for nothing.  You might find the whole thing, as a leisure pursuit, just far too stressful!

So where are Papyrus Design Group now, with their glorious offline sims that oozed atmosphere and immersion, covering the racing series we all wanted to fantasise about racing in?  Well, as I am sure you know if you’re bothering to read this, but they have made iRacing, which is without doubt the best sim out there for online racing.  It’s official races, rule base, licence structure, iRating, social networking features and hosted sessions are organised through a web interface, they have myriad licensed cars and tracks to race and even a huge forum where people can complain about things.  David Kaemmer and the team have embraced the online sim revolution and thousands of players enjoy their sim day in, day out.

But what about all those offline simmers?  Should they not get to enjoy the work of a development team that defined the genre for so long?  I found myself wondering why not.

iRacing have some major series licences: NASCAR, IZOD Indycar, Grand Am, links to the V8 Supercar series, American Le Mans Series and some others, can these not be exploited a little?

Could you cope with a boxed Grand-Am sim?

Would it not be great for a boxed sim or two to be released, using the base software that iRacing already uses to provide, say, a Grand Am simuator?  Using the template of the sims that came before and bolting in the laser scanned cars and tracks seen in iRacing, letting us race against AI in an offline simultation of the Grand Am national series?  Perhaps even with a Daytona 24 hours add on allowing AI driver changes and day to night transitions?  Sounds too much?  How about laser scan a few street tracks and give us IndyCar Racing 3?  I’d pay full dollar for that one.

Players could choose the length of their race, the time that they race, choose whether they want to get a stop/go penalty, and pause the sim when some Lego is thrust into their face.

This not only would allow the offliners to get some fun out of iRacing’s superb content, but also may encourage them to sign up for a subscription to iRacing as a whole.  After two full seasons offline against AI, many drivers may have had time to build the setups and pace they need to feel comfortable racing online, so why not make the offline sim bolt into the iRacing online component, letting drivers use the cars they already own in the online sim.  Perhaps even tie up their offline gaming career to reflect against their online Safety Rating and iRating?

Could this work? I think it could, and with a few doorstep manuals we could be back to living the sim dream of the 1990’s with the bonus of being able to enjoy the online simracing dream of 2012.

Posted in iRacing | 8 Comments

The good old days are back.

In the next week or two there will be a new issue of AutoSimSport released on for you to feast upon.  For this magazine I have been working on a few things, most notably this, a piece on the upcoming rFactor 2 beta.

This video is a couple of laps of Spa as it was in the late 1960’s, an extremely fast and unforgiving place that put hairs on the chest of any who took to her:

The thing that has kept running through my mind, running this old ’68 F1 car around here is: “People actually used to do this!”  Especially during the small “excursions” I ended up enjoying.

Posted in rFactor 2 | 6 Comments