A Sim Racing Primer (2004 edition)

Back in 2004 I wrote this overview of the PC sim racing scene for my local BMW club newsletter. It’s very dated now — few, if any, of these games are even available, much less worth using. However, you might find it an interesting snapshot of the times and an indicator of how quickly things change in the gaming industry.

For context, I started sim racing in 1999 with Grand Prix 2. By 2001 I’d discovered Grand Prix Legends and a year later attended my first real-life track day.

Now, more than a decade later, I have a bit more experience with performance driving, both online and off, and the PC sim racing world has changed immensely. I’ll try to write that story soon. In the meantime, here’s the situation as I saw it back in 2004. (I’ve edited, where appropriate, to include currently relevant links.)

Now that winter is upon us and the track season is over, where does a true racing nut go for that much-needed fix of oil and adrenalin? Some may immerse themselves in preparing mind and machinery for next season. Others may head off to warmer parts of the country. But what if you could satisfy that desire to drive at the limits without leaving home… without even taking off your slippers?

Racing simulations might just provide the substitute you’ve been seeking for real track action, whether you’re waiting for spring to get the car back out on the grid, or you just can’t muster the time or budget for the real thing.

You may be thinking, there’s no way a console game can give the feeling of a real track experience. And you wouldn’t be entirely wrong. While racing simulations, or “sims”, are just computer games with cars, they are not like the games you’re accustomed to seeing on the consoles, or even the “arcade” racers like the Electronic Arts Need for Speed series. The best sim racers have sophisticated physics engines based on real-world performance data. Many provide extensive car setup options, creating a predictable and realistic effect on where the car goes and how well it gets there.

These are good days for sim racing. There are more high-quality racing games available market than ever before, and the internet communities that have grown up around these games provide something for everyone, whether it’s joining an online league, downloading (or creating) new tracks, or just talking about cars with other car nuts. So let’s take a look at the best of the current sim racers....

NASCAR Racing 2003

The NASCAR Racing series, created by Papyrus Racing Games, has long been considered the pinnacle of racing sims, providing realistic driving dynamics, beautiful visuals, and setting the benchmark for online racing. The latest version, NASCAR Racing 2003 Season, was created with specific technical input from Jasper Motorsports and Goodyear so that car setup, tire wear, and driving style have the same performance effects in the game as they would in real life.

NASCAR Racing 2003 provides for private testing sessions as well as racing against computer-controlled fields, but the multiplayer racing features are where this sim really shines. The game supports fields of over 40 human opponents, either through a local network or online servers. As you racers know, there’s nothing quite like wheel-to-wheel competition with error-prone, unpredictable, real-life folks to get the adrenalin pumping. But in this case you don’t have to pay for fixing a wrecked car.

Admittedly, Winston… I mean Nextel Cup racing isn’t for everyone. And here’s where the NASCAR Racing story gets interesting: Papyrus recently released a patch that, among other things, adds three additional physics models in the game. These include physics for the NASCAR Busch and Craftsman Truck series [edit: you’d know these as the Nationwide and Camping World Truck series now.], as well a pseudo Trans-Am series. All of these are somewhat limited by the spec-racing nature of NASCAR so, within a series, all of the cars use a single physics model. But each series provides unique and challenging handling characteristics, and the common physics between cars within a given series puts more focus on setup, strategy, and driving skill.

Project Wildfire is a group of artists and developers — many former or current Papyrus staff members — that is creating modifications, or “mods,” that make the Busch, CTS, IROC (based on the Busch physics), and Trans-Am series available to players within NASCAR Racing 2003. This includes the car models, tracks, car paint jobs, and other bits needed to run a realistic version of the series. The Busch, CTS, and IROC mods are complete and can be downloaded from the Project Wildfire web site. A beta version of the Trans-Am series mod is available, unlocking the physics, but still using the Cup car bodies and sounds.

Another group, supported by The US Pits sim racing community, has released a beta version of their Trans-Am mod for NASCAR Racing 2003. The mod is called The Pits Touring Car Challenge (TPTCC). The current version includes car models for Corvettes and Mustangs only. However, some enterprising souls have devised remarkably convincing Team PTG M3 GTR paint schemes for the Mustang, so you can compete as Bill Auberlen, Boris Said, or Hans Stuck.

The combination of graphics, physics, and multiplayer support make the Trans-Am mod for NASCAR Racing 2003 probably the best sim racing experience currently available.

F1 Challenge ‘99-‘02

The Formula One simulations from EA Sports have been getting better and better, and F1 Challenge is probably the best modern F1 driving experience most of us will ever get. This version is actually the end of the road for EA’s F1 sims — Sony recently negotiated an exclusive license to F1 video games and they pretty much pulled out all the stops.

In F1 Challenge, you can sit in for any driver from any team in the series between 1999 and 2002. Obviously that means you can drive a Williams BMW as Ralf, Juan Pablo, or Jensen, but you can also drive a McLaren, Ferrari, Arrows, or Prost if the spirits move you to do so. Changes in chassis, engines, and liveries are recreated for each year, as are changes to the circuits such as revisions to the Rettifilo Tribune chicane at Monza.

Appropriate to the technical sophistication of the series, F1 Challenge offers a dizzying array of chassis-tuning options and telemetry data. If you’ve always wanted to be a grand prix race engineer, here’s your chance. Likewise, there are a bewildering variety of controls to master within the cockpit, so keep the manual within grasp for your first few test sessions. F1 Challenge offers online racing against human opponents as well, but supports fewer online players than NASCAR Racing 2003.

One element that sets F1 Challenge apart from other racing sims is its ability to be customized. As a result, there are a wide range of mods available based on EA’s F1 sims. Historic Touring Car Championship and Aussie V8 Supercars [edit: now an add-on for rFactor.] are currently under development, and a beta version of the V8 Supercars is available.

Bimmer fans can choose from M3 Challenge, BMW World Series, and European Touring Car Championship. Of the three, the ETCC mod is the most polished and interesting. It includes most of the teams and cars driven in this exciting, hotly contested series, and really seems to capture the high-strung character of these cars. The developers also provide many of the tracks run during the ETCC season that aren’t already included in F1 Challenge.

Grand Prix Legends

Long considered the king of racing simulations, Grand Prix Legends recreates glory and danger the 1967 Formula One season — the second year of the 3-liter formula and the first year for Ford’s legendary Cosworth DFV engine. GPL, as it’s known to the initiated, was released by Papyrus back in 1998 and sold poorly due to its steep learning curve and high system requirements.

The cars are very light, very powerful, and run very hard, unforgiving tires. Little wonder few of the legendary drivers from that era survived. GPL features separate physics for each of the seven chassis included in the game: Brabham, BRM, Cooper, Ferrari, Honda, Lotus, and the beautiful AAR Eagle. Each has quirks derived from its real-life performances, meaning the Ferrari sounds wonderful, the Honda and Eagle are delicate, and the Lotus is wicked fast.

In the five years since its release, the game has developed a cult following of amazing proportions. There are photorealistic graphical updates for the cars and tracks, and hundreds of additional tracks have been created by the talented editing community. Since GPL includes an early version of the multiplayer features seen in the NASCAR Racing series, you can race online with up to 20 people through leagues or the popular WinVROC utility. An active community of GPL enthusiasts and extensive links to GPL add-ons and utilities can be found at Race Sim Central.

Live For Speed

Live for Speed is something of an anomaly among racing sims, as it’s being developed and distributed by a small group of independent coders. The game isn’t available in stores. Rather, you download the software and purchase a license from team’s Web site. A free demo is available as well.

Unusual distribution aside, this may be the model for racing sims of the future. Live For Speed may not be quite as polished in some areas as other titles. It also includes a rather funky selection of cars, leaning toward affordable European compacts rather than race-bred supercars. But the chassis dynamics are some of the best available and the game simulates the impression of speed, tire scrub, and body roll in a very believable manner. In addition, Live For Speed provides efficiently designed online racing functionality, though multiplayer grids are limited to 12 cars in the current version.

Rally Trophy

Worthy of mention due to its unique subject matter, Rally Trophy simulates — in very broad strokes — stage rallying in the ‘60s and ‘70s. You can drive classic cars such as the Ford Cortina and Escort, Lancia Fulvia and Stratos, Volvo Amazon, and Opel Kadett. The stages are a bit short, but it’s quite challenging to throw these softly sprung cars around, and each car has its unique quirks.

Half-Price Books seems to have bought up a supply of Rally Trophy and at press time was blowing them out for around $8. You can pick up some excellent updates, including new cars and stages, from No Grip Racing.

Zundfolge, February 2004.

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