Beginners Sim Racing Setup Advice – 2021 Updated
Where do you begin with motorsports sim racing if you have never done it before? What does a beginners sim racing setup even look like? What should you buy? What should you avoid? How can you join in racing online but without spending a fortune? Is it even worth it?
So many questions!
Racing for real with people you know is great fun. Imagine how good would it feel if you could recreate that same fun away from the track?
What if you could enjoy all the usual exhilaration you get with real racing but with less of the hassles, less of the costs and none of the repair bills?
And wouldn’t it be great to know where you really stack up against your racing friends? Who is really the best, when you can finally be sure all the cars and all the conditions are exactly the same for everyone?
The Real Value Of Sim Racing
“Sim rigs” are not just for online racing either. You can use simulators offline as well. Sim racing setups are great for:
- learning a new track,
- improving your consistency,
- perfecting your race craft and even,
- to learn how setup changes affect racecar handling.
However, if you are venturing into the sim racing world for the first time, you might find your buying choices rapidly become overwhelming.
Sim racing brings with it a whole new level of geeky jargon to learn. There are new paddock cup champions to understand and often expensive choices to make.
My aim with this article is to help you navigate all of that. To know exactly what I feel is worth you spending your money on – and what is not, certainly at the beginner stage.
Helping You Make Reasoned Choices
The aim is to help you answer all your questions about how to get started in sim racing.
You will get a detailed and specific kit list. Everything you need to start from zero so that you can be up and running in no time.
It is the kind of guide I wish I’d had when starting out. All the options outlined, along with reasoned arguments recommending one thing over another.
But let’s start by setting some expectations. Expectations that will help you understand more specifically about WHY I am making these recommendations.
Sim Racing Is Not Real (But …)
Yes, games – or racing simulations – have limitations. Lots.
Even the professional level kit has significant issues. And I do know as my professional work has included working on engineering-grade vehicle simulators for Formula 1 teams. Simulators that literally cost telephone numbers to build and maintain.
Despite not being completely “realistic” there is however still enough of the core racing attributes remaining to make sim racing highly worthwhile – and fun 😉
These days the games include:
- Laser scanned tracks,
- A huge selections of cars
- An equally huge list of setup options!
- All kinds of race formats and even,
- Automated race control systems to ensure no-one cheats – What cheating? In racing?! 😉
You can relax. Even beginner sim racing setups are more than fit for purpose.
It is okay that beginner sim racing setups are not completely realistic. Sim racing just needs to be realistic enough for your needs.
What Driving Experience Should You Expect?
This is where things start to get geeky, fast. You can spend hours and hours (and hours!) researching what to get – yes, I’ve done that!
Hardware review sites, like the one below, provide invaluable and highly detailed advice for any specific kit you are thinking of purchasing.
My goal here though is to help you shortcut some of this research and be confident in your purchases.
The recommendations are all aiming to get you the best driving experience with the most modest financial outlay.
Hopefully the chart below shows that more clearly.
You want a good to great driving experience for a modest initial cost. This will give you the best return on your investment. Even if new sim racing kit comes out, alway think where are you on this chart.
There are some things you should spend money on – see below – and others that are not worth it.
Now that has set some expectations, what you should get?
What Should You Get?
The basics of what you need for a good beginners sim racing setup are a:
- Computer system to play the game.
- Racing game (with internet to connect to your friends.)
- AV method to see and hear the game (and your friends.)
- Method to control the racing car in your game.
- Fixture to hold you and your controllers (i.e. a steering wheel.)
Example Beginners Sim Racing Setup:
Below you can see my current setup. Spoiler alert is what I am going to recommend but the aim is to help you understand WHY.
Don’t laugh too loudly 😎 but, for your reference, here is another setup I had about 10 years ago. I actually ran this until fairly recently. Check out the screen and the modified computer desk!
The point is, you can get a valuable driving experience without spending a fortune.
That is what this article is aiming to help you achieve.
The Beginners Sim Racing Setup List:
Rather than just giving you a shopping list, I thought you would appreciate having more context to any recommendations.
The infographic below includes all the elements you will need to consider, the main options available and what I recommend you choose:
Yes, technology moves on – you can add XBOX X and PS5 now in Feb 2021. There are new systems and options always in the pipeline. This was current back in April 2020 but the philosophy you can apply from it is evergreen.
The rest of this article will explain WHY I am recommending each element so you can make the best informed choice.
Your Sim Racing Platform
The elephant in the room. Let’s get this cleared up straight away. Yes, you will get a “better, more realistic” simulator experience using a gaming-focused personal computer (PC).
You will also need to spend significantly more – like x3 times more – just to get to a semi-equivalent Xbox or Playstation experience.
To really take advantage of the potential a PC has to offer you need to spend a lot more. The top-level graphics card for a PC will cost you nearly 3 times the price of a console – on its own.
In Feb 2020 a low end PC base beginners sim racing setup will cost £3000-4000. A high end setup will be closer to £10,000.
You might be excited but think about it like this – if you are new to sim racing you may not even know how much you will enjoy using the system. A PC should be your step 2.
Start With A Sim Racing Console
Luckily much of the rest of the sim racing kit I’m going to suggest works on both PC and console.
If you really get into sim racing, this kit will give you a clear upgrade path to a PC. Until then … start with a console.
What You Give Up By Choosing A Console
There are three things you are giving up by choosing a console over a PC:
- iRacing. This game is only available on a Windows PC
- Virtual reality. This generation of consoles (in April 2020) are simply not powerful enough for VR in racing games. No change as of Feb 2021.
- Complexity. If tweaking “settings” and “mods” is your thing, then you need a PC.
If you feel any of the above are essential to you then you require a PC.
Whilst they are all really great and attractive things, my experience is that, in practice, you really do not miss them.
That is just my experience anyway and remember, I am just trying to get you going with all this.
Hopefully that sorts the PC debate! 😬
Of the two consoles, I am recommending you get a Playstation.
From the perspective of the racing games, the XBOX and Playstation performance is equivalent.
The choice really comes down to what console you friends have. This is because you cannot play games across different types of computer system – even if it is the same game.
Most of the people I know are using a Playstation so that is what I recommend. If people you know more using XBOX go that way.
Sim Racing Game
There are several sim racing games. Some are more sim, and others, more game (e.g. GT and F1)
How You Can Get The Most From Sim Racing with Assetto Corsa’s Aris Vasilakos
What can you really learn from sim racing? How realistic are they? What is the best way to use …
Project Cars 2
The reasons are:
- Good driving and racing experience (offline and online)
- AI cars for every level (even if you are a driving God)
- Good selection of cars
- Good selection of real tracks (versus made-up tracks in other games)
- Lots of racing types from testing to racing online (including with people you don’t know)
As with everything in this beginners sim racing setup it is not perfect.
Project Cars 2 has a decent selection of cars however they vary wildly in their quality. Or should I say the stock setups that the game provide you with for the cars vary significantly. So much so that spend too much time with the wrong car and you and your friends will get really annoyed.
Short of heading off down the setup improvement route (which I would recommend but not when you are beginning) is to pick some cars to get you going.
One of the best stock cars to get a real feel for the game is the Ginetta G50. Start with this car.
Sound And Vision
Consoles only support one screen. Yes, the Playstation has a virtual reality headset. To my knowledge, this VR headset does not work with console racing games. Therefore it does not provide a proper virtual reality experience that you can get with the PC.
The limitations of this are that you do loose that peripheral vision when someone is racing right next to you. You can configure your controller buttons to look left or right slightly, that will help.
My personal opinion on VR is that, even on a PC, it is not quite there yet (as of Feb 2021.)
Yes, it works but there are lots of issues with people getting motion sickness, struggling to get a clear image and with their face heating up. If you have a look around online you will see all kinds of hacks that people have done to include little fans to their VR headsets.
Hopefully, with the next generation of console VR will become the mainstream option for racing games. VR is good when it works, but, to get started, just use your normal TV.
You might find that the rest of your family are not as into racing car engine sounds as you are?
Crazy, I know! 😬
Personally I have run with headphones as a result for a long time. When you get into gaming online with your friends however, it helps massively to be able to talk with each other.
The reason is this enables you to more easily co-ordinate what you are going to do versus texting each other.
Being able to talk with each other during a race or quali session is also a surprisingly different dimension that you do not get in real racing.
Other than putting people off (which does not really happen tbh) benefits include:
- Race management – We run virtual safety cars if there have been big incidents
- Driving etiquette – Everyone makes a mistake when they are trying hard. Take someone out by mistake and you get to instantly apologise, even co-ordinating between yourselves giving the place back
- Warn you are there – Useful if you are in the aforementioned blind spot. Also in practice or qualifying, you can better co-ordinate one car passing another to minimise both your lost time
- Sharing a laugh 🤣
I am using this Beexcellent gaming headset because it is not very expensive, comes with a long cable, good sound and good mic (that you can fold away). It also has a volume control on the wire that helps because adjusting the headphone volume otherwise is not possible when racing.
Sim Racing Wheel And Pedals
Steering control is the area that I do recommend you spend some money on.
The wheel and pedal set are critical to you being able to more faithfully recreate that feeling of driving.
Yes, you can use a controller or a low-end steering wheel without force feedback, but your driving and racing experience will be poor. It can still be fun but you will be missing out on the main value that even beginners sim racing setup equipment can offer you.
I have actually had loads of wheels. Years ago I had the first force feedback wheel ever released (back in 1998 … hmm) and in fairness, it was pretty good:
Sim Racing Wheel Types
Today there are three main types of force feedback wheel:
- Gear drive
- Belt drive
- Direct drive
These refer to the technical approach taken to provide resistance (or force feedback) so you can feel what the tyres are doing when you are driving. Start to lose grip and you’ll feel it. Go over a kerb and you’ll feel it.
The different technologies all enable you to experience force feedback but with more or less compromises.
The gear drive and belt drive both use a small electric motor that is ratio’d up to provide the feedback. This works well.
One issue is that you feel the mechanism as the cogs turn. The belt drive versions, therefore, aim to be smoother than the gear drive systems.
Another issue is that the motors do not have the precision or smoothness because they are small. This is the issue that the direct drive systems aim to tackle. They do it very well by using a much larger electric motor with no extra gearing. Unfortunately, these larger motors do not come cheap so the direct drive wheels are about x3 the price of the belt or gear drive wheels.
I would recommend you aspire to upgrade to a direct drive steering wheel if you find that sim racing is really for you.
Until then start with a belt-driven force feedback wheel. I personally use this Thrustmaster T300RS wheel (the same one you can see reviewed in the Sim Racing Garage video above.)
The wheel I am suggesting comes with a pedal set. 2 pedals is fine. Once you start to research beginners sim racing kit you will discover that there is as much talk about brake pedals as there is about any of the other parts.
This is because the brake pedal transmits a lot of information about how close you are to your racecar threshold braking limit. Well, it does in a real car. It does not with (consumer level) Sim Racing kit. Cue people trying to find ways to make the brake pedal “feel” more “realistic.” But just so you know, there is no system that I know of that gives you brake pedal force feedback like the steering wheel does – despite what it might seem like when you are talking about this with your Sim Racing paddock cup champ.
When you are putting together your beginner sim racing kit list, you will get on just fine without an expensive brake pedal setup. Just be aware that this is an area that will feel a bit unnatural and, should you be looking to upgrade in future, the brake pedal type should be an important consideration.
On gear shifters. Do not bother. Really. Just accept you are going to be using the paddles to change gear in sim racing.
Your Sim Rig
Keep this simple. You need to have something strong to mount your wheel onto. You can see from my images above that I used a (modified) desk for many years.
I fairly recently decided to try this Playseat Challenge. Whilst it looks a bit odd, it is surprisingly good. The benefit is that it folds away and is reasonably portable. It holds the wheel nicely, the pedals are secured (it is important they do not move!) and the seat is comfortable.
The big thing with rigs is stiffness. The Playseat challenge is not super stiff but it provides a great cockpit feeling for very little outlay. Save investing in larger rigs for your future upgrade path.
Beginners Sim Racing Setup Summary
A sim racing setup is a considered purchase for most. Not only the cost but the space. Then when you first look a beginners sim racing setup it is easy to be overwhelmed.
Despite your clear goal, there are so many decisions required that are all interrelated. The amount of research required can be huge to make sure your investments do not end in a dead-end. You don’t want to be playing alone on an expensive, bad sim setup.
In this article, I have tried to help you make some definite decisions. This is exactly the system I regularly use and it works well.
Furthermore, with this setup, you can easily upgrade to a PC based system when you are ready. Everything will work and you can just swap out the Playstation for the PC. When you decide the time is right to upgrade there is a great second-hand market of people eager to buy your old kit.
Who knows what tomorrow’s technology will enable. For now, I am confident you will be able to achieve all your aims with this setup.
Welcome to Sim Racing!