Uncertainty and chaos often breed unity and innovation. When the path ahead looks dark, people tend to reach deeper than ever to find positivity and a way to adapt to rapidly changing circumstances. That adage is no more relevant than it was in the spring of 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic began and lockdowns spread across the globe. With everything closing down, the gaming community found a way to keep going, even in the face of pandemonium.
In fact, that first lockdown summer was best characterised by the incredible surge in popularity of sim racing. Not traditionally considered one of the spearheads of the esports scene like Fortnite and Call of Duty, competitive sim racing burst into life that sweltering summer with the F1 Virtual Grand Prix Series, following the delays to the 2020 F1 season. Real-life stars like Lando Norris and Charles Leclerc raced alongside talented gamers such as Jimmy Broadbent, attracting thousands to live streams each week. It was something mainstream audiences had never seen before, and the impact it had on popularising sim racing within esports is still felt to this day.
It was with this context in mind that I sat down to chat to Luke Whitehead and James Baldwin, two sim racers at the peak of their powers. Luke races for the GTWR R8G Academy, and at the time of writing leads the GT World Challenge America Esports Sprint Series. James races under Veloce's Esports Elite team and currently competes for YAS Heat in the V10 R-League, having also driven in real life for Jenson Button's Team Rocket RJN. I spoke to both racers about their view on the world of competitive sim racing, and exactly why it's so special.
Everyone knows that becoming a professional racer is no easy feat, least of all due to the vast cash injection required to purchase equipment, secure track time, and travel to races across the globe. Competitive sim racing, on the other hand, is that bit more accessible. In fact, both Luke Whitehead and James Baldwin started out motor racing, before circumstances beyond their control put them behind the wheel of a sim rig.
"I'm one of the many sim racers who started in the real world," says Luke, who was partaking in British F4 testing when Covid hit and his opportunities fell through. "I was one of the people who didn't have the sufficient funding to progress," opening the avenue to go professional with sim racing in March 2021.
James' story is very much similar: he started go-karting aged eight, "just going down to the local indoor kart track." Following a sponsorship at fifteen to drive for Formula Ford that wasn't renewed, he put his dream of winning Le Mans on hold, "working in engineering at the time… but there was definitely a void in my life." It was at that point he purchased a bundle of Bandai's Project Cars and a starter's sim rig, and it all went from there.
While both had some form of setback in their motor racing careers, sim racing was the next option - and proved far more accessible to get into. "I just started playing on [Project Cars] on a desk at home… it just kind of went from there… by accident," says James, proof that you don't need a six-figure rig to stamp your name on the scene.
An Egalitarian Outlook
That ability to delve into the world of sim racing on a relatively meagre budget is part of its inherent appeal. "The lines are a lot more blurred between sim racing and real racing," says Luke, crediting it with producing a much smaller skill gap, with racers able to dedicate all of their hours to practicing without the financial or logistical obstacles of real-life racing.
"When you look at sim racing, it's one purchase really - your equipment," Luke told me. "For one day in a test car… it's above five grand… or you can do five hours on a sim for nothing." James echoes this sentiment: "It's just a different ballpark in terms of the money you're spending… you can get away with spending a few hundred, and still be up there… it's more talent-based."
That levelling out of the skill gap, with drivers of similar abilities across the globe competing online, makes races a lot more cutthroat. Equally, it becomes accessible for people of all ages and backgrounds: "you've got really young people doing it as well, as young as thirteen," Luke told me. By default then, more people competing means tougher races, as James says: "the level is so much higher."
Equally, it's not a community or esport that's going away anytime soon. James estimates that the boom in popularity seen during the pandemic fast-tracked sim racing's growth by five years, making it "more professional, more serious, more competitive," but also more popular.
We even have a sister site, RacingGames.GG, that is dedicated to virtual motorsport.
Where do I Sign Up?
As such, I absolutely had to ask their advice for curious gamers looking to get into sim racing on a budget. Of course, it still doesn't come cheap: Luke says that the best starting rig for a professional will cost you around £2,000, which is obviously not for everyone. When looking at F1 superstar Lando Norris and his £100,000 setup though, it's clear that this isn't the cheapest nut to crack. The good news is that you can get a decent rig for a few hundred pounds, so it's never too out of sight.
"See it as an investment if you want to take it seriously," James says when asked about the price of entry into sim racing. Spending the money now on gear that lasts will not only save you money down the line, but "it feels nicer, you feel better," when using it.
In terms of hardware, Luke recommends Thrustmaster as the main brand to acquaint yourself with. Their T248 wheel and pedals combo is a very reasonable £279 if you're looking for a basic starting point. James recommends the Fanatec ClubSport series for wheels and pedals, which are more expensive but considerably more professional.
One thing both drivers agree on is the need for high-quality pedals. "If your pedals aren't good, you're not going to be able to brake or accelerate... and that's going to cost you so much time," says Luke, with James echoing the need for brakes that respond to pressure rather than travel.
When it comes to the games you play, the options are also quite open. iRacing is considered by both as a viable option, widely known as the most competitive and professional software out there. However, you have to pay for each track and car individually, so those just starting off may want to look elsewhere. For entry-level drivers, Luke recommends Assetto Corsa Competizione, while James suggests you start by mastering the F1 games, before trying to get a broad ability on all the sims out there.
One piece of advice from each driver? Drive, drive, and drive again, says Luke: "it sounds really self-explanatory, but practice. I really took for granted how much practice you'd need." James advises newcomers to learn the behind-the-scenes setups that yield the best results: "learn about all the sims, how to get the best settings… build that database of knowledge up now."
A Bright Future
While we may be two years on from that first lockdown and the advent of the sim racing boom, it's showing no signs of burning out. It's "still probably one of the smallest esports categories," says Luke, but he sees it going on to rival the popularity of the FPS genre in years to come. James acknowledges that the slower pace compared to shooters may put some people off, but has sage words nonetheless: "I hope it continues to grow, get more professional."
What about our two racers? After winning the coveted World's Fastest Gamer in 2019 and being crowned SRO Esports Champion last year, James hopes to transition back to motor racing in the years to come. His end goal is coming first in the coveted Le Mans 24-hour endurance race. Luke, on the other hand, has his sights set on sim racing for now, with the GT World Challenge America Esports Sprint Series still very much at the front of his mind. On his success, he labels himself "very happy to see my progress," and "excited for the future."
Two years ago, nobody could've predicted how quickly sim racing would become a popular esport unto itself. If the determination and passion of James Baldwin and Luke Whitehead are anything to go by, it's a phenomenon that isn't going away any time soon. I just hope I don't lose my first race being lapped by a 13-year-old…