A thought enters your head if you play a lot of racing sims, and never quite dislodges once it gets in there: Could I be doing this for real?
It's a seductive and perhaps a fanciful idea, that the skills you've honed guiding a bundle of polygons and math around a virtual race track might somehow translate into real, tangible prowess with a race car. Certainly there was a time when it held little weight: even the sternest dedication to 1995's Geoff Crammond's Grand Prix 2, for example, wouldn't have prepared you for the demands of a V12 Formula One car.
Today, though, it's a question with a surprising answer: as games like the forthcoming Project Cars 2 amply demonstrate, skill in sim racing and in motorsport are not just comparable, but directly transferrable – in either direction.
Richie Stanaway's achievements make that case eloquently. After an airborne crash in his Formula Renault at a rainy Spa-Francorchamps circuit left him with a spine injury, he joined esports outfit Team Redline and threw himself into sim racing to aid his recovery. He won the iRacing Pro Series that same year. "To this day, he considers it one of his biggest accolades," Team Redline manager Dom Duhan says. To further the argument is Sony and Nissan's GT Academy collaboration, which plucked Gran Turismo racers out of obscurity and gave them a route into motorsports, and has produced Le Mans 24 Hours and Blancpain Endurance Series winners. Le Mans Series driver Christina Nielsen, too, demonstrates the validity of sim racing by incorporating Project Cars into her training regime. Good news for anyone feeling guilty about all those hours behind their force feedback steering wheel, then.
Project Cars 2's creative director Andy Tudor and game director Stephen Viljoen know what it takes to make a racing sim that breeds racing drivers, and it turns out you get out what you put in. "We've got seven world-renowned international drivers on the team," Tudor says. "They're on our forum, and they're working on giving us feedback, testing physics, and giving us input on locations they've driven and won at in real life."
There's a lot of experience within those seven drivers. Nicolas Hamilton is brother of three-time F1 champion Lewis Hamilton and competes in the 2017 Clio Cup. Ben Collins was known in a different life as The Stig for BBC's Top Gear, and has a racing career spanning 15 years. René Rast, Vaughn Gittin Jr., Mitchell deJong, Oliver Eriksson, and Tommy Milner have experience in German DTM racing, FIA GT series, rallycross, drifting, and endurance racing between them. As the handling and physics consultants on Project Cars 2, it's their job to make sure racing in the game feels like doing it out in the wild. Tudor heads off any cynicism about their roles: "They're not public facing marketing people. We will have them at events, and kids can get their autographs with them, absolutely. But day by day, they are people working alongside the car and track and physics teams."
It makes sense. There aren't many people in the world who can tell you what a Clio Cup race car feels like when you drive it through the gravel trap of turn one at Brands Hatch, but Nic Hamilton is one of them. Tudor opens his laptop and finds a forum post the young driver authored to demonstrate the point.
"He posted some stuff the other day where he goes through AI. They're feeling a bit too robotic, too aggressive out of the pits." Hamilton has attached a few photos of himself beached in the gravel trap, too, to illustrate a point. Developers from Slightly Mad comment below: "Awesome report Nic."
Slightly Mad's seven high-profile handling consultants aren't the only professional drivers with a say in how the simulation feels. Part of the game's licensing agreement with the car manufacturers whose models feature requires that they make their factory and test drivers available to the studio.
"We work closely with them," says Viljoen, "and when we need to get to the point of having the car in the game and we feel we need to test, we actually have their test drivers and their factory drivers test the car for us.
"You don't hear about them in marketing stuff, they have nothing to gain by lying about it. These guys are super-critical. I'm not suggesting the seven of our own drivers aren't," he laughs. "But these guys are fascinating people because they're completely not public-facing chaps. They are brutally honest throughout, up to the point where they go 'Okay, this is getting there.'"
At that point, Viljoen says, it's often quite difficult to get them out of the race frames, because they've hit the sweet spot where the simulation becomes enjoyable.
Racing drivers might have the unique insight Slightly Mad need, but they're more used to hanging out with race mechanics than game developers. What if the feedback they offer can't be translated into meaningful data for the physics team? To avoid the possibility, the studio cultivates a driver-mechanic relationship between the consultants and physics team. One sits in the race frame – a bucket seat and steering wheel in front of a screen – and the other makes changes in real-time based on their feedback.
"A driver might say, 'Ok let's try this.'" says Viljoen. "And they sit there, change it live and go again. It might be, 'Yeah that's it, or, 'No, that's going the wrong way.' It is a live process." That process happens several times over for each course in the game, and sometimes requires physics tweaks that can't be implemented on-the-fly. The end result is a car-on-track experience that the race drivers deem accurate to reality.
Of course, Slightly Mad isn't a studio populated entirely by people in race overalls, clocking in to do some coding before they fly off to race the 24 Hours of Dubai. Consultants play their role, but the developers still need to do the heavy lifting. That involves taking the CAAD data of licensed vehicles and point clouds gathered by laser-scanning race circuits, and turning all that abstract information into a racing game with no blind spots. "Everything needs to be modelled," Viljoen says. And he means everything.
"Things like the light colors, for example. The rendering team is very much involved there, making sure that the cast of the light on the road, the color that it casts, the distance that it casts, the shape of it, all of that is accurate to what the real world car is like."
Maybe this seems like posturing. But if a racing sim is going to reach the stringent accuracy levels required by motorsports drivers to use as a training tool, for example, or even breed a new generation of pros, it needs the headlights to cast the right colors.
You could argue that even before Project Cars 2 releases, we're already at that point. Aspiring drivers are already turning to sim racing as a "way in." Kart racing was previously the breeding ground for future race winners, and its barrier for entry isn't cheap. "If somebody is talented, very talented," Mercedes F1 executive director Toto Wolff told Raconteur in 2015, "you probably need to spend €1 million ($1.1 million) in karting through junior, senior and international races." From there, you might expect to spend a further $7 million moving up the ranks if you hope to reach Formula One. The imperative for an alternate route into the sport is obvious – particularly an alternate route that costs $80.
Team Redline manager Dom Duhan is well-placed to judge sim racing's viability as an alternative entry point. His impressive roster of drivers includes F1's shining star Max Verstappen, and several racers hoping to follow in his footsteps who compete both in sim racing esports events and motorsport. He's convinced of the former's potential to offer a new, cheaper, foot in the door for young drivers.
"Certainly it's got legitimacy over the last few years," he says. "I think a lot of the drivers are using it for training, so yes, the skills are very well-matched. The only things it doesn't simulate is obviously G-force."
Like Project Cars 2, most racing sims use laser scanning data to create their tracks today, which means they're super accurate. And that's a big draw for pro racers, because it means they can use those sims to memorize layouts and commit braking markers to memory before ever visiting the track. "It could also be something like, 'There's a lamp post just beyond the fence, that is your braking marker,'" Duhan says. "There are loads of little things in real life that people use as an indicator when to turn in, and lots of things you wouldn't expect. [In-game] tracks are getting so good now that you capture a lot of those small details that the pro drivers use."
Honing your real-life skills in front of a screen isn't an entirely new idea for those at the highest category of racing. Formula One teams have been building their own simulators for over a decade, and from the outside looking in, they appear entirely unrelated to the racing sims designed for a non-professional user base. But perhaps there's more parity between the two than it seems. Duhan has driven several F1 teams' simulators, and says "it's very close."
"The ones that the Formula One teams use," Duhan says, " even though they feel very much the same, actually the mathematical model is a lot higher." While laser scanning provides the raw data for consumer sims and F1 teams' own programs alike, the latter keep that laser-scanned data and run it as a super accurate model called a "point cloud," which requires incredibly robust hardware to run. Project Cars 2 and its ilk use the data to create a 3D model, so that the game could run on a PC or console without melting it.
The advantage for F1 teams is that they can use such microscopic measurements in the track surface to develop new parts and test how they'd affect lap times with sufficient accuracy to go to the folks in the factory and start production. Gamers, like sim racers and even pro drivers looking to sharpen their skills, don't need that. The rather edifying takeaway Duhan has from his experiences with the F1 simulators is that "it doesn't feel more difficult or anything."
What's strange about this emerging phenomenon – sim racing as a genuine route into a motorsport career – is that everyone's shouting about it except the race drivers themselves. Developers like Slightly Mad are rightly proud to have achieved such staggering depth in their simulations. GT Academy founder Darren Cox is doubling down on the program's success with the launch of McLaren F1's World's Fastest Driver competition, a quasi-esports event which boasts a McLaren F1 team test drive seat for its grand prize. And yet there's a sense that among the drivers, there's perhaps a stigma that comes with graduating by playing video games, as some might see it.
Duhan says that attitude's changing over time, though. As more drivers make the leap from simulation to race set – and win races, too – that stigma is being eroded.
"Now these younger drivers who are coming up know many of our team," says Duhan. "They know many of the top sim racers, they know the talent is there, they respect us. Back in the day, you didn't get that level of respect. Now you do."
That respect is earned in the knowledge that the talent pool suddenly deepened. When there's a huge financial barrier to entry, it's more likely that there'll be a wide skill variance among those past the barrier, and a large group of drivers with equal or greater skill who can't afford to pass it. Sim racing is, in real and tangible terms, changing that long-established elitist trend in motorsport. So whenever a new title like Project Cars 2 comes along, you're presented with another opportunity to bridge the gap, cross the blurry divide, and turn those hours behind the force feedback wheel into something altogether more dangerous.