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Getting faster in iRacing, part 1: Serious hardware

It's time to get serious, it's time to get quicker. Let's start with the easy but expensive solutions.

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- 06:32
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Something to aspire to, perhaps?

Mack Bakkum

Racing can be a very addictive thing. It's a sweet mixture of personal passion and self-improvement combined with the potential for intense competition against others. In the past, pursuing that passion has been incredibly expensive, as it certainly can be today, but lately an awful lot of you have been discovering the joys of sim racing. iRacing and its ilk finally take the bulk of the cost out of the equation, leaving the pure joy of competition.

I've been casually racing in both the real world and the virtual for a long time now and, while nothing beats the rush of driving a real car on a real track, the adrenaline boost of running wheel-to-wheel is real whether those tires are made of polygons or polymers. So too, is the dedication required to get quicker.

When this past year's ice racing season was finally canceled after months of miserable weather, climate change spoiling my sideways fun, I decided it was time to get serious about sim racing. I've been simming for ages now but always casually, picking up races and series where I could and rarely making too much of a fuss about where I finished. For 2020, I wanted to get faster. Significantly faster. iRacing would be my target.

So, join me on that journey as I try out as many tools as I can to raise my game. For this first entry we're going to look at every racer's favorite excuse: the hardware.

Now playing: Watch this: The 3 best wheels and pedal setups for iRacing
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A firm foundation

Just like you should always start with tires when you're looking for more performance from your car, here I decided to start with the only part of the equation that would actually touch the ground: a cockpit.

I looked at a ton of options and came pretty close to just building my own with a custom aluminum extrusion setup, the sort you can find plans for at places like Open Sim Rigs, but when I came across Next Level Racing's cockpits I decided I had a winner.

My initial pick was the $499 F-GT, but after talking with their representative and going over my wheel choice, which I'll discuss in just a moment, I was strongly encouraged to step up to the $899 GTtrack. So I did. At under 22 inches across it slots in perfectly next to my desk and, after a few months of regular usage, it hasn't shaken itself apart yet.

But, the real question of course is: did it make me any faster? To that I can conclusively say my lap times did not improve a lick sitting here versus sitting at my desk. But then I didn't think they would. Why invest in a cockpit, then? For years I mounted my wheel at my desk, which meant my pedals were always kicking around on the floor and my wheel was always in the way. If I went a few weeks without racing I'd inevitably disconnect the lot and put them on a shelf.

Then the weeks would become months because of the hassle of dragging it all out again. I wanted a place that would always be ready to go, where I could sit down, boot up the game and get racing. And, I wanted a place that I could start to customize and really make into my own.

And so that's what I've got. I'm spending more time in the sim than I would have otherwise and more time practicing means more speed.

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Fanatec's ClubSport V3 pedals certainly look the business. 

Fanatec

Pedals

Everybody focuses on the wheel but, as a guy who raced with a Logitech G27 for years, I'm here to tell you to start a bit lower. Pedals are more important. If you don't have a setup with a load-cell under the brake pedal (for reasons I explained over in my sim wheel and pedals buyers guide), I'd strongly recommend you think about an upgrade.

For me, I was already in a pretty good place as I was using the first version of Fanatec's ClubSport pedals, with a load cell. I'd been running that set for about a decade now and I had no plans on upgrading -- until I had a chance to try out the company's V3 pedals.

While structurally very similar to the V1, the latest flavor of Fanatec's pedals have a few upgrades that I like a lot. For one thing, the resistance on the brake pedal is adjustable, and as someone who tends to stomp a little hard on the brakes, boosting the resistance gave me slightly more feel. I also fell in love with the D-shaped pedals and, long story short, it's the V3 pedals I'm now using.

Have they made me faster? No, but my consistency and confidence in driving tricky, ABS-free cars like the GTE BMW M8 and Ford GT has definitely gone up. I still can't trailbrake like the pros, but I'm getting there.

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Yup, $1,200 for that. Wheel not included. 

Fanatec

Wheel

Yes, of course, I upgraded my wheel as well. If you saw my wheel buyers guide then you'll know I'm the proud owner of a Fanatec Podium DD1 Wheel Base. The DD1 is the more affordable of Fanatec's two direct-drive wheels. "Affordable" is a relative term at an eye-watering starting price of $1,200, but I tend to stack the cost of this stuff up to a weekend's worth of racing slicks and relative to that it's not so bad.

What was I coming from? I actually had an older Fanatec Clubsport wheel, the GT2, which did me well for many years. But, it was suffering from driver incompatibilities and, frankly, I was lusting after something with better feedback and a larger-diameter wheel.

The direct drive nature of the DD1 means that it is effectively just a big electric motor with a wheel directly attached. So, no gears or belts to get in the way and muddy up the sensations or slow your reactions. The feeling is incredibly smooth and, well, direct.

But did it make me faster? My lap times after installing the DD1 were very much inside the window of those I ran on my old GT2. However, I quickly realized that I was much better at feeling out spins and catching them earlier. Meanwhile, the larger-diameter wheel gave me a touch more precision. So, while I wasn't necessarily faster, I was able to string together more laps in a new car without spinning, and that meant more efficient use of my practice time.

On top of that I felt a lot more engaged. Rushing up Eau Rouge at Spa, with the wheel tightening up as the suspension compresses then getting light again at the top of the hill, is quite a thing.

Buttons

Finally, I'll briefly mention the custom button box I cooked up. This is made up of a USB joystick controller, an Arduino, plastic enclosure, a ton of arcade-style buttons and, most importantly, many hours of my time.

Has it made me faster? I think it will in time. I've only just gotten it fully working the way I want, but being able to easily adjust brake bias with a dedicated rotary knob should make me more competitive in longer races. Likewise, being able to easily reduce the volume of other, chatty racers will certainly help to cut down on distractions.

But, if nothing else, having those Tron-inspired graphics to look at every time I sit down is for sure going to make me keen to keep running laps.

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Still have room for improvement.

Tim Stevens/Roadshow

What's next?

I'm definitely feeling much more engaged and motivated with my new hardware setup, and that means more and more effective practice time. I'm happy with the investments I've made and the returns they've already given, but ultimately my iRating hasn't exactly taken off like a rocket. In other words, there's more work to come. Next time, I'll take you on a trip to an online racing school. I'm also looking into more direct styles of coaching and some other upgrades, too.

And if there's anything you've been curious to try, a tool or service that promises to drop your lap times, drop me a note in comments and I'll chase it down.