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Formula E and sim racing: what are the similarities?

The lines between real and virtual racing continue to get closer – motorsport fans go sim racing to immerse themselves in their passion, while the TAG Heuer Porsche Formula E Team uses its simulator to prepare for its first season.

Together with sim racer Mitchell DeJong, and Porsche’s Formula E drivers, André Lotterer and Neel Jani, we discuss the similarities between sim racing and Formula E.

What is sim racing?

Sim racing relies on realistic racing games and emerged as a form of esports thanks to technological advances of simulation software. Early racing games were technically quite limited and mostly relied on sound and visual cues to create the impression of racing a car. With the advancements in computer technology, the overall driving experience in simulation racing games has been significantly enhanced. Cars are modelled with a realistic driving behavior, and simulators feature steering wheel and pedals mounted behind a widescreen monitor, which creates a realistic racing experience both for sim racers and also for Formula E racers who use simulators for training purposes. This experience is further enhanced through physical sensations - the pedals and wheels employ technologies like “Force Feedback” and “Direct Drive” to convey the feedback of the car and the track to the driver. More advanced simulators even move around the seat or simulator chassis to create G-force and simulate the motion of the car’s body. On the software side, the best sim racing titles feature laser-scanned real-world racetracks –every inch of the asphalt is mapped and recreated inside the software to produce an accurate, one-to-one representation of the racetrack. Last but not least, modern computer graphics create photorealistic renderings of cars and their surroundings which completes the illusion of sitting behind the wheel of a real race car.

What is Formula E and what does the competition look like?

Formula E is different from traditional motorsport. Instead of being powered by naturally aspirated or hybrid engines, the cars are fully electric. Formula E was established in 2014 and is growing fast with top manufacturers joining in the championship. All teams have the same chassis and battery for a level playing field. All powertrain components, however, are the competitors’ own developments. These include elements such as the electric motor, inverter, brake-by-wire system, gearbox, differential, drive shafts, the structure and suspension components attached to the rear axle, as well as the cooling system and ECU (engine control unit). While teams can develop these elements on their own, the drivers’ performances are the biggest differentiators in getting the results on track.

What are the similarities between Formula E and sim racing?

There are significant similarities between virtual racing and real racing, which explains why simulators are used by both parties.

For the Formula E drivers, the majority of their preparation and training is done in the simulator prior to racing. This is especially the case regarding intelligent use of energy levels. Neel Jani states: “Aspects like battery management are super important. From the simulator, we already know which corners are efficient to be slow or lift off, and which corners are efficient to use your boost energy and where not to.”

Mitchell DeJong adds: “You have some energy management in the sim – saving at the right points, using it in battles – so it’s a whole other aspect to just driving. It’s a significant tool and the great drivers have that in the back of their mind.”

The sims are used by the Formula E drivers to get into racing during the off season. It helped André Lotterer to get back up to speed at the beginning of his Formula E career: “Everything started in the simulator to learn all about Formula E: the different functions, different modes, understanding the whole logic behind managing the race in terms of following the energy consumption.”

It’s not all about dry training runs either. Competing in sim racing against other human players can provide incredible tension. Despite having a decorated racing career, Neel Jani still gets a good kick of adrenaline from sim racing. His conclusion after competing in a simulated Formula E race on stage at the Porsche booth: “The car-to-car, with slipstreaming, is like how I raced in real life – I felt at home with the close racing. Tension builds, without a doubt. You really hold the steering wheel, you have tension, the adrenaline comes, and that’s the fun part. It’s the competition you enjoy and in the racing sim, you still get that.”

What are the differences between real and virtual driving?

Having competed both in real rallycross racing and in the Porsche Esports Supercup (PESC), sim racer Mitchell DeJong points out the biggest differences between virtual and real driving: “The biggest thing that you still miss in sim racing is you are lacking a lot of senses, such as feeling the car through the seat while driving. You are doing a lot more visually on the simulator. Once you can overcome that and really get your head into what you’re doing, then all the things you do – techniques, the way you drive – really apply just like in a real car.”

After Neel Jani’s first experience with sim racing at the IAA Motor Show in Frankfurt, he shares his insight based on his work with the Porsche simulator: “The biggest differences between the two simulators is the Porsche 99X Electric handling because they don’t have our data – how the tyre management needs to be, how the aero model of the car is. These things are obviously secrets kept by the race team.”

Another main differentiator between the two racing worlds is fear and courage. Neel Jani says: “In the simulator, if I’m losing time in one corner, I will just go for it in the next lap and I will know if it works or not. In real life you go for small steps. Each mistake in real life bites you. In the simulator you don’t have the danger of being physically hurt. You will always take a little more risk in the simulator because of this.”

The impact of sim racing and future motorsport

Sim racing not only enables motorsport fans to be a step closer to their passion of racing their favorite cars, but even professional drivers go sim racing as a means of entertainment. André Lotterer states: “I have a sim at home, and usually use it when my friends come over, or if I really want to learn a new track. What I like about sim racing is that it makes the racing community bigger. Motorsport is a sport, but it's a sport that costs a lot of money and not everyone has the opportunity to have a go-kart and go out there. It’s great that sim racing technology became much more realistic and is no longer seen as an arcade. It brings a lot of people that are passionate about motorsport together, and it might even be able to detect super talents in sim racing.”