Tuesday, 25 February 2020

The Definitive Guide to iRacing


The following is a guide for anyone who is thinking about joining iRacing but isn't sure exactly what it is, or how it differs from other racing games. So, read on to find out!


Why Would Anyone Subscribe to iRacing?

There seems to be a bit of confusion and misinformation around about what iRacing really is. Why would you pay a subscription to a racing game when you can just pay a one off charge for the likes of Assetto Corsa, Project Cars 2, Assetto Corsa Competitzione, Automobilista or RFactor? Well, I say a one off charge, but they all have some form of charged DLC before you really get the full game and the cost of that DLC can mount up fairly quickly.

However, that still doesn't explain why you would pay a subscription for iRacing which also has DLC, so let me try to clarify what iRacing is all about and why it is different from all those other racing games. 

Firstly, iRacing is an online only racing service. The subscription you pay is for access to the online racing service. Technically, you don't buy iRacing, you subscribe to the service it offers, and that online racing service is second to none. iRacing provides 24/7 online racing. There are currently over 60,000 active subscribers worldwide and so there are always thousands of racers online. Getting an online race in iRacing is not an issue that even exists. It is home to racing enthusiasts ranging from absolute beginners to real-life, professional racing drivers who often use it for practice between real race meetings.

Secondly, iRacing is first and foremost a racing simulator. The tracks are laser scanned, the cars are accurately modelled and the physics and handling are among the best you'll find in any publicly available racing simulator. Also, because it is a simulator rather than a game, there are no driving assists like there are in all those other games listed. You can't turn up traction control or stability control or use any other driving aids to help you keep the car on the track. The cars are exactly as they were meant to be for racing and learning how to drive them well will take a lot of practice. The only thing you can adjust on these cars is the setup, just as in real life.

So, if online sim-racing is your thing, then this is where you want to be. If it isn't, well then you have a large choice from those listed above, and more, and you need read no further.

Okay, so you are at least interested in trying online sim-racing with iRacing, which means you are going to need to pay for a subscription. Subscription options are flexible so you can subscribe for any period ranging from 1 month to 2 years. There is always a discount of around 40% to 50% for new members on the iRacing website. You may even find a Promo code online which gives you an even better offer. Existing members can usually save 25% on the annual subscription, currently $110, by renewing around Black Friday each year. 

If you are unsure, you can always try the game out for a month and then, if you feel it is worth it, take out a longer subscription as that is the cheapest option overall, although if you want to try the game for a full season you will need to sign up for three months (the length of a season) and make sure it's the beginning of a new season. When you sign up with iRacing you have to use your real name, not a handle or alias, and this is also what shows up in races. This is enforced by using the name registered on the credit card you use to pay for your subscription. This helps to encourage better behaviour in online races and adds to the more serious nature of iRacing compared to other mostly offline racing simulators.

Once you subscribe, the base client racing software is provided for free which you can use for as long as your subscription is active. It's a bit like subscribing to Netflix, as long as your subscription is active you can use the service and you can stop and start your subscription whenever you like. If you decide to take a break, everything will be just as it was when you return, including all purchased content. 

iRacing uses dedicated racing servers spread across the globe to provide the best online racing experience anywhere. Races are scheduled either every hour or every two hours depending on the popularity of the race series. If you're used to struggling to find a race online in Assetto Corsa or Project Cars you'll be pleasantly surprised at how easy it is to find races online using iRacing. Between races there are online open practice sessions for upcoming races and also options for Time Attack and Time Trial for the current week. 

The Structure of iRacing

iRacing runs 4 seasons per year. A Rookie season (where all new members start) consists of 12 weeks of racing (usually, it can vary for some series) where you compete with other online drivers for your division title. The season ends with a week 13 fun week. When you first join iRacing you are placed in the lowest division, which is the Rookie division, and given a starting rating (called iRating) of 1300. Beyond Rookie level, there are another 10 divisions with Division 1 being the top division. You are also given a Rookie licence to enable you to compete at this level. I will explain more about ratings and licence levels later. 

Your subscription includes all cars and tracks needed to complete a Rookie season of iRacing in one or more different race series. The content included for free with iRacing is fairly minimal. You get 13 cars and 19 tracks (Edit: 15 cars and 24 tracks starting 2020 Season 4). Now, be aware that these cars and tracks are spread across all the different types of racing that iRacing provides so you may not be interested in all of them. iRacing offers four types of racing:

  1. Road Racing
  2. Oval Racing
  3. Dirt Road Racing (including Rallycross)
  4. Dirt Oval Racing

The free (included with your subscription) cars and tracks are:


Test Tracks
  • Centripedal Circuit (just a circular test circuit, not very interesting)

Oval Racing (asphalt unless otherwise stated)
  • Charlotte Motor Speedway
  • Concorde Speedway
  • Langley Speedway (available free starting 2020 Season 4)
  • Lanier National Speedway (includes asphalt and dirt versions)
  • Oxford Plains Speedway
  • South Boston Speedway
  • Southern National Motorsports Park (available free starting 2020 Season 4)
  • Thomson Speedway Motorsports Park
  • USA International Speedway (includes asphalt and dirt versions)
  • [Legacy] Charlotte Motor Speedway - 2008
  • [Legacy] Daytona International Speedway - 2008
  • [Legacy] Phoenix Raceway - 2008

Road Racing
  • Lime Rock Park
  • Okayama International Circuit
  • Oran Park (available free starting 2020 Season 4)
  • Oultan Park (available free starting 2020 Season 4)
  • Tsukuba Circuit
  • Summit Point Raceway
  • Weathertech Raceway at Laguna Seca
  • [Legacy] Lime Rock Park - 2008


Rallycross
  • [Legacy] Daytona International Speedway - 2008
  • [Legacy] Phoenix Raceway - 2008
  • Limaland Motorsports Park (available free starting 2020 Season 4)

Cars
  • Cadillac CTS-V Racecar
  • Dirt Legends Ford '34 Coupe
  • Dirt Street Stock
  • Dirt UMP Modified (available free from 2020 Season 4) 
  • Global Mazda MX-5 Cup
  • Kia Optima
  • Lucas Oil Off Road Pro 2 Lite Truck
  • Pontiac Solstice
  • Radical SR8
  • SCCA Spec Racer Ford
  • Street Stock
  • Volkswagen Beetle
  • Volkswagen Jetta TDI (available free from 2020 Season 4)
  • [Legacy] Dallara DW12
  • [Legacy] NASCAR Truck Chevrolet Silverado - 2008

Not a bad selection to get you started, and remember, you haven't actually bought anything yet, you've just subscribed to the online racing service so technically, these are all freebies you get just for subscribing.

As I said, subscribing to iRacing gives you access to the iRacing service and the client software for connecting to that service. You also get the above selection of cars and tracks that enable you to compete in your first season of iRacing. 

So, you have a Rookie licence, an initial rating (1300) and a small selection of cars and tracks. What do you do now? Well, now you have to pick a series to race in for a season (you can enter more than one series in a season if you want). Here are the race series for 2020 Season 3 at Rookie level which you can enter that require no further purchase:


Series: Global Mazda MX-5 Cup (Road)





Series: Fanatec Street Stock Series (Oval)





Series: iRacing Advanced Legends Cup (Oval)





Series: Pro 2 Lite Truck Championship (Rallycross)





Rookie iRacing Rallycross Series





So, in terms of official series, you have a choice of 1 road series, 2 oval series and 2 rally-cross series. As you can see, a race week starts on a Tuesday and you enter as many races as you like during that week. However, if you do enter multiple races, iRacing doesn't just use your best points score for the week. If you enter 2 races in a week, whichever race you scored the most points in will count, but if you enter 3 races, it will use the average of the highest 2 and so on. Points scored in races count towards your division title with the driver with the most points being crowned division champion.

There are some other series you can take part in, but you won't be able to run a full season without purchasing at least 1 more track or car so I have left them out. However, you could race enough weeks with drop weeks for your season to still count as valid. You can also enter practice sessions or user created races/leagues with the any of the free cars and tracks that you are given.

Let's Go Racing

Launching iRacing is slightly different from most other games. You don't run the downloaded client software directly, you have to use a launcher program. Until recently, the only way to do this was to launch the simulator through the (rather clunky) member website. Fortunately, you now also have the option of using the new Beta UI. This is a much nicer and friendlier way to use iRacing and has a much more modern feel to it. It is also constantly being updated. Download the Beta UI from the iRacing website and run it (you'll need to log in the first time). Using the interface is fairly intuitive so it shouldn't be hard to find your way around.

iRacing Beta UI


Each series in iRacing has scheduled races. These are at set times and are either every hour or every two hours. So if your chosen series races on the hour every hour, you know when to turn up and can plan ahead for a time that suits you. Remember, iRacing is an online racing simulator and, as a courtesy to your fellow racers, that means you need to practice before racing. Lots of practice sessions are always available and are listed alongside race sessions. Be sure to have had at least some practice before entering a race. As a minimum, you should know the track and your breaking points.

Races generally have between 60 and 200+ entries. Obviously you can't all be in the same race, so your iRating is used to determine which 'split' you are in. Each split will consist of around 20 to 30 drivers. This all happens automatically and you won't even notice it.

All races have a short qualifying session before the race.  Usually, this is combined with the race session though sometimes it is separated out into it's own session. In combined sessions you get two qualifying laps and they have to be clean laps to count. Any off-tracks will invalidate your lap. You are only qualifying and racing against the drivers in your split. Since drivers are grouped by iRating, you should be racing against drivers with a similar skill level to yourself. This means that in any particular race you should always have a chance of winning. Epic!

Porsche iRacing Cup - Belle Isle, Detroit

iRacing Career Progression

To progress your career in iRacing, you need to compete in a certain number of race weeks in a single series. Only weeks raced in the same series count towards the total. For a 12 week series you need to compete in at least 8 different weeks of racing, in a 13 week season it is 9 weeks.This is called the Minimum Participation Requirement (MPR) and you must achieve this for your season to be classed as valid and to make progress in your virtual racing career.

You also need to maintain a good safety rating (SR) over the course of the season. This means ending the season with a safety rating of 3.0 or higher. The formula for safety rating is a bit complicated, but basically you get rewarded based on the number of corners you drive through safely and penalised for going off-track, hitting other vehicles or losing control of your vehicle. iRacing operates an automatic 'no fault' system for collisions. In other words, if you have contact with another vehicle you will lose safety rating whether it was your fault or not. However, if you feel you have been deliberately taken out of a race, you have the right to put in an appeal against the offending driver. Drivers do get warnings and even bans for deliberately wrecking someone else's race, but the iRacing stewards will need to review it and be absolutely sure that it was deliberate before taking any action. Most incidents can be avoided by improving your race craft.

Note that you must achieve both the MPR and SR requirements to move beyond Rookie level at the end of the season. Only your end of season SR counts for licence promotion. If you do achieve both of these, you will be rewarded with a D-Class licence and access to higher level racing series.



Note that none of this has anything to do with your iRating, which is a general representation of your current driving skill level. Your iRating is calculated solely on how well you perform in actual races. The amount your iRating changes after a race depends on where you finish and the strength of field (SOF) of the race. The SOF is basically an average of all the driver ratings in your race. In practice, finishing top 10 will generally increase your iRating, finish outside the top 10 you will likely lose iRating. If your iRating is close to that of the SOF, you will certainly need at least a top 10 finish to avoid losing some iRating. Once again, your iRating has no bearing on your licence level progress. That is purely down to MPR and SR. You could obtain an A-Class licence and still have an iRating your grandmother would be ashamed of!

As you've probably gathered, licence classes increase in the following order: Rookie, D, C, B, A, Pro and World Championship Pro. You can earn all except the Pro/WC Pro licences just by achieving the MPR and SR in a series at the required licence class each season. 

For example, if you have a C-Class licence you will need to enter a series where the minimum licence level for entry is a C-Class licence AND achieve the MPR and SR at the end of the season. This will earn you a B-Class licence and therefore access to B-Class races for the following season.

Beyond the Rookie licence level you will have far more racing options. There are professionally organised races from Porsche, Nascar, IMSA, World of Outlaws and more.

As I mentioned previously, you are placed in the Rookie Division when you first join iRacing. Promotion from a division is NOT related to where you finish in that division. The division you are placed in for the start of each season in entirely dependent on your iRating at the end of the previous season. So completing a whole season is not necessary to get promotion. You do, however, need to complete the the MPR and SR requirements to earn promotion. Whether you choose to pursue your current division title is entirely up to you, but you will have to race very consistently to even get close and you will receive an iRacing certificate for finishing in the top 3 of a division.

Outside of the official iRacing series there are hundreds of user created leagues and racing series. Far too many to mention. Browse the iRacing eSports Network to get a sense of the range of different user created racing series on offer. Note that user created races have no effect on your licence class, safety rating or iRating.

Purchasing Content (DLC)

iRacing offers a collection of 80 cars and 80 tracks, and most of this is DLC, so this is where the cost of iRacing can become expensive if you are not careful. Once you move beyond Rookie level, most cars and tracks used in each of the different series will need to be purchased. iRacing content is more of an a-la-carte experience than an all-in buffet. Unlike most other racing games and tracks have been laser scanned to the nearest mm, and are top quality. They are the most accurate you will find in a racing sim but they don't come cheap because laser scanning a race track is very expensive: tracks vary between $4.95, $11.95 and $14.95 each; a car usually costs $11.95.

You can save some money by bulk buying cars and tracks. You get a discount for purchasing either 3 items or 6 items, so try to plan ahead for what you need. The schedule for any race series is always published ahead of time so you will know what tracks you are going to need before the season starts. Also, remember you are allowed drop weeks during a season so you can use those drop weeks for when you don't own the track. There is no obligation to complete a whole season and no penalty if you don't. If you only own 5 tracks in the coming season, just race those and race other stuff you own during the missing weeks. It's entirely up to you. iRacing does not penalise you for not racing.

The other way to avoid spending too much is to specialise. Unless you have unlimited funds you're going to have to focus on the specific racing series that interest you. Do you prefer open-wheel racing, GT racing, touring cars, oval racing, dirt or rallycross? Focus on what interests you the most and only purchase the cars and tracks needed for you to run in that racing series. Few people own all content in iRacing, although there is a special award (called the 100% club) for those rich enough to own it all!

iRacing offers suggested career paths on their website depending on what type of racing you enjoy and it's a good idea to follow these when you start out. However, it may be that your interests change over time. I started iRacing fully intending to pursue a career in open-wheel racing. I have since discovered I enjoy GT racing and Nascar style oval racing more. This means that I probably purchased a few cars early on that I don't really use any more. Try to be sure what it is you want to do. It's not so bad with tracks, as they can be used for many different series, so unless you switch your style of racing entirely from road to oval or to dirt they are going to be useful.

Remember, iRacing emulates a career path in real racing so you need to treat it as such and just buy what you need to follow your chosen career in racing. This is how it differs considerably from offline racing games similar to those mentioned at the beginning. It's a virtual online racing career not a racing game.

Graphics and Realism

There is a lot of debate around about which sim is the most realistic in terms of graphics and handling. And most of it is, at worst, rubbish, at best subjective. Unless you are a professional racing driver or have spent considerable time racing around real tracks in real cars and messing with car setups, you have absolutely no idea what a real racing car should feel like. I include myself in this category as I've never even raced a Kart. My only driving experience comes from driving my own car to work and different places.

Fortunately, it doesn't really matter. All modern racing sims are going to offer a good experience in terms of car handling and graphics. It simply wouldn't survive if it didn't. The main difference is between those products offering more of a sim experience compared to the more arcade style racing games. If you're driving around using a gamepad, you're playing a game, not sim-racing. I would class a proper sim as one that at least required the use of a wheel and pedal set in order to use it properly. You aren't going to go very far trying to use iRacing with a gamepad. It doesn't have assists that you can turn on or off like most offline racing games, the cars are how they are in real life. The only thing you can change is it's setup. If a car was supposed to be driven with a gamepad it would come with one out of the showroom. If you're serious about using iRacing a wheel and pedals is a must. 

The graphics in iRacing are certainly not the best around, but they they do look great when turned up to the maximum detail. Just watch any YouTube video of an iRacing race to get a sense of the graphics as the official broadcast races are usually turned up quite high graphically.

The game also works well in virtual reality. I use a HTC Vive and love racing in VR. Sim-racing and VR were just made for each other! You will need to tune the graphics for your system specs, but there are some very good guides on the official iRacing forums. There are a lot of tweaks you can make to achieve a steady 90 FPS. You can also map most key commands to buttons on your wheel to avoid having to reach for a mouse. Installing add-ons such as Crew Chief (see below) will also allow you to use voice commands whilst driving.

Add-Ons

iRacing supports various add-ons. The most interesting ones are Trading Paints for creating custom paint jobs, Crew Chief which improves on the built-in Spotter and iSpeed for telemetry.

Earning Money

Since Porsche came in as a major sponsor last year (2019), they have begun offering cash prizes for some of events involving Porsche cars. If you haven't attained Pro Licence level (see below), you still have the option of entering the support series. This is currently the Porsche eSports Sprint Challenge. The only entry requirement is that you have a D-Class Licence. However, to earn any of the cash prizes you first need to be in the top 30 in terms of points earned for the week which will gain you entry to the special Porsche eSports Sprint Challenge race held at the weekend just before the Pro Level event. This special race is broadcast live with professional commentary on the various iRacing media channels and the iRacing eSports Network and will earn you a share of the $20,000 prize fund if you can perform well.

Going Pro

Pro Licences are only handed out to the top 250 drivers in iRacing based on a 70/30 weighting of skill (iRating) and safe driving (safety rating). 

World Championship Pro Licences are even more rare as they are only handed out to the top 50 current Pro Licence holders. 

This list of Pro Licence holders only updates once per year, so it's a fairly exclusive club.



However, if you do ever manage to reach these dizzying heights, you can earn yourself a lot of money competing in World Championship events such as the iRacing Porsche Tag Heuer eSports Supercup in road racing or the iRacing eNascar Coca-Cola Cup Series in oval racing. These events have prize funds of between $200,000 and $300,000 and it is going up each year. These events are also broadcast live with commentary.


Now, I think you'll agree, this isn't just a subscription version of Project Cars...



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