Recently I blogged about the various equipment options available to sim racers and how there's so much more out there than single monitor setups with a force feedback wheel. (You can read my post Sim racing hardware explored at the link).
It's the age old question asked by any serious competitive gamer. Will better gear make me more competive? Here's my opinion after a few years of competitive sim racing in various sims.
The starter setup is single a monitor and an average gaming video card (usually a pretty decent card), along with a stardard force feedback wheel with maybe a brake and a clutch, and gear levers located on the steering wheel. This is more than enough to get started. You've got all the tools you need: a screen and a method of controlling the car that lets you do everything that's required.
After a few months (or weeks) you may find even though your times have improved a heap since you started, you're still not winning races consistently, if at all. You start to question your equipment. Is my video card and my FPS to low? Is there time to be gained in using a clutch? What about if I ran a H-shifter or I had three screens? Surely someone with triple screens can see more of the coming track and therefore mentally plan their driving better. After all, the driving books (which you've already read in a quest for more speed) say you should be looking as far ahead as possible.
So you splurge on two more monitors and woah! The experience is so much better. Finally the blinkers are off and you're sure you're going to dominate at the track now. But after a few days of practice it's becomes obvious that you're still not topping the timesheets. The guys that were faster before are still faster. You might be a tenth or two faster if you're lucky but you're certainly not up there with the best. Three monitos have given you more peripheral vision though, you feel more immersed in your virtual cockpit and you can more easily see cars coming to pass you, which they annoying still do! Maybe now you're getting involved in less accidents. But speed. You want more of it. Your racing driver ego kicks in. There's no way these other guys are faster on pure talent alone. They must have better gear. So you go searching for more.
You've been sim racing for a while now and every now and then you hear talk about "load cells" and you wonder just what that is, so you go looking. Great! a technology that can improve braking and lap times. Surely this is what the great guys are using. If you're handy with the tools you mod your current pedals but maybe you don't want to gamble that the actual pedals are the difference, so you get some nice new load cell equipped pedals that come with a clutch. Now you're in business. Watch out world!
But you know what? Once you got used to it, it didn't really make that much difference. You're more confident on the brakes now, and it's likely you've gained 0.5s per lap. You're faster now than the guys you were racing against, but you're still 2.0s off the fastest guys. You look at your FPS, adding those two extra monitors gave you a hit and you were getting 100 FPS but now it's 40FPS. That must be it! Off to your local hardware retailer you go.
With your shiney new top line card, you may be $500 poorer but now you're going to be 2.0s faster. For sure! You plug it in your PC and fire up your favourite sim. 60 minutes later your 0.2s faster. dammit! You've seen some funky cockpits getting around. Surely all the pro's use those. You know they're sponsored by some of the top hardware venders so obviously they are!
A week later your cockpit arives and you're strapped in. Literally. Three hours later, the same story. There's still a 1.5s gap to the top guys. WTF! How can this be. You've now spent thousands of dollars and you're barely faster than you were a few months after you started. There's just no way these guys are better than you. What is the missing piece of the puzzle? What have they got that you don't?
Your new high end wheel arrives, you plug it in. It's so smooth. Like butter. This will make the difference. You can feel every bump, every slight over/understeer moment. You know this is going to bring you at least up to your teammates if not propel you into alien territory. Another race week goes by and you realise you're no faster than before. Your safer, thanks to being able to feel every bump. You're getting to the end with less incidents. You're definitely more in control when you're out of control, but over a single lap? No difference.
A dim light is starting to glow more brightly in the back of your mind and you realise something. You can buy more sim racing gear and you can buy yourself a better sim racing experience but you can't buy talent. It's what seperates the club races of the real world from the Formula 1 superstars. Some people are just born with the ability to go fast. You weren't.
(* You can buy "talent" sessions with real world professional drivers. A good friend of mine recently bought 4 hours of one on one training from Wyatt Gooden. He said it's been invaluable in terms of lap times. He's right. We recently raced together for the first time in months and where he used to be consistently 0.5s slower, he's now 1.0s faster).