Assetto Corsa: the most realistic racing simulator ever

The efforts gone to by the developers are enough to fry your brain, and wouldn’t have been possible a short time ago, because the technology required simply didn’t exist.

A screenshot from the development stages of Assetto Corsa. It was fine-tuned with input from car companies including Ferrari and Lamborghini. Courtesy Kunos Simulazioni
Powered by automated translation

Simulated. Not real, just pretend – an imitation. Doesn't sound very ­appealing, does it? Why would anyone settle for a fake experience? There's more to that word than meets the eye, how­ever, and simulated experiences are invaluable when it comes to training pilots, astronauts, ­doctors, soldiers and, as has ­become more obvious in recent years, drivers.

The unstoppable march of computing technology has given us simulators that are so close to the real thing that you could sometimes wonder whether it’s worth leaving the house at all. And the skills that gamers and other tech addicts can hone are so extreme that if given the opportunity, they can use them in real world situations.

Nissan's famed GT Academy, which it has run in tandem with Sony Interactive Entertainment and the creators of the Play­Station game Gran Turismo since 2008, has proved beyond doubt that gaming can prepare people for top-flight motorsport competition, where if you crash, it's actually serious. It starts with downloading the contest via the online PlayStation store, before top gamers are pinpointed in a series of timed online trials while "driving" a number of simulated Nissan race cars.

A select few from the thousands of participants are chosen to participate in a national final (there’s one each year here, in the Middle East, too), where they battle it out in special race-simulator pods, after which the cream of the crop is invited to a boot camp of sorts, where they put down the hand controllers in exchange for steering wheels in real cars. The process, apart from being enormous fun for competitors, has resulted in gamers becoming bona fide professional endurance racers, some of whom have taken part in the annual 24-hour race at Dubai’s Autodrome.

I have never owned a games console, but I have tried my hand at these racing games, usually as an after-dinner activity at various friends’ houses where I’m shown up by 4-year-olds as a total amateur. I’m fine with that, because while I have never participated in a race for real, I have driven on plenty of the world’s great circuits in some of the cars these gamers obsess about, with no simulation involved.

It was with some interest and no small amount of trepidation, then, when I was invited to try out a new game still in its final development stages for games consoles, called Assetto Corsa, in the presence of some experienced gamers and professional drivers and drifters. Set up in the Sharaf DG store in Dubai's Oasis ­Centre, a number of full-sized simulators await, replete with steering wheels, pedals and racing bucket seats, through which the various, simulated, sensations of driving on a circuit are transmitted to those engaged in a battle for the best lap times. Would the supposed reality of the experience be enough to convince me that it's a good idea to buy the equipment and spend my evenings in front of a console and screen?

Assetto Corsa has been developed by Italian company Kunos Simulazioni, which is based at Italy's Vallelunga racing circuit, near Rome. It has been conceptualising and designing race simulators for the past decade, ideally positioned next to one of the world's classic tracks where motor racing is a way of life. According to the company, during the development of Assetto Corsa, Lamborghini's own racing drivers helped with the realism of the digital action while they were at the circuit driving Huracán GT3 racers, jumping from real drivers' seats to the ones hooked up to the test consoles.

It’s already available for purchase if you’re a PC gamer, via Steam, which is basically like an iTunes store for computer games. It costs from Dh129. It will be rolled out for Xbox One and PlayStation 4 in August, and this testing in Dubai plays an important part in the tweaking necessary to ready the software for the hardware.

When I arrive, the assembled testers are already giving it all they have, completely immersed in the on-screen action. Among them are two professional drivers – one with extensive gaming experience, the other with what's described as "casual experience". The more experienced of the two, Raad Haddad, is a semi-professional hill-climb competitor who participates in high-octane motorsport events throughout the Middle East, while YoungJae Kim is president of the UAE's Toyota GT86 Owners Club who also participates in local drive events. Both say that they're blown away by Assetto Corsa, and that's down to a number of factors.

The efforts gone to by the developers are enough to fry your brain, and wouldn’t have been possible a short time ago, because the technology required simply didn’t exist. Using digital scanners, each millimetre of track at various venues was mapped, recorded and processed, as well as the surrounds, including trees, grass, rolling hills and buildings. No detail is overlooked, and the various light conditions, reflections and shadows required for that extra degree of realism are carefully integrated.

Car manufacturers play a part, too. Having a model featured in a game such as this is rightly recognised as a powerful marketing tool, so the likes of Ferrari, ­Lamborghini and Porsche all join in with technical know how, so that the virtual handling characteristics of their cars are replicated as closely as possible.

Naturally, the costs associated with developing this technology are vast. Interestingly, Assetto Corsa was part funded by the gamers themselves, who picked up the concept when it was listed on Steam's "Early Access" programme. It's a simple process: sell the game in its early, incomplete state, a few years before it's properly ready, to raise additional capital. Then get feedback from the paying gamers, which helps develop the product, and once it's finalised, those early purchasers get the finished product at no extra charge. Nobody will say what it cost to bring this particular simulator to life, but the total probably reads like a telephone number.

When it’s my turn to take my seat, I’m aware that I’m being watched by experts who can hustle a car around a virtual circuit with almost contemptuous ease. And my performance is, as expected, disastrous. My reactions and inputs to steering, brakes and throttle are too sudden, and I end up crashing into the Armco or going off piste and onto the grass as often as I make any actual progress.

I’m deeply impressed by the graphics and the sounds, but still left cold by the physical side of things. I just can’t seem to connect with this set-up in the way that I can in a real car on a real circuit. That, and the inescapable sense of danger that provides such an adrenaline rush when you’re doing this for real – until these can be simulated with some degree of accuracy, this is a pastime I’ll be leaving for others.

As for the others gathered around me, they’re taking part in a competition to set the fastest lap time on the Barcelona circuit while “driving” a LaFerrari FXX-K. The winner turns out to be Kim, with a lap time of one minute and 47 seconds, which is comparable with what a professional racer might achieve in the real world. That in itself is enough to convince me of this simulator’s merits.

Fully immersive, 3-D virtual reality is already here, providing all-round, 360-degree views within gaming pods, bringing ever-greater realism to an unreal experience. Demand will drive supply, and there’s no shortage of that.