In the distant future, when someone decides to step from their hover-car contemplating writing a book about sim-racing in the 21st Century, there will undoubtedly be a large chapter devoted to rFactor and its gMotor2 engine.
Back in 2005, the sim-racing market was sparse with three titles dominating the scene. Grand Prix Legends, even then almost a decade old, enjoyed a large following—particularly if you were into road-racing—while oval racers were a little better catered for with Papyrus’ seminal NASCAR 2003. And then there was the sim that made SimBin, GTR. Aside from that, there was only darkness, and it’s ironic to recall that the community was never closer than in those grim days when all could unite behind a single sim—the one that no-one had ever made. When Papyrus went belly-up, and Crammond was sucked off the earth by a UFO, the darkness seemed complete.
Michigan-based ISI, back then, was but a blip on the sim-racing radar. Yes they had developed various F1-derived titles in the years before 2005, mostly for EA Sports, as well as the superb (and largely ignored) Sports Car GT, and yes, it was on their engine that GTR (both the mod and the game in the box) was bolted, but it would have taken a brave man to suggest ISI was about to challenge the Kaemmer/Crammond stranglehold on the sim-racing community.
And then ISI released rFactor.
Fast forward to 2011, and it’s remarkable what rFactor has become. Developed as an open framework that provided a playground for modders of all abilities to create content, rFactor maintains a healthy player base to this day along with a head-swimming library of mods delivering every race car and every race track any sim-racer could ever want (or dream of): Want to race 1979 F1 cars at a modern Thruxton? Caterhams around Monaco? Huge, lumbering UPS trucks around Melbourne GP circuit? You can do it all with rFactor. And that’s not to mention the engine that was developed for rFactor (gMotor2) that has powered a plethora of other sims in the intervening years, everything from ARCA to Game Stock Car: Indeed, ISI’s gMotor2 went on to become the ubiquitous sim engine, the Ford Cosworth of the sim-racing world.
The good times, though, were not to last. rFactor’s longevity (and ISI’s stroke of genius) was the engine’s open nature, and the craft that it brought to modders’ desktops. This, at first, unveiled an astonishing array of tracks and cars and series before, ever so gradually, the promise of utopia began sinking into a dystopia of mismatches, poorly rendered mods, a modding community who, by and large, refused to allow any oversight, and a tyre model that, though very accomplished on release, was soon overshadowed. But it was the lack of coherence in the structure of mod delivery that resulted in sim-racers’ precious racing time being taken up by finding the right version of this track or that car. Anyone who was around rFactor in 2009 will have experienced that sense of frustration as they hunted the net in search of the ‘right’ version of a track (for which there existed perhaps a dozen versions made by a dozen modders) only to install and discover that it had been updated, and the update was available on a site that had gone down three months earlier. This, along with the notably varied quality on display in the mods, resulted in a growing exhaustion with rFactor, and many abandoned it to opt for more ‘pick up and play’ sims where mismatches never occurred, and racing was simply and cleanly delivered.
It was around then that we first heard mention of rFactor2, and as luck would have it, and as I tend to write about this sort of thing, I’ve been given the chance to try out the beta to ISI’s latest and greatest, their first full-blown sim in half-a-decade and a beta that you will experience soon. So, let’s dispense with this grinding and dull introduction and get cracking with the answer—is ISI back in the game with rFactor2?
Releasing a new sim these days is not the work of a moment; the marketplace is replete with a number of titles that do many things well. rFactor’s USP has always been its sandbox framework, and the design brief for rFactor 2 (rF2) is to continue on this tried-and-tested model by offering an open framework where the community can put-out whatever content they want. But ISI have learnt their lessons too; they know they cannot restrict development or babysit content (that was a battle they—and the more sober elements in the community—lost years ago) and, instead, have opted to embark on a modular design that you can see upon starting up the software where, before entering the sim, you are presented with a feature called ‘Mod Manager’. From here, you can manage which mods are installed via ‘packages’; mod files are now easily managed as one file that simply needs to be dropped into the package folder. This makes it far simpler to keep track of what is or is not installed, and means that you will no longer have the problem of the sim being broken by a mod since installation or uninstallation now takes place outside of the main core executable. Once into the sim, you can also manage mod installation and removal, as well as implement GUI customisations and modifications to in-sim aspects such as HUD elements. Whilst these elements could be modified in the original rFactor, within rF2 this kind of modification to the core sim is managed through a GUI interface, making this a wholly more user-friendly environment.
For this beta, I was given the chance to try out the three mods which will be the components that’ll ship with the core build: Formula Renault 3.5 (a medium-to-high-speed single-seater), a Renault Megane Trophy Cup car (which is a heavier, rear-wheel drive hatchback), and the mod we’ve all been waiting for, the ‘1960s World Class Racing’ pack which not only gives us some fine ‘60’s racing machinery, but also comes packed with two splendidly realised tracks from the era in Monaco and Spa-Francorchamps. This will form the backbone of the beta release.
Tim Wheatley duly sent me the Formula Renault mod first, ensuring I didn’t immediately drive the historic cars, which was either a wise move or a fiendish ploy since this gave me some time to try out the new tyre model that has been developed for rF2 on a recognisable car before doing what most of you will probably do first—fire up the Ford Cosworth powered 1960s single-seaters.
Getting strapped into the car feels similar to rFactor, and any seasoned player of ISI-based sims will immediately be familiar with their virtual surrounds. Controller setup, however, is much improved, and whilst I did some fiddling with steering lock and force feedback settings, it wasn’t long before I was content with the wheel’s feel in my hands.
Gone is any need for the RealFeel mod, replaced by some of the cleanest, most communicative force feedback I have experienced. Lacking the confusion of some sims, the road is translated into your hands in a wholly convincing manner. The slick tyres of the Formula Renault provide an interesting starting point into the physics of rF2; where a road tyre will feel lacking in precision and be forgiving on the limit, a typical slick tyre, particularly on such a high-downforce car, is all about precision and directional stability. Loading up the front tyres on their stiff sidewalls into a turn allows you to feel this, and they stick on gentler slip angles, allowing the car to laser its way to apexes with minimal fuss. Be too aggressive with the steering, and the fronts can easily be overloaded, building up too much heat and minimising the precision in future corners as the tyres build up a waxy sheen that needs to be cooled in the upcoming corners. Hang on… that sounds like something I would write about real slick tyres … It was then that I took a break and tried to work out why things felt a little off. The answer was the feel of this sim; the graphical style, the menus, the in-car menu-screen, all of it shouts ISI, and consequently my first response had been to drive it as if it were an rFactor-derived sim. Turns out that’s not a wise thing to do: Yes, the look of it is ISI, but under the hood is a whole new engine that demands a more realistic way of interaction.
Firing it up again, I began approaching the experience as one would driving an actual car rather than driving a sim, and instantly I was transported into that sweet, special spot that happens so rarely in sim-racing. The car feels so much more connected than before, direct and a part of your input; after a few fast laps, things began to switch to a more intuitive driving experience. Peering into the middle distance, my consciousness of the steering-wheel in front of me began to fade as the combination of tactile force feedback and a precise weapon of a motor car pushed me into a sim-racing trance. When was the last time that happened to me in a sim?
The slicks, however, I found not the most forgiving of tyres (only natural on such a stiff car). But we know, from experience, where the problems with modern sims arise, and the car, at low speed, never felt too out of control; on the limit, over-exuberance was punished with the odd spin here and there, but I didn’t feel any sort of disconnect between result and provocation. The Renault Megane Trophy car, whilst being just the sort of car I would never touch in a sim, felt surprisingly communicative, too. Its slick tyres feel just as connected as the single-seater, and fiercely loquacious in their responses as you start to push the car into corners, its rear-end getting light on brakes and yawing on keen entries but being picked up with a smooth throttle application. Heavier cars like this often fail to feel connected in sims, feeling softer and floatier than they should, but this car feels like a race car on its grippy tyres and stiff suspension.
I was naturally keen to let Tim know how much I had enjoyed the experience and how, really, I was ready for something new. Something a little more challenging …
Many of the ‘old school’ sim-racers grew up on GPL and have been seeking a replacement for that seminal sim ever since. Ultimately, though, GPL was about more than just the cars and tracks—it was the box, it was Steve Smith’s manual, it was the self-enclosed world that seeped history and oily overalls. But having said all of that, there is still the little matter of the cars, and for some, historics will be all that matters in rF2. For them, the package for the soon-to-be-released beta contains a smattering of generically named (licences are still in the process of being procured) F1, F2 and F3 cars from the mid-to-late 1960s. Once booted up, the first thing I did was to remember that I am a superb driver and GPL veteran and despite Tim’s warnings, I knew I’d have no problems leaping into the F1 cars and searing in some sizzling laptimes …
I should begin by saying that adapting to these cars will not offer the same kind of ‘this is fucking impossible’ reaction we all got from the initial moments with GPL. The tyres give-up very little grip, it’s true, but the delightful force feedback is still with us, and as a result, the spongy, cross-ply, treaded tyres can be felt through the wheel in much the same way as in other cars. This still leaves one forgetting quite how little grip and braking bite these cars had in comparison to their power output. Once one begins to brake early, though, and avoids using full-throttle even when it feels safe to do so, one can start stringing together the odd lap or two without spinning or drifting wide into some gravel. Unlike the days of GPL, the tyre modelling and feedback is so much more advanced, and that means catching small slides and sometimes even big ones is intuitive and grin-inducing. The tyres respond to your input and—provided you calm down and treat the controls with respect—it won’t be long before you find laptimes coming down and driving becoming a purely visceral experience. The trance comes back, and then the thing ran out of fuel.
The Formula Renault and Megane were tested at Mills Motorsports Park, a fictional track that shipped with rFactor and has been given a graphical overhaul for rF2; it’s a fine test track but it does lack for flow, with too many fiddly second gear corners. It was time for me to branch out; it was time to take to a track upon which these cars were destined to compete, and this meant one of the two historic tracks that will come with your beta. Monaco? Hmm, tight confines, no grip, 400BHP? Perhaps not. Despite feeling more comfortable with the car, I was still finding myself in the midst of some startling and unexpectedly lurid powerslides, and re-learning 1960s throttle-control would take a little longer, and probably needed a little more open space, than Monaco.
Many will remember the full, eight-mile Spa-Francorchamps as quite a challenging and ultimately fast track with some not so challenging corners meshed-in with a few bits that literally scare the shit out of you. I remembered it as ‘the easy one in GPL’. Oh dear.
Thus follows the transcript of my first runs at Spa in the historic F1s:
—Denton sets off, lights up rear tyres in pitlane, and smashes into a parked VW Beetle.
—Denton is away and into fourth gear on the Kemmel Straight when the car snaps on power oversteer, tips two wheels onto the grass, and proceeds to fly up the inside bank and spin into the trees, ending its trajectory with no wheels and on fire.
—Denton exits Les Combes and understeers wildly on the fast chicane at Haut de la Cote, proceeding down a bank and dies.
—Denton indulges in a dramatic tankslapper on the exit of Malmedy, spins at around 150MPH into some catch fencing, and comes to a serene rest in a field next to a cow. The cow remains nonplussed.
—Denton plunges off the road at the Masta kink which results in an aerial accident of grandiose proportions until a concrete post abruptly halts the car’s progress.
—Denton almost completes an outlap but then pushes wide onto the grass at Blanchimont, coming to a rest in a mangled wreck with a horse laughing at him.
You get the idea. It was these numerous excursions, before achieving some semblance of competence, which allowed me to appreciate the sheer detail of the racing environment. One very notable thing about the way rF2 feels is that it is fast; the sensation of speed is considerable, the countryside tears past you at phenomenal velocity to the degree that your heart starts to race, made the more astonishing by the wheel that churns and spits wildly in your hands. But when your smouldering wreckage comes to rest in, say, the doorway of a hotel in Stavelot, you begin to realise quite how beautiful this rendition of Spa is. Motion blur is superb, and that, added to this rich environment, facilitates a feeling of speed that is rather adrenaline-inducing as you squirt about in squirreling slides and counter-locks. Another piece of the fabric of rFactor 2 is experienced when you pull your roaring DFV into the pit and kill the engine; swallowed in the sudden silence, you become aware of the atmospheric ambient sounds that accompany the splendour. Whilst I felt that Mills was cluttered and had a rather airport-approach-path feel about it, Spa feels alive, like a place where you, in your insane metal cigar-tube, are not alone. Like a sim-racing Skyrim!
Meanwhile, back at Spa, more and more heavy and violent crashes made Denton note more and more movable objects; hay bales, fence railings, cows that wander about chewing on grass, and all of it makes for a believable environment in which you can gently sink into and explore both in simulated reality and in your imagination. There you are, in this rich textured environment, trying to handle a car that feels so very alive as it skips over bumpy Belgian roads through villages and barns, focussing two hundred metres ahead, trying to stay alive, and you’re thinking—this is brilliant …
This dynamism doesn’t just stop at the visual, either. As we all know and have been anticipating for some time, weather is a key ingredient to the rFactor2 universe, and it = functions to make the race circuit a living, breathing beast. Subtle changes to temperature, or the time of day shrouding parts of the track in shadow, bring gentle changes to grip. As a pilot, you negotiate the grip instinctively, and the final result, the lap time, is no longer defined by those staples of sim-racing speed—setup and talent. Simple testing reveals that a grey day at 16C makes for lap times considerably slower than sunny days at 26C. No doubt each track has a sweet spot, but these changes to the circuit mean setups need to change along with those grip levels as the balance can easily be upset, making the process of racing in rF2 a constant learning process as each practice session counts towards understanding car and track. Not only do you start to feel where the cambers and bumps make for the best lines, but you also start to sense how the track changes with the temperature, the wind direction, the time of day, and this is before it has even started to rain. One could easily dedicate hundreds of hours to running with just one track in various different conditions as the weather makes for alternating lines and speeds.
This, again, brings us an accuracy that steers us away from what we have learned in previous sims—that everything isn’t just about having a great setup to set that definitive lap time. The dynamic nature of the track means that the personal best lap time you set in one ‘sim day’ may never be repeated, as the conditions on the next ‘sim day’ may never tie-up with your setup, just as it doesn’t in real-life. One can hope that this helps to swing sim-racing away from its infatuation on ‘killer setups’ and world lap time rankings and becomes more about the driver adapting to conditions.
The more laps I completed in the F1 car, the more I began to feel at home in it, and the tyre model, allied to the superb force feedback, continued to astound me as I felt more and more a part of the car. I built in some understeer to the setup to make for a car that was a little less lively, and really started to push. Then I started to run laps at Monaco, playing with the throttle in first and second gear, and finding myself in glorious slides and drifts through the principality. Delving into the tunnel on a cool morning, so dark I couldn’t see the dashboard, I felt the yaw in the car as I powered through, and correcting instinctively to the oversteer, I felt the edge in the steering.
Two key areas have become something of a bête noire in most sims over recent years; the ‘low speed issue’, in which traditional Pacejka-based tyre models ran into trouble as speeds get lower, exhibiting curious loss of grip at very low speeds and, in some cases, lateral movement when stationary; and the other, more complicated issue that deals with what happens when the tyre loses grip and then regains it.
Anyone that has driven on-track or too fast on the road will have had this happen, and the common theme in racing sims for years now is that a tyre can feel as good as good can be up to the point that it breaks grip. What happens after that is a grey area, and the area in which all of the last generation of sims broke down. Many forum posts have been made stating things such as ‘it’s not right’, and ‘I spun out in a totally unrealistic way’, and this is usually on the basis that, as drivers, experienced or otherwise, the feeling of ‘losing’ a car at speed and ‘catching’ it is a largely intuitive and instinctual process. Whilst it is a truism that many an inexperienced driver will say similar things in real-life, the experienced racing driver will always seek answers to these questions, and those answers are usually out there in the telemetry.
In sims they aren’t, and so people often tend to blame the physics modelling for being at fault. More often than not, this is actually the case. What astounded me in what was admittedly a relatively limited running of rF2 is that at no point did I feel as if I lost control of the car for no reason; spins, understeer moments, scary Spa-based 150MPH tankslappers, all had a basis in the vehicle and tyres responding to my control input in a feasible fashion. That, for me, makes me want to keep driving rF2 until the virtual fuel runs out. ISI have claimed rFactor2 will be a big step forward. In terms of physics and tyre modelling, I believe that their claims are born out by this beta—a beta that will become reality for many of you in the next few days.