This isn’t a game: We try out a professional driver-in-the-loop simulator
Devotees of racing games love to throw shade at each other. Xbox versus Playstation, console versus PC, controller versus wheel; you name it, people will argue about it on the Internet. And one of the more common ways to denigrate an opponent in such an argument is to play the purity card. This inevitably involves some variation of "my game's better than yours, because mine is a simulator, and yours is just an arcade game." The implication is that you aren't hardcore enough because you play something fun and accessible.
It's not an argument I buy into, but it is one I've thought about through the years. If being a faithful simulation is the be-all and end-all of it, then how do consumer games compare to the real thing? Not racing an actual car on an actual track—I answered that one years ago. No, I'm talking about the driver-in-the-loop (DIL) simulators used by professional racing teams—these proprietary setups that move and shake and carry price tags in the hundreds of thousands or even millions. It's been a tricky question to answer. DIL sims are few and far between, and they tend to be in heavy use doing actual work.
As luck would have it, the nice people at Mazda North America didn't laugh when I recently asked them if I could visit their sim. In fact, they invited me to see it in action as the team prepared for an upcoming race in the IMSA Weathertech Sportscar Championship. Two of their four drivers were new to the series this year, and they'd be spending a couple of days getting up to speed with a track they'd never been to before. Suddenly I had a chance to see what pro drivers and engineers actually got from spending time in a sim, and to gauge how the whole endeavor differs from even really, really hard racing games. Plus, if I was really lucky, I might even get to have a go myself…