The release of a new rally computer game is always a cause for celebration among motorsport gamers but the latest offering, EA Sports WRC, could actually help tackle a hot topic currently in the World Rally Championship.
Barring the age-defying talent that is Kalle Rovanpera, who appears set to become a two-time world champion at the age of 23, the Finn is the only driver under the age of 25 regularly competing in rallying’s top tier. Granted, with only eight full-time seats spread across Toyota, Hyundai and M-Sport-Ford, it is already difficult for young drivers to break through to the premier class.
The introduction of the sophisticated Rally1 hybrid monsters in 2022 has witnessed the gap between the junior and top-level classes increase, such is the challenge of driving a Rally1 with its unique hybrid deployment system – that can produce an eye-watering 500 horsepower in short bursts. When the Rally1 cars first broke cover even experienced WRC rally-winning drivers had to alter their driving styles to adjust to the new technology and the injection of speed. This is perhaps best illustrated by factory Hyundai driver Teemu Suninen who has driven top-level WRC cars from the previous generation of regulations [2017-2021]. The experienced Finn was left visibly shaking by the speed on offer when he made his competitive Rally1 debut at Rally Estonia.
This expansion of the gap between Rally2 and Rally1 in addition to restrictions on testing at the highest level in the WRC, set by the FIA, fewer seats and the almost million euro price tag of the cars, have contributed to a limited the number of junior drivers breaking through. If a driver is lucky enough to score a Rally1 drive, then significant time behind the wheel is often required to adjust to such a significant change in machinery.
This is perhaps where EA Sports WRC, could actually help in offering a virtual testing tool to help develop young drivers for the real world of Rally1. Such is the game’s level of realism and accurate representation of car handling and stages, it is a view shared by EA Sports WRC game designer Jon Armstrong. This is not just a throwaway line from a game maker either, as Armstrong also just happens to be a professional rally driver who competed in the Junior WRC last year and won this year’s European Rally Championship ERC3 title.
“For WRC drivers I think they could be turning to it [this game] to practice the same stages before they go and do them in real life,” Armstrong tells Motorsport.com.
“For muscle memory and things like that it is really practical to see this as a training tool. The amount of testing available in real life [is limited], whether this is applied by the FIA or budget reasons, so any extra practice you can get is really good. It is something I do, so I hope other drivers will do this too.”
Armstrong has enjoyed a successful junior career and won this year’s European Rally Championship ERC3 title
Photo by: Red Bull Content Pool
It’s hard to argue with the 28-year-old’s view as simulation has played an increasing role in motorsport in recent years, with teams spending significant budgets on stunning simulators in F1 and other top-level championships.
The world of iRacing and rFactor have also exploded in popularity among gamers and professional drivers alike, as they seek that extra edge or another test session, albeit in a virtual world, that is becoming ever closer to real life thanks to the advances in software and technology.
Since the news that the doyens of the rally gaming world Codemasters, now part of gaming giants Electronic Arts, announced it had secured the WRC licence for five years in 2020 – a deal beginning in 2023 – there has been plenty of excitement building ahead of its first release.
“I have been using the build of the game to practice for my rallies this year” Jon Armstrong
The hype is well founded given Codemasters’ pedigree having created the iconic Colin McRae Rally series, that began in 1998. This has since evolved into the ultra-realistic rally-driving simulation that is Dirt Rally 2.0, which first hit PCs and consoles in 2019. The company is also behind the successful official Formula 1 game franchise.
This month the game makers have released a series of videos teasing the new EA Sports WRC title ahead of its 3 November on PC, PlayStation 5 and Xbox. It appears this title, featuring a 78-strong car list from Rally1 to historic classics, will take the rally game genre to new heights. It is set to offer not only a hardcore simulation for sim racers and professional rally drivers but a fun and accessible experience for newcomers through driver aids.
The already ultra-realistic physics model from Dirt 2.0 has been improved upon, coupled with a no-stone-unturned approach to realism from car handling to the stages themselves. Unlike other titles where only super special routes or shorter stages replicate the real-life roads and locations, this game features real-world stages, some over 30 kilometres in length, that according to Senior Creative Director Ross Gowing are “as close to 1-1 as we can feasibly make.”
For example, the iconic ribbon of tarmac that climbs up to the Col de Turini at Rally Monte Carlo or the Fafe stage at Rally Portugal are among two examples from 17 locations that have been painstakingly recreated without compromise. To add to the realism there is a new dynamic weather and seasons mode to recreate all climatic conditions.
Armstrong has revealed that some drivers are using computer games to prepare for real-world events
Photo by: Red Bull Content Pool
But how does it compare to the real thing? According to Armstrong, the game is so detailed he can use his own real-world pacenotes.
“At other levels of circuit racing, simulation is used a lot. We are seeing it a lot with rally drivers that they are using games to practice on and learn driving techniques and test set up changes and learn pacenotes, so for sure it is a good tool for any real driver to practice on,” he adds.
“I think it is a realistic representation of what it feels like to drive a car, you get the same sensations and you go into the same mindset. I have been using the build of the game to practice for my rallies this year.
“We have seen how popular Dirt Rally 2.0 was and how much drivers used that during Covid. I think that now we have made improvements to the physics and the tarmac handling has been reworked, and we have re-done the force feedback, and a bunch of other improvements on the physics-side, I think it will be really popular with all types of drivers and for new players.
“A good example of how 1-1 the stages are is Kalle [Rovanpera] was playing the game earlier this era and he was driving one of the roads he had been to in real life, and [its realism] that was one of his takeaways about one of the most impressive parts of the game.”
Stage realism aside, it is this game’s recreation of Rally1 hybrid cars that could offer young drivers a real training tool to prepare for the leap to the WRC big time should an opportunity arise. Rally1 cars existed in a virtual form through last year’s WRC Generations title, developed by Kylotonn and published by Nacon, but this is the first time the vehicles will be given the renowned ‘Dirt 2.0’ realism treatment. EA has worked closely with WRC teams, and M-Sport in particular, to accurately reproduce the sensation of a Rally1 car and its hybrid boost deployment.
While it is a stretch to say a stint on the EA Sports WRC could replace a test day in a Rally1 car, the time in front of a HD monitor could certainly help young drivers hone skills to adjust to the gulf in speed.
“There is an element to Rally1 cars with the hybrid deployment which is something different from any other category in rallying and there is an increased aero effect and general power,” says Armstrong.
The latest WRC release expands far beyond featuring only the top category
Photo by: EA Sports
“We have recreated those things really well. We have recreated the hybrid deployment with some advice from some of the teams, especially M-Sport, who helped us out with that. We have got a new aero system for this game compared to Dirt Rally 2.0 and that is something I really feel when I go from Rally2 cars to a Rally1 car. It is how much you can push at high speed and that is something I never felt in the previous games.
“I know drivers talk about this when they make the jump in real life that they struggle to get their head around how much they can push in the corners and the downforce. I think for sure this is something you can use to help you with that difference. If the drivers use it in their own ways and they find things that help to train better for real life I think it will be a tool that is very useful.”
EA Sports WRC may not just be that piece of escapism, where gamers try to live out dreams in the virtual world
There is of course no substitute for real-world seat time but it does seem simulations such as EA Sports WRC will have a role to play in developing drivers in the future. It must be said that a top-tier WRC that can attract more teams and manufacturers, and therefore more Rally1 seats would indeed offer more opportunities to young drivers. This is all part of a complex situation the WRC and the FIA is attempting to address with its future sporting regulations set to be introduced in 2027.
But for now, it appears EA Sports WRC may not just be that piece of escapism, where gamers try to live out dreams in the virtual world in the comfort of an armchair or gaming seat, but a tool that will help develop the next wave of real-world Rally1 drivers.
Computer games are no longer just about escapism, but can aid in the development of young talent
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