What is the best graphics card for sim racing?

zotac 3090 arcticstorm

Last updated: May 25th, 2022

What is the best graphics card for sim racing? And, importantly – have you checked the one you already own is actually good enough to run your sim racing software on higher settings already? It might just be getting too hot!

Thanks to a significant drop in the value of Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, a small window of opportunity has opened for gamers to get their hands on a next-generation GPU.

For the last few years, new graphics cards have been in short supply. Not that the manufacturers would acknowledge this, as NVIDIA reported an increase in GPU production in 2021! Scalpers have been very successful at adding as much as 100% markup over MSRP (manufacturer’s suggested retail price) for some cards.

However – that markup is steadily dropping on eBay. A £1300 (MSRP) 3090 RTX FE was, at peak demand, priced close to ~£2600 on eBay. But miners are seeing higher risk in the current climate meaning you can pick up a 3090 FE on eBay for £1700. Still, that’s £400 over the correct price.

a pile of GPUs
Weird flex: I’ve tested and run most GPUs for sim racing – there’s some nice stuff in this pile!

A new GPU (and sim racing PC for that matter!) is a big investment. And for sim racing, do you actually need the latest flagship NVIDIA GPU? The answer, in my humble opinion, is a firm no – especially not for iRacing and especially not if you understand the key element for all GPU performance: cooling.

I own most flavors of 30 series NVIDIA GPUs, so you’d think then that I still run a 3090 FE in my sim racing PC? Honestly, I don’t feel the need to.

GPU power, efficiency, and temperature.

This article was somewhat inspired by my good friend Geoff who reported stuttering in iRacing during a race session with me. He has an EVGA 3080 RTX 3080 FTW3 Ultra. Even running triples, this card should be able to handle extremely high framerates in iRacing, with all the settings pretty high if not on max, without stuttering.

We investigated using GPU-Z and found that the GPU temperature was hitting 77c in the replay! This would put the VRAM temperature very much in the 100c realm, possibly higher. The card wasn’t short on power, it was thermal throttling. I’ve seen 3080’s begin to throttle at GPU temps of 66c – so 77c is going to drastically reduce the life of that GPU. Sorry, Geoff!

Therein lies the problem. If you’ve got an NVIDIA 30 series GPU for sim racing, you’ve probably got enough power unless you’re running a really out-there setup.

But even then, check this video from Will Ford:

Will Ford's 65
Will Ford’s 65″ 4k sim racing setup looks outrageously good

That setup was running a 2080 RTX ti! I think it was water-cooled, and if I’ve understood correctly he was overclocking the CPU (a 9900k overclocked to 5.5ghz).

Hardware-wise though, this is a perfect example of extracting the maximum performance from what you own, not what you want.

If you’ve got a 2080 RTX ti, that’s still an amazing bit of kit for sim racing.

Power, efficiency and temperature

GPUs need more power to perform as their temperature increases. This makes them less efficient. Less efficiency means more heat, and so a dangerous cycle begins. This issue is particularly terrible when the thermal pads used to conduct heat away from the silicon and into the cooler are very cheap.

Nasty thermal pad material found in 3080/3090 Founder's Edition GPUs
Nasty thermal pad material found in 3080/3090 Founder’s Edition GPUs (source)

Overheating VRAM temperatures is an issue that particularly affects the Founder’s Edition GPUs from NVIDIA, but it is endemic across all 30 series reference board manufacturers in one form or another. Replacing the thermal pads on a £2000 GPU is not a difficult job for someone who can follow instructions and observe the relevant precautions when stripping down the card’s ancillary components. But it isn’t for everyone – nor should it be.

Replacing the thermal pads on an RTX 3080 FE
Replacing the thermal pads on an RTX 3080 FE (yes, I cleaned up the thermal paste! – image source)

As a gamer, the best thing to do is make sure your PC case is very well ventilated. You can upgrade the case fans or even just set them to max in the motherboard’s bios. Those things will get you a long way, but ultimately the solution is to a) check your GPU and VRAM temperatures using GPU-Z and b) carry out a thermal re-pad if (when!) necessary!

oily patches on the back of this EVGA RTX 2080 ti
Note the oily patches on the back of this EVGA RTX 2080 ti – signs the thermal pads are losing oil and will need replacing

So before you start thinking you need a new GPU I’d check what you’ve already got isn’t suffering from runaway temperature issues.

A lot of gamers think that miners abuse their cards – I can tell you with absolute certainty being a miner myself, miners always run by the thermal performance of the card. When a new Founders Edition turns up, I’ll re-pad it before I even power it. Gamers don’t think like this – well, not all of them! Check your temperatures under load and act accordingly. This is what good looks like:

GPU temperature, Hot Spot and Memory Temperature are all very healthy on this Zotac 3090

OK, I get it – but what’s the best GPU for sim racing?

As I mentioned before I removed the 3090 FE from my sim racing PC as I was learning how to use Nicehash miner. Keeping it cool enough was very challenging – it was hitting extreme VRAM temps of over 100c unless I ran it at 60% power.

While I was re-padding my 3090 I swapped it for an EVGA 3070 FTW3 Gaming Ultra, the “LHR”, “limited hash rate” version. I was really impressed.

After swapping the card, I ran iRacing on maximum settings with an unlimited frame rate to see what sort of frame rate the 3070 could settle down to. Obviously, the FPS from the 3090 FE was much better than the 3070 (the 3090 would top out at around 270/280 fps depending on temperature).

Once set up, that little 3070 would sit happily at rates as high as 160fps in iRacing with little to no trouble. The only compromise I made on the settings was to disable grandstands and crowds. Everything else set to max, no problem.

160 fps from a 3070 is absolutely fine for iRacing, and that 3070 was a fair bit less expensive too. Not to mention the power consumption. A 3070 can be optimised to run at around 140w vs the 3090 which will chew up every last drop of 350 watts if you let it. More power, more heat, more potential for thermal throttling unless you’ve fixed your thermal pads.

Testing for the best GPU in iRacing

I was going to stop there, with the conclusion being that I think that when you weigh up the price compared to performance; a 3070 RTX Ti is the perfect GPU for iRacing. If of course, you can afford better then go for it but beware that some GPUs overheat and actually perform worse over a longer period of time.

But I slept on that point and decided to collect some data, because despite having run a fair few cards in the past it was a very subjective opinion. So I setup a test using 6 GPUs, ranging from a 3070 to a 3090 Founders Edition.

The process

For each of the GPUs, I re-ran the iRacing graphics config after checking the latest driver was installed and the GPU was working in device manager. After the settings config ran, I applied “maximum” settings:

Settings used in iRacing for test using a Ferrari GT3 at Monza in a public practice session

These are my typical settings except, I normally run with crowds and grandstands set to off. This keeps the 3070 very stable at around 160fps.

For each card, I took note of the highest FPS seen in the session, the typical FPS and logged the GPU temp and VRAM temp in GPU-Z. Note that the 3070 doesn’t have this information so I’ve replaced that data point with the hot spot temp.

GPUFPS (peak)FPS (av)GPU temp /°CVRAM temp/°CManufacturer
EVGA GeForce RTX 3070 Ti FTW3 ULTRA GAMING1871065969 (hot spot)EVGA
NVIDIA 3080 FE (thermal re-padded)1701176984NVIDIA
Aorus GeForce RTX 3080 XTREME Rev 2.02321756372Gigabyte
EVGA RTX 2080 Ti1801196680EVGA
NVIDIA 3090 FE (thermal re-padded)2451706681NVIDIA
GPU by best FPS in iRacing

Some important caveats:

  • I ran a session of about 10 laps for each GPU.
  • Both Founder’s Edition cards have had their thermal pads replaced – they’d be by far the hottest and potentially suffer issues during a long session
  • The FPS (av) is where the GPU’s framerate seemed to settle
  • Rendering the grandstands as you drive down the pit straight appears to be, by far, the most GPU intensive operation and drops the FPS on the least powerful cards more significantly than the most powerful.
  • iRacing isn’t as GPU intensive as Assetto Corsa – I have not included Assetto in my tests as I’m very much an iRacing person!
  • I have several Zotac 3090 ArcticStorm watercooled cards mining – i didn’t fancy drianing a watercooled mining rig and building a watercooled sim rig for this test. If I had, it would win hands down!

Which GPU / graphics card is best for iRacing?

I was genuinely surprised by the Aorus GeForce RTX 3080 XTREME Rev 2.0. This is a 2nd hand card I bought on eBay. It just needed a clean and off it went! It’s a 10GB LHR (limited hashrate) card – clearly with excellent cooling. It comes in a really nice case with an OLED screen running an animation and lots of nice RGB. If you’re somewhat uninhibited on the budget side, this is probably the best all-rounder you can buy for your sim.

Note how incredibly well the EVGA RTX 2080 Ti does in comparison to the 30 series GPUs! If you own one of these I really wouldn’t bother yourself with looking for a new GPU. What an incredible card! This one needs a thermal pad replacement – it did get hotter than it should during the test and had it run for a long session I suspect the performance would have tailed off.

EVGA do make great reference board graphics cards. The EVGA GeForce RTX 3080 FTW3 ULTRA GAMING GPU performed quite well, although in the 3080 group, the Aorus beats it.

If you can afford one, and you’re confident enough to carry out a thermal re-pad when GPU-Z reports crazy VRAM temps, buy a 3090 and sleep well at night. The FPS is amazing, and I’ve no doubt that with some time spent using Afterburner, you could squeeze a higher framerate than the results in my test. If you’re a high-budget kind of driver, build a watercooled rig with a Zotac 3090 ArcticStorm and *know* you’ve got a real beast of a gaming PC.

But, if you’re looking for a less expensive option, I really think a 3070 RTX ti is a great purchase, it’s the least expensive GPU on the list and runs iRacing brilliantly. If you turn grandstands and crowds off in iRacing but leave everything else maxed out, you’ll not notice a difference in FPS vs cards at twice the price.

What is the best graphics card for sim racing?