Rallying in the Sim – A Beginners Guide

A Lancia Delta S4 in DiRT Rally 2 rally game

Are you passionate about rally and looking for a way to experience this epic driving discipline in a sim racing rig? If that’s the case, this guide is just what you need, as I’ll be breaking down all that you need to know to begin racing rally stages in the digital motorsports world.

Contents:

With a detailed list of all the kit you’ll need, the best rally games that are currently available, and most importantly, a thorough description of basic and advanced rally techniques that will help you improve your driving skills, I’ll be sharing the knowledge I’ve accrued from playing rally games over the last two decades. But before that, let’s kick things off with a little bit of history about the development of rally, and rally games, then I’ll show you what sim hardware you need to get going.

The history of Rally

We can trace the roots of rally racing as far back as 1894 to the world’s first rallying event: the Paris to Rouen Horseless Carriage Competition. The event was won by Albert Lemaitre driving a 3hp Peugeot, and in the following years, city-to-city races across France and other parts of western Europe slowly gained traction.

These early rally events showed the public what motorsport could be; exciting! Iconic features of modern-day rally found their origins here too. The likes of cars racing individually against the clock, timed entry and exit points, the use of different surfaces, and even a form of pace notes were all coined at this point. Some would argue that the first “true” rally was the Monte Carlo Rallye Automobile International of 1911, due to it being the first event to use the title “rally”.

Fast-forward through the years surrounding the first and second world wars, where rally inevitably took a back seat; the sport came out even stronger on the other side. With public interest in the sport continuing to ramp up in the late 1940s, by the 1950s, rally had become incredibly popular. This meant, not only were individuals with their own cars interested in competing, but racing teams and even manufacturers themselves began to turn their focus onto the world of rallying.

Throughout the 1970s, rally continued to gain support (with the inaugural FIA World Rally Championship born in 1973) from a growing fanbase and an increasing number of car brands until, in 1982, something iconic happened; Group B.

Group B: When Rallying Got TOO FAST (source)

Group B was a world rally class whose four-year history remains cemented in the minds and myths of race fans to this day. At its peak, thousands of fans lined the streets to witness the speed and fury of the cars and their engines that exploded in a beautiful cacophony of flat-fours, V6s and inline-fives.

With nearly no regulations placed on the cars, fearless drivers thrived as they hurtled through the streets of towns worldwide. On terrain including snow, mud, and asphalt, the Group B drivers left crowds in awe as they cheated death. Of course, with a lack of regulation, accidents were bound to occur, and by 1986, Group B was banned due to the number of severe injuries and deaths caused to both drivers and spectators alike.

The original Lombard RAC Rally (play the game here)

However, only two years later, in 1988, Red Rat Software, in collaboration with Mandarin Software, introduced the world to its first rally video game, Lombard RAC Rally. Since then, the development of digital rally racing has come a very, very long way, and today games like Dirt Rally 2.0 and WRC 9 offer graphics and gaming physics that are almost inseparable from driving an actual rally car, minus the danger of crashing into a tree or flipping into a ditch, of course.

WRC 9
WRC 9 (via Red Bull)

Similarly, real-life rally racing has seen its share of improvements in terms of safety and performance in the years since Group B, and the sport remains to be one of the most popular, exciting, and unique forms of motorsport.

Rally hardware for sim racers

So, by now, you’ll be bursting to know how to get started building a sim rig (see our beginner’s guide to sim racing here) that’s worthy of rally. The very first thing to consider is what kind of cockpit to buy. This will be the frame that holds all your other sim racing devices, and you should consider getting something as sturdy as possible that’s within your budget. Your budget will play a decisive role in every step of the selection process here, so for each item on the list, I’ll show you a couple of options to suit different budgets.

Follow Louise Cook (rally driver!) for all sorts of cool demos and insights into rig builds

Generally, the more expensive the cockpit, the sturdier it is. Good rigidity in a cockpit allows for more powerful wheels and pedals, and it’s imperative to have a frame that’s as solid as possible if you’re using a direct drive wheelbase. If your rig is not robust enough, it won’t be able to cope with the forces exerted upon it by the wheelbase; thus, the frame will flex, which takes away from the feeling of the equipment itself.

The best material to prevent flex is extruded 8020 aluminium. While it might not look as pretty to the untrained eye, the experienced sim racer will always go for an extruded aluminium frame.

Some cockpits are sold as a frame and seat combo, while others require that you purchase the seat separately, and for that reason, we’ll check out seats next.

Racing seats

One essential thing to keep in mind when picking a racing seat is that what might be a great seat for one body type might be terrible for another. There’re some things that I’d deem to be fundamental, such as making sure that the seat caters to both comfort and performance, but apart from that, it basically boils down to your budget and preferences.

Probably the most critical aspect to consider before deciding upon any seat, in particular, is whether or not it will fit you. It’s a good idea to measure yourself first, much like you would for new clothing and have these sizes handy when you’re browsing online for a new seat.

Wheels and wheelbase

Once you’ve got your rig, the next crucial piece of equipment you’ll need on your journey to becoming a pro rally sim racer is a solid wheel and/or wheelbase. Much like sim cockpits, sim racing wheels are often sold in bundles. These packages include a wheel and wheelbase, but you can also select to buy them individually. However, for entry-level wheels, generally, this is not an option as the wheel cannot be detached from the base at all.

the OMP pro GT in situ
Cube Controls OMP GT PRO would make an ideal steering rim for a rally setup

There’s a ton of information you need to know about wheels and wheelbases if you’re new to sim racing, so for an in-depth understanding, head over to our sim racing wheels complete buyer’s guide.

Pedals

While some sim racers will rank the wheel and wheelbase as the most crucial component, you’ll need to immerse yourself into a realistic driving experience; others contend that the pedals are where you should invest the most money.

Either way, everyone will agree that a good set of pedals will ultimately improve your overall experience and help to improve your speed and consistency.

Comparable to the level of diversity and prices ranges found in sim racing wheels nowadays, sim pedals also offer an outstanding array of technologies, variations, and price points. Naturally, we have a guide for that too, if you’re unsure which pedal set is best for you.

Shifter

So far, the hardware I’ve covered is pretty much essential for all sim racing disciplines but not exactly specific to rally. However, this is where things become more discipline-detailed. When choosing a good sim racing shifter, you need to consider the method of gear selection employed. While racing with an H-pattern or paddle shifter may be suitable for other styles of driving, any serious rally driver will tell you that when it comes to moving between the gears in a rally car, you’ll want to opt for a sequential shifter.

Some sim shifters use a bit of trickery and combine both H-pattern and sequential mode into one device, like the Thrustmaster TH8A and Fanatec Clubsport shifters. In contrast, others like the Aiologs and V2 Jinx shifters are purely dedicated to sequential mode.

An item of interest for sim rally drivers is the Thrustmaster TSS Sparco Mod+, a sequential shifter and analogue handbrake. I have seen some sim rally racing setups that use two of these devices side-by-side, with one put into the sequential mode and the other in handbrake mode.

Not surprisingly, there are also many stand-alone sim handbrakes, and undeniably, no rally car or rally sim setup would be complete without one. So, if you would rather something dedicated to only one function, check out some of these options below.

Handbrake

A sim racing handbrake will allow you to drive more assertively and attack tight turns without losing speed. What’s more, your gameplay will feel more authentic, and you’ll have more control of the vehicle, which will give you better stage times. With all this combined, a handbrake becomes an entertaining and practical addition.

Additional hardware considerations

Assuming you’ve picked out something from each of the categories above, other considerations for your rally sim rig might include a new gaming PC, monitors, whether triple or single screen and a set of speakers to complete the immersion.

Optional devices like VR are another way to increase the realism of sim racing, but it’s not for everyone. The only other items I could imagine you would need now are a button box or a motion kit (guide coming soon).

What makes a Great Rally Game?

With your sim rig all set up and raring to go, now all you need to do is pick which rally game you want to play. Just like any piece of simulation software, there are plenty of variables to consider before you buy one. These factors vary from how the game looks and sounds to how it feels and how realistic it is. It’s best if you consider each element individually, in the context of what you want to gain from the game. With that said, let’s check out some of the things you should look out for when selecting a rally game.

As well as the graphics, high-quality audio can be just as important. From engine noises to the sound of squelching mud as you slide around corners, there are many details to listen out for in a rally game.

Tracks and cars

Rally games often feature several versions of the same track, such as shorter versions with fewer stages and reversed options. You should look for rally games that offer tracks with various difficulties, as this will allow you to progress from beginner level tracks up to more demanding routes.

For some sim racers, accurate representation of real-life tracks is important, but even if the game uses fictional tracks, you still want them to be playable. Look for games that offer plenty of options from different countries, too, as each nation will typically offer different types of terrain. Tracks should also be detailed enough to pose a challenge, but not to the point where things become impossible to conquer.

This level of variation goes across to the type and number of cars available as well. Games with a wide selection of cars in different categories will help make the game more dynamic. It will allow you to challenge yourself with different car types and try out the same track with various models to see how they handle differently.

Realism

One of the most critical factors from a realism point of view is how the game renders the driving experience through the gameplay physics. This can really be the death or glory of a rally game.

Since the driving in rally is a lot more hectic than most other racing types, there is a lot more movement to be digitised by the game. Therefore, if the driving physics are not accurate enough, it just won’t feel right, and it can be tough to control the car.

Another characteristic of realism with rally simulators is damage simulation. Providing realistic car damage will give the game a much more authentic experience, as you won’t be able to just crash into a tree and keep driving at full speed for the rest of the stage. In fact, in the best rally games, you often have to limp to the finish line with terrible car control as the game simulates what it would feel like to drive a car that has been half destroyed. Although this can be hard for beginners to get used to, it provides a more realistic rally experience and presents more of a challenge, making the game more engaging. Additionally, damage simulation will also train you to become a better driver, and it teaches you that it’s best to drive correctly and avoid crashes altogether.

The best rally games

Now that we know what we should look for in a great rally game let me present what I believe to be the best offerings you can buy today.

Top 3 Rally Games:

  1. DiRT Rally 2.0
  2. WRC 9
  3. Richard Burns Rally

DiRT Rally 2.0

DiRT Rally 2.0 is, in my opinion, currently the best rally simulator; let me explain why. It was released in 2019 by Codemasters for PS4, PC, and Xbox One, the same people who brought us Colin McRae DiRT in 2007. This addition to the rally racing simulation series offers players some of the best sim racing experiences currently available, and it continues Codemaster’s series of fantastic rally simulations with distinction.

DiRT Rally 2.0 Celebrates 9 million players
DiRT Rally 2.0 Celebrates 9 million players (source)

The additions to DiRT 2.0, such as new vehicles, new locations, a generally upgraded gaming engine, and online capability that lets you race against AI and participate in community trials, make it an awe-inspiring game.

Cars and tracks

The game features a remarkable line-up of over 80 cars and 26 locations. With this much variety, you will spend countless hours trying out the different car and track combinations, thus giving the game a very high level of playability. With cars ranging from WRC to GT4, not to mention featuring some of the best icons from the Group B era, you can experience how each one handles and whare unique challenges they pose.

A Red Bull Audi in DiRT Rally 2.0
A Red Bull Audi in DiRT Rally 2.0


The game also offers many tuning options, which adds to the realism factor while also offering more control over how your car performs. Overall, the variety of cars and tracks in this game make it ideal for beginners and advanced sim racers due to the vast amount of options.

Realism

DiRT Rally 2.0 does a fantastic job of capturing the feeling of rally racing, and the actual driving physics are on point. Aside from the driving, another feature that stands out is its fantastic surface degradation. This feature replicates how real rally tracks change over time as more and more drivers tackle the stage. Essentially, the surface quality on the first run will be very different from the final run. The way the surface degradation works is similar to the track dynamism found in other racing games, where more and more rubber is laid on the track as more cars lap the circuit.

(The Original) DiRT Rally

I would also like to give an honourable mention to this game’s predecessor, DiRT Rally, released in 2015. While its graphics may be starting to show signs of age, it still holds its own against many of its competitors and certainly looks excellent for its time. One thing that remains almost unbeaten are the sounds, from the engine roars to the sound of gravel spraying under your wheels. For anyone looking for an authentic rally experience, I would still highly recommend DiRT Rally as well as its newer iteration.

WRC 9

Released by Sony in September 2020, WRC 9 is the newest instalment of the highly-popular World Rally Championship game series. As the latest game in the WRC franchise and the official game of the 2020 World Rally Championship, it presents some of the most authentic rally racing experiences you can find. Like DiRT 2.0, you can play it on PS4, PC, and Xbox One. Overall, this game does well to cover the fun and exciting elements of rally driving while maintaining a decent level of realism.

WRC 9
WRC 9

Career Mode

The gameplay features several modes, with an extended career mode that involves a lot of customization and management. This can make the game enjoyable for those that like progression, but you can, of course, just decide to race on the tracks you like the most under time trial conditions.

World Rally Championship Licensing

As WRC 9 is the official simulator for the World Rally Championship, it comes with many fully licensed vehicles and tracks. Plus, by including the same 14-country roster of locations as the real World Rally Championship, it does a great job of mimicking the competition side of real-life rally racing.

With more than 100 stages, the game provides plenty of options to test your rally racing skills, and with the large selection of cars, you will find playing combinations for every occasion.

Realism

This rally simulator focuses more on playability than realism, but not enough to make it an arcade racer. The physics feels very reasonable on all racing surfaces, which sets it far apart from other rally games that struggle to balance fun and realism. The cars handle well with supported wheel setups, meaning you can have some genuinely immersive fun in WRC 9, but I think it falls short of the authenticity offered by the DiRT titles.

Richard Burns Rally

Richard Burns Rally (RBR) is a classic rally game, best known for its difficulty level and realistic physics engine. Created by Warthog Games and first released by SCi Games in 2004 for PS2, PC, and Xbox, RBR offered amazing graphics for the time it was launched, and to be fair, they are still not that bad today. One thing that holds up without question and still astonishes gamers to this day with its gameplay.

Mitsubishi’s Lancer Evo is a rally icon in Richard Burns Rally
Mitsubishi’s Lancer Evo is a rally icon in Richard Burns Rally (source)

Cars and tracks

RBR includes 36 courses and 8 cars and lets you experience both modern and classic rally driving. Initially, the game did not support content made by users. However, since its release, many mods became available thanks to an extensive online fanbase. In reply to the overwhelming amount of fan-based support, Warthog answered by creating tools to assist players in designing their own mods. This led to the game, which was initially only available offline, becoming one with online gameplay thanks to users’ mods.

Realism

In RBR, realism is everything. Many rally enthusiasts, and indeed sim racers in general, consider this game to be one of the most accurate and complex racing simulators ever made. While racing in the game, you can feel the heave of the car’s weight as it shifts to the front as you enter corners, move to the side you hit the apex, and then transfer back to the rear as you exit the corner. It’s undoubtedly a very life-like feeling. In general, the way the cars move and the flow of the game is very natural.

By playing this game, you learn to appreciate how real drivers balance the car with the throttle and the brake. It also helps you to find the best lines into corners and adapt to ever-changing track conditions. Also, this is one rally game where you have to listen to your navigator’s pace notes.

If you find pace notes confusing, or if you’re struggling with any other rallying techniques, the next segment is undoubtedly for you.

Basic Rally Technique

By now, you’ve got your sim rig and game ready, and it’s time to learn how to handle the car properly. This section will explain some basic driving techniques you need as a rally driver, such as handbrake turns, manual starts, straight-line braking, and the racing line.

Manual starts

The perfect stage begins with getting away from the start line as fast as possible. By turning manual starts on in your game menu, you can take control of all the car’s inputs to get away as fast as possible.

You want to be aware of the start lights before you get going because you don’t want to waste precious seconds looking for the lights after the timer has already started. At this point, make sure the car is in first gear, engage the clutch, and hold the handbrake.

Great start in WRC 9

As the countdown begins, you should start to build the revs up to about 6,000. When the lights go out, drop the handbrake and lift your foot off the clutch. The goal is to modulate the throttle to get as much traction as possible off the line. This is especially important on gravel, where traction is harder to find, but you can normally just smash the throttle when racing on tarmac.

Racing line

So now that you’ve got off the start line and travelling through the track at speed, you should be aware of your racing line. The racing line is the fastest route around a corner and maximizes corner speed. Basically, when you come to a corner, you want to stay on the outside of the corner during entry and when you’re braking, then look for the apex.

A racing line on a rally stage (via DSPORT)

The apex is the point where you clip the inside of a corner, and it’s typically about halfway through. Once you clip the apex, you should run out wide again, and this maximizes the speed. Depending on the length of the corner, the apex can be later or earlier. In short corners, the apex is typically earlier, and in longer corners, the apex is later.

Pace notes

In rally, you will typically have a co-driver who sits beside the driver to give pace notes as you travel down the stage. The goal of these notes is to define the track in front of you in great detail so that you know what’s coming up and you can drive the track as fast as possible. This includes corner severity, the distance between corners, and other warnings such as jumps.

Rally pace notes explainer

The corner severity is represented with numbers, with six being the least severe and one being the most severe. There’re also square corners that involve turning 90 degrees and hairpin corners which are essentially u-turns. The distances between the corners are given in meters, and you can have anything from 30 meters right up to 500+ meters.

Some other warnings include bridges, jumps, bumps, don’t cut, and cut. Basically, the pace notes give you as much detail as possible about the road ahead so that you know what to expect and to help you get through the stage cleanly.

Straight-line braking

The goal of straight-line braking is pretty self-explanatory yet challenging at the same time; brake in a straight line without disturbing the balance of the car. You want to brake while maintaining a line that’s as straight as possible on the entry to corners. Whenever you approach a corner, you need to pick a braking point that’s not too late and not too early. Whenever you brake, brake firmly, and try not to lock the wheels as this will cause you to lose control.

Whenever you brake hard, you’re transferring weight onto the front axle, which takes away grip at the car’s rear. Whenever you apply steering inputs, this will also transfer weight around the car, which in rally can be beneficial as it will cause the car to lose traction on one side, helping you slide around a corner.

Handbrake turns

You can use handbrake turns for very tight corners like hairpins and square corners. By pulling the handbrake, you will lock the rear wheels, resulting in a sudden loss of traction at the rear. The aim is to pivot the rear axle around the front axle.

When approaching a corner, you should reduce your speed enough to make the corner and maintain enough speed to execute the handbrake turn correctly. Ideally, you want to downshift to first gear, but depending on the car, you might enter the corner in second gear and then downshift midway through the handbrake turn.

On the entry to a corner, you should turn the steering quickly into the apex, and at the same time, you need to give the handbrake a quick and firm pull.

You turn in first to transfer weight onto the outside tires, and when you pull the handbrake, this extra load helps rotate the car. You want to see the corner’s exit before applying the throttle; however, you need to modulate the throttle to keep the rear pivoting around the front in rear-wheel-drive cars.

You can use the clutch in tighter hairpins to stop the car from stalling, build the revs up, and help with wheel spin.

Advanced Rally Techniques

Suppose you’ve perfected everything I mentioned above. In that case, you can move onto some more advanced techniques like oversteer, understeer, throttle control, left-foot braking, and one of rally’s signature manoeuvres, the pendulum turn.

Understeer and oversteer

Understeers occurs whenever you enter a corner, and the car does not turn enough. In essence, the car wants to keep going straight. This can happen due to many reasons; usually, it’s too much entry speed into a corner. The driver steering input could cause it, or it could also be due to the car’s setup.

You can prevent understeer by changing the car setup, such as making the front suspension slightly softer and the rear slightly stiffer. If you’re still suffering from understeer after adjusting your setup, you can try using a little bit of handbrake just to bring the rear around.

Oversteer happens whenever you turn into a corner, and the car rotates more than expected, causing the rear to come around, which leads to spinning out of control.

You can correct oversteer with counter-steering, which means turning in the opposite direction of the corner. This is commonly referred to as drifting. You want to manage the throttle input as well, especially on rear-wheel-drive cars, so they don’t spin out.

A little bit of understeer and oversteer is generally a part of driving a rally car; however, if I had to choose, I think a little bit of oversteer is preferred.

Throttle control

Throttle control is critical in rally driving, as you need to balance the car at all times to get traction. The key thing is not to jump on the throttle as that will not get you any traction. This is especially true in rear-wheel-drive cars, as whenever you’re trying to hold a slide, you need to pump the throttle in and out to keep the car pivoting and find as much traction as you can.

In a front-wheel-drive car, it’s crucial not to stomp the throttle too much, or you’ll get lots of understeer mid-corner, and in a four-wheel-drive car, you need to bounce the throttle inputs, so you don’t get too much oversteer or understeer mid-corner.

Left foot braking

Left-foot braking is where you use your left foot instead of your right foot, which you would normally use in a road car to do most of the braking.

This means the time taken to change your right foot from throttle to braking input is no longer an issue, and that means you can drive faster through the stage.

When you approach a corner, instead of braking with your right foot, use your left foot to do all the braking, all the while controlling the car with a little bit of throttle. The goal is to use your left foot to balance the car throughout the corner and change the car’s trajectory.

Left-foot braking also contains an element of trail braking, which is where you find a braking point and then gradually let off the brake and pressure as you go into the corner. This means that you’re almost coasting into the corner, and you can maximize the corner speed you carry.

Pendulum turn

Pendulum turns are used to unsettle the car’s balance going into a corner to initiate a slide. It became popular in the 1970s with rear-wheel-drive cars, as back then, there was no power steering, and it was particularly hard to do handbrake turns.

To perform a pendulum turn, as you come into a corner, start braking, and for a split second, turn the wheel in the opposite direction of the corner and then immediately back into the corner with a little bit of throttle input, forcing the car to slide around the apex. It might seem a bit scary at first, but with a bit of practice, this skill will become a useful tool when negotiating tight bends. Plus, it just looks really cool.

Putting it together

I hope that I have given any prospective rally drivers out there, the tools needed to get started with all this information. I have been a long-time fan of rally, and it’s certainly my favourite driving disciple when it comes to sim racing. My advice to beginners would be to master your cornering and learn to listen carefully to the co-driver’s pace notes. I also find it helpful to watch videos of professional rally drivers who have pedal cameras mounted to their car, so you can watch their footwork as they tackle different stages. Eventually, everything will fall into place, and you’ll be tearing your way through the woods in no time!

Rallying in the Sim – A Beginners Guide

One thought on “Rallying in the Sim – A Beginners Guide

  1. Awesome writeup! As a Long time sim racer I love it when the OG’s of racing simulation RBR & NR2k3 get some love.

    I own WRC 8 and didn’t find it compelling enough to spend the money on 9. I bought Dirt 2 on sale through the Microsoft store not long ago. Once Microsoft fixes their store so I can actually install the thing I’m sure I’ll enjoy it. Guess it’s just iRacing for me for now…

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