Physics Effects in Racing Sims

Physics Effects in Racing Sims

We discuss different damage models in racing sims and look at how they handle the split between serious racing and a fun game. As examples we detail the approaches of Need for Speed, F1 and iRacing.

You might know this situation: You clip the curb on the outside of a corner, spin, hit the wall and… depending on the game you might be able to drive on or you’ll be stuck waiting for the next race to start.

display damage on the car
image source: iRacing Youtube

Different racing sims have brought up different ways to handle your flying off the rail. Some sims try to be as realistic as possible to display damage on the car. But is that really the most desirable way to handle damage in racing sims? Here a few of the different approaches when it comes to physics effects:

Need for speed

Need for Speed marks one of the original series when it comes to videogame racing. For many people classics like Underground and Most Wanted are the first racing games they ever played.

Whilst limited by the technical limitations of its time, Most Wanted even had a first go at physical effects. Cars could be scratched and the windows could show the effects of a collision. Police cars could even be deformed to the point of terminal damage.

In later parts, Need for Speed tried several approaches when it came to physics.
The “Shift” series featured physical as well as mechanical damage (meaning high speed crashes could cause loss of performance), “The Run” forced a race reset in case of a hard crash and the 2015 Need for Speed went back to a physical damage only

In general, the series is rather inconsistent when it comes to handling damage.


The F1 series found its own approach to dealing with physics effects. In reality F1 cars are rather fragile, often consisting of very light material which frequently results in grave damage in case of a collision. Furthermore, the mechanical parts of an F1 car regularly fall victim to the extreme amount of pressure they endure during a race.

The F1 series
Source: F1® Games From Codemasters, Youtube

This causes problems for developers. If F1 cars are made to be too realistic in sim racing they would be extremely difficult to handle and keep safe for most drivers. Knowing that, Codemasters have taken the approach of controlled damage.

This means that damage to the rear as well as mechanical damage is turned off or slim. Also, the tire degradation does not lead to punctures and blisters. The rest of the damage can be modified or turned off completely.

Usually, the front of the car (mainly the frontwing) as well as the two front tires are damageable, thus creating a split between realism and arcade.

As shown in online races that can often lead to carnage as drivers do not have to fear too much for their car. The indestructible back led to a lot of brake testing by sore losers. The introduction of so called “backmarkers” (being able to drive through another car if you are a round ahead or deliberately trying to crash) tried to tackle the issue with medium success.

An online race in F1 still resembles more of a battle royal than an actual race sometimes. Viewers even got to witness said problem at the last Virtual Gran Prix at Interlagos where the start turned into a demolition derby.


The most realistic approach in terms of physics effects is taken by iRacing. The leading racing sim is continuously working on updating damage models and adding new features to increase the immersion for sim racers.

A collision usually means serious problems for the drivers involved. Mechanical as well as physical damage are enabled and can leave you out of the race even after a short trip on the gravel. For many viewers this furthers the excitement as the cars are in constant danger and mistakes can be crucial.

This leads to a rather cautious approach of drivers as the repercussions for a mistake are much more severe than in other racing sims. However, the frustration can be high when the game engine is the one causing mentioned problems.

A stricter approach to damage requires a refined engine as well. Otherwise the frequently occurring damage is more of an unrealistic factor than anything else.

Generally, there has been a debate whether the gaming aspect should be a factor at all as the focus is solely set on maximized realism. If a racing sim is trying to be too realistic in terms of physical effects, it could lead to a shrinking player base. Casual players could quickly lose interest should they drop out consistently. But even professionals are not immune to frustration when it comes to damage.

Fans were furious due to a recent incident at the INDYCAR iRacing Challenge. The race leader Lando Norris was (seemingly) deliberately taken out by a fellow racer.

So even realistic physical effects don’t protect you from deliberate crashes. On the contrary: If this had been a game without physical damage mechanics, Lando Norris would have been able to continue.

What do you think? Is the realistic damage the way to go or is damage only removing the fun? Post your opinion on our social media channels!

Photo credit: iRacing, YouTube