“It must be something in the water.” I’ve just asked Greger Huttu, the fastest man on earth in a virtual race car, why Finns are so quick at so many forms of motorsport. Maybe it’s that, perhaps it’s because in Finland they have a skidpan element in their driving test or possibly it’s because as children they’re force fed highlight clips of legends like Kankkunen, Hakkinen and Makkinen before bed time. Either way, there’s no doubting that for a country with a mere population of five million, Finland has an incredible history of producing talented racing drivers.
And so it would seem the strong Finnish racing genes also extend down into virtual racing as well, or at least in the case of 30 year old Greger.
+ [This interview was originally published on 29th May 2010, but has since been updated]
Many of you will have had a dabble in computer racing games, be it on the PC or on consoles of software of varying quality of realism. Some games like Mario Kart are unashamedly fun and enjoyable racers that make no pretence of being serious simulations, while at the other end of the market you have your high end simulations that aim to replicate as closely as possible the experience of car racing.
Nobody ever quite masters this small band of simulators (woe is thee that simply brands them “games”) despite the hundreds of hours of investment needed to just to turn a respectable lap time. It’s here however where some of the most talented virtual drivers reside, racing each other in real time for pride, honour and ever increasingly, cash prizes.
The very best driver is a man called Greger Huttu, often nicknamed “Alien” because of his freaky inhuman like abilities with a race car. With a plethora of world championships and race victories to his name, the Finn from Vaasa has developed his reputation as the best through over a decade of racing various simulations. His team manager at top sim-racing team Team Redline Dom Duhan says he first spotted Greger in 2000:
“Greger and I were trading records on in “Formula 1 2000.” I thought ‘this dude is quick,’ so I put a message out there and Greger got in touch. I then learned that he was a GPL (Grand Prix Legends – 1967 F1 simulator) god and a nice guy as well.”
After befriending each other and joining Team Redline, Dom’s had the opportunity to appraise what makes Greger such a standout force on the track.
“I think what makes him the best driver in sim-racing is his ultimate speed and consistency. He very rarely makes mistakes, even under pressure. He’s an extremely strong competitor and fair, think Schumacher and Senna and mix that with a dose of humility and you have Greger. “
Greger’s currently competing in the excellent iRacing, the most accurate simulation available to buy today. Racers of iRacing can compete in a whole range of cars from Indycars, Corvette LMS cars, NASCARs to the beautiful Lotus 79. Circuits on offer consist of every major American circuit, with Brands Hatch, Zandvoort, Silverstone available also with many more European tracks to follow shortly. Currently racing in the Drivers World Championship with 7 wins in 7 races, Greger’s most definitely top of the pack of the 20,000+ iRacing driver subscribers which includes amongst its ranks the likes of Dale Earnhardt Jr., Justin Wilson and Takuma Sato.
Speaking with Greger is always enjoyable because he’s not your token Finn – he’ll answer in an audible voice and say more than two words per sentence. Throw in his dry British style wit and humble nature and you have someone who is as pleasant to speak with as he is awe-inspiring to watch out on track.
My first question to Greger is to ask him what the first ever racing game was he played.
I can’t really remember the first ones (from the 80’s!) but the first ones that really got my attention were F1 Grand Prix and Indianapolis 500. F1GP was my favourite at that time. After those I played Grand Prix 2 and the Papyrus IndyCar Racing games (ICR1 and ICR2). I also played the early NASCAR Racing games, but not much. Of course I tried many racing games but those were the main ones before 1967 F1 Sim Grand Prix Legends (GPL).
As GPL was the first major game that allowed for real time wheel to wheel racing, this is where Greger first came to global recognition for being extremely quick. My next question was asking when and how he realised how fast he was compared to others.
It was a little after GPL was released. In the demo I wasn’t the fastest or anything. It’s funny because the thought of being fast or one of the fastest never even crossed my mind before buying the full version of GPL. That was the proper start for my sim racing “career” since before that I had just used a joystick for playing racing games.
Luckily I got to try a wheel and it was just so much fun that I bought my own just after the GPL release if I remember right. So that took a while to get used to but pretty quickly I noticed that I’m able to win races and compete with the fastest racers and that was a strange feeling!
Virtual reality vs Reality
Obviously unlike real racing, virtual racing drivers don’t have the burden of physical training to worry about. However, as sim-racing becomes an ever more seriously taken sport, I’m interested in the other ways in which a top virtual driver prepares for a race.
Yeah, sim racing isn’t really a physical activity in that way so you don’t need to spend five hours in the gym every day. I think being in decent shape does help with concentration which is just as (if not more) important in sim racing as it is in real racing so you have an excuse to hit the gym anyway.
I don’t really have any special preparation routines. I’m not superstitious so I don’t have to step into my sim pod always from the same side, although I do it anyway because there’s a wall on the other side. Anyway, I do some practice the week before a race, I try to do at least 30 min every day but some days I don’t feel like doing it at all and some days I do over an hour. The day of the race I try to do as little practice as possible and then right before the race I’ll do some qual runs to get into a nice rhythm.
As an extension of this, Greger shares with me some of the similarities and major differences between virtual and real racing.
The obvious difference is that you don’t feel any g-forces (unless you’re in some kind of crazy motion platform) in virtual racing and you can’t feel the car as well so you have to rely just on the visual and aural feedback along with the feedback from a force feedback wheel if you have one. You don’t have the feel of actually going 250 kph down a straight. I don’t know if fear is ever a part of real racing, but I guess you have some kind of self preservation mode so you don’t go totally crazy in a real car. That is missing in sim racing. Of course nobody wants to crash but you still see some crazy moves happening. That said, you see crazy moves in some real racing, too, so maybe that’s more of a similarity.
There are similarities too. I think racing lends itself well to a computer game because you can use a wheel and pedals and the inputs a driver makes are actually really similar in a realistic racing sim.
Compare that to football for example, I don’t think there’s a football simulator yet where you run around a room kicking a ball while playing against other people from all over the world.
So to put it short, the physical aspect is missing but the technical side of the driving is really close. You also need a lot of concentration in races, the competition is very tough in the top series and it’s also very exciting and people get nervous in the virtual race starts just as they do in real racing. I’ve seen a lot of people mentioning that their feet are shaking from the excitement in race starts and close battles!
As a virtual racing driver, it’s just you alone in the room. As a result, these drivers have to wear many hats at once – acting as driver, doing your own setups, interpreting telemetry and so forth. How does Greger cope with this burden?
That can be tough, especially for someone who is new to sim racing. For me the experience helps so I don’t really struggle with that stuff so much. There’s always something to learn, though, especially when something new comes out. Making setups is more of a trial and error process, so that just comes down to practice and having patience. When you find a good setup in a sim for a car, you can usually use it as a base for other tracks. Telemetry can help with making setups but most of the time not that much.
Team manager Dom told me being part of Team Redline helps build a driver’s profile and can deal with the media side of things and sponsor negotiations. I asked Greger to explain the other advantages for him are of being part of such a set up.
It’s a big help in preparation for the races as you don’t have to work alone on setups. That’s the biggest advantage and of course it’s just fun talking (and meeting) with guys from all over the world who have the same hobby and are interested in the same things as you.
The big question everyone wants to know, with an ultimately depressing answer – how often does Greger practice each day?
I mentioned it before, but right now I try to practise about 30 min per day. Sometimes less, sometimes more, but I’d say the average is around 30-45 min. When I started sim racing (and when I was younger) it was more but nowadays I find that I don’t need to do much practice to get up to speed.
Having competed at the very top for over a decade, many people have called for Greger to give real racing a go with the view that his virtual talent must translate to the real world too. Having raced against numerous real racing drivers online and comprehensively blown their doors off, it’s not surprising to see why many hold this opinion. I asked Greger if he’s never been tempted to see if his ability also works in real racing.
It would be interesting to try it out just for fun. I’ve never really been interested in having a career as a race car driver and I have no idea how good or bad I’d be. I think there will be an opportunity to try it out at some point. Who knows, if I don’t totally suck maybe I’ll get the racing bug and I’ll do some more!
Opinions and motivation
Moving on to views and opinions, I’m interested to hear what makes a great track in Greger’s opinion.
The number one thing is elevation changes. Those will make almost any track awesome. Imagine if Spa was completely flat, it wouldn’t be nearly the track it is. A great track also has a variety of different corners, from slow and technical to fast ones, and nice rhythm sections where a corner leads to another. I think these kind of tracks test a driver really well. I also like long tracks.
It’s time to narrow things down to a top 3 by asking for his favourite three circuits. I’m not surprised by the answers either – the best sportsmen always like the harder challenges to allow them to show off their ability differential best of all.
Nordschleife. I think that one has at least three tracks worth of road in it! If we’re talking of “normal” tracks, I have to go with Spa and Suzuka. The third one is hard to pick, there are so many great tracks but I’d have to say Road America.
All of these tracks have nice elevation changes, they’re pretty long and have a variety of corners. Spa is mostly high speed but all of the corners flow really nicely, especially in the middle part of it. Sector 1 at Suzuka is one of the most amazing sections at any track, turn 1 is great and then you just go left-right-left-right at high speed. The rest of the track isn’t bad either. Road America has long straights in the middle of a forest, it has a lot of atmosphere and is great for racing.
I always had a blast watching the IndyCar/CART series there in the 90’s.
For those thinking to have gotten as good he is, Greger must just be a hugely overweight character who does nothing but race computer games, then I must disappoint you – he’s a regular cyclist and jogger. I asked Greger what he does outside of competing with virtual drivers all over the world and then what motivates him to keep putting his reputation on the line after winning so many championships and races.
I do some web programming stuff and I also have a part time job in the summer. As far as other hobbies go, I try to stay healthy by jogging/cycling etc. I’ve been a bit lazy with that lately though! I like to watch as much motorsports as I can.
And it’s the massive amount of money I’m making from sim racing. To be honest (to quote a random F1 driver), I’ve thought about that myself. What motivates is just that it’s still fun for me and the races still get me excited. That said, I don’t know if I would still be doing this if it wasn’t for iRacing and their world championship series.
Team manager Dom’s told me that consoles are reaching out to 30 million virtual drivers with its range of games on various platforms, thanks he says to the much lower price entry point than real racing. With this in mind and with games and sims becoming ever more realistic, I asked Greger where he sees the future of sim racing going.
I think iRacing is where it’s at right now, and will be in the future.
They have exciting partnerships with real racing organizations and have given sim racing more visibility. I hope that gap between real racing and sim racing will continue to shrink and more people will find sim racing. I wouldn’t mind seeing more big competitions either! I think it’s a really fun hobby especially if you like real racing, cars and maybe gaming too.
To close, I ask Greger what advice he would you give to those who want to go faster in virtual racing.
Just have patience and ask for advice from the more experienced people. It’s a big learning curve and I know many people get discouraged. You just need to set realistic goals at first and work on things one by one.
I’m sure many people also think the fastest guys must cheat or have some kind of a weird advantage but that’s not the case. As long as you have a good set of controllers that you feel comfortable with, you have everything you need. Then it’s just a question of analysing your driving and finding the mistakes you make. Watching replays of laps driven by faster drivers is an awesome way to learn which is sadly not used enough. Most people just want to get the fast setup and then get frustrated when they can’t get close to the fastest times.
It’s all about being self-critical and having the patience.
I’d add that being Finnish also helps.