FormulaNerds Cut To The Race Podcast

Exclusive: Behind the scenes of Asetek and the rise of sim racing

FormulaNerds spoke to CEO of leading sim racing manufacturer as race to conquer the virtual circuit intensifies

Latest Episode | Cut To The Race Podcast

FormulaNerds spoke exclusively to Asetek CEO Andre Eriksen on his contribution to the rise of sim racing.

Kevin Magnussen showcases Project Feel for Asetek (Image Credit: Diagonal Comms)
Kevin Magnussen showcases Project Feel for Asetek (Image Credit: Diagonal Comms)
The rise of sim racing

Sim racing, an increasingly familiar term, is gaining traction in the gaming and racing community. F1 is now a major player. A world championship featuring all ten teams has become game-changer for the industry. Elevating its profile, sim racing is now attracting a wider audience.

Asetek is a Danish company that specialises in simulator equipment. What makes owner Andre Eriksen’s story so unique is that he is a former racer. He started building simulators in 2008, with the idea of creating a simulatir that authentically replicates driving a racing car.

When we asked him about the rise of sim racing, Eriksen said the variety of players impacting demand. The rise of drivers like Lando Norris participating has resulted in different types of simulators being marketed:

“As I see it, there are obviously many different layers of sim racing, from people buying a very cheap setup, a console and they go just sit at their table in the living room, crash into each other and have fun with that. Then, all the way up to insane builds with the motion rakes and the gravity simulation.

“So it’s really a big market an from my perspective. I think all segments are actually growing. If you look at F1, as you mentioned yourself, you see.. drivers who were never really into it other than whatever they worked with with the factory team.

“But then you also see Max Verstappen and Lando Norris, who are really participating in the same scene. And then Covid was not nice to any of us. But I think, like it or not, that’s also been a big growth factor because you cannot set up the apartment and drink beer, then at least you can sit at home and and race cars, right?”

Sim racing needs a ‘superstar factor’

Eriksen also highlighted although sim racing is becoming more recognisable, significant challenges remain for it to become a recognised sport. This includes a central figure:

“To sum it up, I think all kinds of drivers are taking this more and more seriously, so sim racing in itself is a growing category, and the gaming category of it is also. I think a growing segment.

Then there’s the whole, let’s call it a fan thing, where people are looking towards their favourite driver. And then they want to replicate it at home, and I don’t think Sims Sports is a real sport yet.

So, when I say that, I mean compared to, for example, first shooter gaming, where, on FIFA, you can actually make money, I still think sim racing has a long way to go there because racing or any sport, I guess, is built on superstars.

“People want to follow a superstar, and right now forgive me for saying this, I’ll get a lot of hate for it, probably, but gamers are not yet superstars. In my world, they are because our other part of our business is also selling into gaming.

And of course, people saying, well, the only thing this kid can is to play a computer. Yes. But there are a billion other kids who can do the same. So if you’re the best you are still very unique and and you have practised a lot.

“So it is a skill and an art, and it takes a long time to become really good at it. I completely buy into that, but this whole idol thing: the Lewis Hamilton of sim racing—I don’t know who that is, and I think that’s where we need to go if we want to look at sim sports as an action sport.”

From racing cars to designing simulators
Andre Eriksen during his racing career (Image Credit: Diagonal Comms)
Andre Eriksen during his racing career (Image Credit: Diagonal Comms)

Eriksen originally started out as a racer himself. Circumstances and a family emergency played a major part in him stepping back from racing, as did the costs. He is currently helping his younger son forge a racing career:

“I’ve been racing a lot. I’ve been trying to build a professional career for my son, so I live on the global race tracks. I would say I have done a quite a bit of that, then as we moved from the U.S and back to Denmark, unfortunately, my brother got cancer.”

Reflecting on his decision to quit racing, he recalled his decision to focus on building a gaming academy. Eriksen says giving back to the community for is vital, and he created a gaming academy to achieve this:

“So then we moved back to Denmark, and we were building a gaming academy, so first (person) shooter gaming people could come to our Esports Academy here at Asetek, people who are kids, who perhaps did not have money enough to buy really expensive gaming equipment.

“They could come and game for free here at the Asetek, and that was a part of us, you know, giving back to the community. But as we built that, I also wanted to have some real gaming machines. So I insisted that we that we built some some racing sims there.”

The first simulator Eriksen made was custom, to say the least. Using a former F1 chassis, he created one for his son to use, fitting it with equipment from his competitors. Eriksen said the experience of using these parts was eye-opening:

“The racing Sim that I built for my son, just to put things in context, that was some years before. I actually bought a used chassis from Daniel Kvyat, bought and built a simulator myself around that. So it was pretty high-end. So for this gaming Academy I bought five rakes from one of our competitors.

“It’s not the purpose of this interview to talk bad about anyone, but I bought five complete rigs from a competing brand. The quality was just terrible, and when I say the quality, it was the driving experience. It was nothing like driving a car; the brakes were super soft.

“The actual product quality, you know, buttons would fall off, and we never had five simulators working at the same time. And then, to top it off, when you called the company, the customer support was terrible.

On top of that, you know, you needed to be a PC expert to get it to run, then there was this drive and that drive, and this firmware would not work.”

Lightbulb moment

With his experience of subpar products, Eriksen realised an opportunity. He could create a high-quality simulator at an affordable cost. He explains his thinking of the small details, such as investing in the customer service offered to clients. Next was a detail he took to heart: how to reproduce the authentic feel of a race car:

“I’m like, well, this is crazy. And I think we can do this better. What we do at Asetek, you know, is liquid cooling for gaming PCs, Dell HP, and all the big PC branches. So, I thought we had a better grasp on actually doing mass manufacturing with quality customer support.

“It’s easy to do, good customer support; it’s just being willing to invest in it. It’s not difficult. So that one I knew we could fix. And then the real racing—I was like, I’ve been racing so much myself, I get it. So, I wanted to build a product that actually felt like a real race car.

“I started with the pedals, several reasons for that. One of them is in my belief, you as race car in two ways, one is the pedal and one is the wheel. I would say if you’re a good race car driver, as much with the pedals as with the wheel, and so therefore, we started with the pedals and came out with this Invicta hydraulic powers, and they do feel like a race car.”

A champion’s endorsement

Eriksen took samples of his work into the competitive world of motorsport suppliers. Feedback from an F1 world champion at the Race of Champions vindicated his approach:

“It was this Race of Champions in in Sweden, and we sent out our sales guy there with one of our first samples and it was actually Mika Hakkinen who was one of the first to try them.

He said, ‘I just love these pedals; it’s like a real race car, it’s like a real Formula One car,” is actually what he said, which made me very happy.

Unfortunately, a vocal minority still attempt to state how they think a simulator should operate. However, Eriksen says industry experts continue to be the source of creating an accurate sim experience:

“The interesting thing is that in sim racing, we have gotten a lot of heat and a lot of pushbacks with, you know, so-called experts: drivers, influencers, trying to teach us that it’s not correct that a brake pedal in a race car is hard because they have seen some videos on YouTube.

“Apparently, it cannot change people’s minds that you have the Formula One expert from Brembo telling people why it’s hard. So we actually received pushback on that, which caught me by surprise. But it seems now that most of our competitors have turned around and are doing hard and short brakers.

“That was the very first experience, and from there we have a force build on our wheel basis and steering wheels and, and we soon have a full product of it where you can buy G10 wheels, formula wheels.”

How to replicate a race car experience
Andre Eriksen in his Pro Formula Mazda (Image Credit: Diagonal Comms)
Andre Eriksen in his Pro Formula Mazda (Image Credit: Diagonal Comms)

Eriksen’s devotion to recreating an authentic race car feel did not just apply to the feel of the pedals. He also took the step of testing different categories. Go-karts, Pro Formula Mazda, and motorbikes were all tested to replicate the feel of racing.

Starting in go-karts later than most, he explains the need to explore the different techniques of driving in each category, relieving the sharp shock he got when he moved into the Pro Formula Mazda car:

“I was in my late 30s when I started racing go-karts. Yeah, and I did not have time to build a real race career. I knew I was never going to make a living out of it, but I wanted to win that.

“That’s what I want in life. So, in go-karts, it’s, of course, a lot of the same. But still a very different technique of driving a race car as you probably know.

“But, you know, the purples have the same in common, that they are short and they have short throw and they are hard and and in a go-kart, you don’t have the same data available. You can have, but normally you don’t have the same data available as you have in a car.

“So when I made the jump from go-karts to that beast of a car, you know, with rear tyres ten times wider than the go-kart, it was a massive jump, and I was really scared of that thing.”

Racing theory

Eriksen recalled the unforgiving nature of certain circuits when testing, admitting he became a bit of a nerd exploring how to extract more time from the car. This is another area that showcases Eriksen’s attention to detail. He not only wanted to recreate racing a car but also how to fine-tune setup, complimenting FormulaNerds on our unique name:

“My home track was Sonoma Raceway, in Sonoma, California. There’s a lot of hills, and there’s a lot of concrete walls, just like you normally have in the U.S, so it had big consequences if you didn’t do it right.

You are called FormulaNerds, then I can say I’m a little bit of a nerd myself as well. So, I started to really dig into reading race car theory. You know, really understanding it, and I learnt, you know, pretty quickly, especially the brakes, how much time there is in the brakes both in braking early and also braking late.”

The results of this attention to detail have been universally positive. Eriksen and the company frequently receive client feedback stating the simulators are helping drivers and engineers on the race track.

This comes after a period of adaptation. Drivers seemingly struggle but ultimately can find lap time after persevering and making significant strides.

Project Feel
Kevin Magnussen working on Project Feel (Image Credit: Diagonal Comms/Johny Kristensen)
Kevin Magnussen working on Project Feel (Image Credit: Diagonal Comms/Johny Kristensen)

However, Eriksen and Asetek are using more than just their own experience. The company engaged current Haas diver Kevin Magnussen to fine-tune the offering more. The Dane came on board to give his input and valuable F1 driver feedback on the company’s products.

Magnussen set to work on creating an authentic experience. Working on the available settings, he also prioritised quick response time from the steering and pedals.

In a video for Asetek, he praises the Invicta steering wheel: “The Invicta is something I’ve never felt in terms of a gaming simulator.” He also says he had a lot of fun on the project, enjoying the challenge of “bringing the next step forward” for sim users.

However, in an ironic twist, Eriksen confirmed Magnussen initially did not see the appeal or relevance of simulators. He explained how the venture took off through a friend of FormulaNerds and father of Kevin, Jan Magnussen:

“Kevin was actually one of the drivers who was vocal about not seeing simulators as as a useful tool. Perhaps, that’s not the best segue into doing a sponsorship deal with a sim racing company, but I knew Kevin a little bit through Jan, his dad, through some common friends.

“Of course it’s a few years ago that Kevin said that, and I think from a branding perspective, it was twofold. One was the branding. I think it could give some credibility to our name that we actually were hooked up with a Formula One driver.

“But even more importantly, even with my own experience, I was not able to say that now, this wheelbase feels like a Formula One car. I mean, how could I do that? You need to have been behind the wheel of a Formula One car to actually be able to do that, and that’s where I saw the value with Kevin.

“When our simulator is set up in a way that feels the most like a Formula One car, it’s also a beast to drive, and it’s not easy to be fast. So, if you want to win races on iRacing, that’s perhaps not the setting you want, but I can guarantee you our firmware, so the software in the wheelbase, is tuned one hundred per cent according to Kevin’s feedback.

He spent a lot of time with our software engineers really trying to to get it as realistic as possible. And that’s what I think we have achieved. And I don’t see how anyone else could do that unless they did the same exercise?”

Are F1 teams using Asetek sims?

We asked Eriksen if any F1 teams are now using his simulators. He was coy in his response, revealing the team has had several sponsorship deal offers but highlighted the size of the company compared to an F1 operation:

“What I can tell you is that I know several teams in Formula One who are using our stuff, and we also had several offers to become official sponsors.

“But that’s just where we need to take into account the size of our company at the current stage. I would love to to sponsor all of them but I’m it actually the racer in me, makes me more happy that I know for zero dollars that people are using our stuff anyway.”

Away from F1, the interest and demand for Asetek remains high. Hypercar driver Nicholas Nielsen contacted the company requesting pedals. He commented on how hard they are, mimicking the car he drives.

The rise of simulators continues to impact the motorsport world. Companies like Asetek want to bring the feel of a racing car to a fan’s sitting room and offer ones that do not break the bank; Eriksen confirms this:

“We will continue to be a high-end brand while at the same time, actually also coming out with products that are more affordable…so even though it’s cheaper products, they will still have this real race car feel. So we are expanding in the high-end, we’re also expanding in the low end.”

Eriksen says there are plans to investigate moving into rakes and seats so fans and gamers can buy a complete simulator experience. A simulator that accurately mimics racing a car around a circuit is an idea all simulator companies want to sell to fans. However, Andre Eriksen and Asetek’s passion for their sport and product shows the possibilities when racers themselves strive to create a simulator.

 

Feature Image Credit: Diagonal Comms/ Johny Kristensen

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