Formula 1 teams have had simulators for the best part of two decades and I happened to be a test driver when they first came on the scene.
Those teams spend millions of pounds on the developing their simulators as an engineering tool, using complex models to test new concepts and set-ups. As all good ideas eventually do, the use of simulators has now trickled down into the mainstream of motorsport. The main difference between these simulators and the F1 versions, are that these are designed as driver development tools rather than for evaluating ideas from a design office. Most drivers don’t have the luxury of being in a racecar day in day out, so using a simulator is a simple and cost-effective solution making improvements to your driving between races.
Simulators are something that is generally associated with the younger drivers on the single seater ladder, who have grown up with computers and gaming, but we are seeing more and more experienced drivers from all different forms of motorsport coming in to BPS. From the endurance drivers getting ready for the big long-haul races like Bathurst 12 hour or Dubai 24, through to classic racers preparing for Monaco Historic Grand Prix and Classic Le Mans. We’ve even had some rally drivers brushing up on their tarmac techniques and auditioning co-drivers.
Something that people might not appreciate initially is that whatever chassis you are physically sat in doesn’t dictate how the car behaves. That is controlled by the car model within the software, so you can be sat in Aston Martin Racing chassis, but driving a 1965 saloon car or a new generation touring car. There is also a great amount of work in the track models; every time a kerb changes or a chicane is added, we have to make that change here. It is important to make those adjustments because a lot of drivers come to use a simulator to learn a new circuit. When you are flying out to the other side of the world for a race, you can hit the ground running by having a few hours in the simulator. You can get on the plane knowing what gear you need to be in and where the braking points are likely to be. It is a great confidence booster, knowing you’ve done your homework. When testing and practice time is getting more limited, or you are having to share a car and therefore the practice time, it is good to know that you aren’t going to waste that precious time feeling your way around the circuit.
When you are on a test day or a practice session at a race, all the conditions are changeable. There are a lot of distractions and a lot of excuses, whether that is because you’ve got an old set of tyres or the wind has changed direction. Sometimes, particularly when you are starting out, with all those changing factors it can be difficult to piece together what the best techniques are for a particular car, set-up or corner before the race itself. With the simulator you take away all those differences and it is just about the way you are driving. Once you’ve got a lap sorted, you’ve then still got time to work on your consistency because often consistency is what wins you races, and championships. There is no pressure, no tyre bills to worry about and no red flags. You can get through more laps in the simulator in an hour than you do some days at the track.
There is still some skepticism out there about the benefits, but more often than not they are people that haven’t tried a professional set up and think we are talking about something driven with a controller rather than a steering wheel. Console games are brilliant fun and you can certainly learn which way to turn at the next corner, but the level of detail and immersion you feel in a full-size simulator is completely different. Admittedly there is a small proportion of drivers who will never “get on” with a simulator as they are particularly sensitive to motion sickness; Michael Schumacher is probably the most famous example. However there are a number of tricks we can use to get through any initial ill feelings. If you can relax, focus on the driving and the benefits, you can get past it. And the benefits are very much proven in Formula 1 and every other part of the sport, so it definitely worth the effort!