Just a few weeks ago, I had the privilege of competing in the 24 Hours of Le Mans for the very first time. Heading into the race there was no shortage of drivers telling me what a unique experience Le Mans is, and without a doubt it lived up to the hype. The event is totally overwhelming in every way, from the opening day of scrutineering in the city of Le Mans, to the incredible spectator turnout at the pre-race drivers’ parade, and then the grueling flat-out nature of the actual race itself.
One of the biggest challenges of Le Mans for a rookie driver is coming to grips with the circuit—no small feat when you consider that the Circuit de la Sarthe is 8.47 miles long and features four separate areas where speeds regularly exceed 175mph. To be quick at Le Mans, drivers have to have the confidence to optimize late braking into the chicanes and tight hairpins, inch-perfect car placement to carry the most rolling speed over the punishing curbs, and total commitment in the ultra-high speed Porsche curves where there is absolutely no margin for error.
Le Mans is one of the most difficult circuits I’ve ever encountered for getting up to speed, and the challenge faced by the driver is compounded by the fact that the majority of the circuit is comprised of public roads, so there is no opportunity to do any extra testing in the build-up to the race. Track conditions change frequently during practice, and with such a long lap-time there isn’t much repetition to help find the limits of the car or track.
Sharing the car at Le Mans with two other rookie drivers, I knew that it would be vital to minimize my learning curve in any way that I could, as it was unlikely that any of us would get to run very many laps before starting the race. Fortunately, as advanced motorsports simulation technology has become more readily accessible, I was able to take full advantage. In the weeks prior to flying to France for the race, I logged hours and hours of valuable seat-time around Le Mans from the seat of the GT simulator at GPX Driver Development Lab in Miami, Florida.
There is no question that the time spent in the simulator was a massive contributing factor to my ability to get comfortable at Le Mans almost immediately, but the benefits of modern simulators go far beyond simply getting familiar with the basic layout of the circuit.
At the professional level, it isn’t unusual for an engineer to brief their drivers on an upcoming event by providing a sample data trace of that car and track from the prior year. Typically this would be used to illustrate very basic things like gear selection, braking intensity, and the like.
In my case, I was able to get much more benefit from the data sample provided by integrating it with my simulator sessions. Like this I was able to focus my efforts on trying different driving techniques and approaches to emulate what I saw from the other drivers’ data. By comparing my data output from the GPX Lab simulator with the sample provided by the team, I was able to see very clearly what worked and what didn’t before I ever turned a lap on the actual circuit.
The time spent preparing for Le Mans in the simulator was quickly validated when we hit the track for free practice during race week—though all three drivers in our car were rookies at this race, I definitely had a tangible edge in confidence and time spent getting up to speed. While my teammates were still working up to the limit even through their stints in the first half of the race, it took me less than 10-laps in practice to get within a second of my fastest time for the weekend.
As impressive as it is that the current simulators are highly immersive and lifelike in their feeling and experience for the driver, for me the really exciting part is the ability to integrate professional level data and analysis tools to make the learning process so much more efficient for drivers at any level.
At Le Mans my teammates and I joked that the simulator was a bit of an unfair advantage for me. In the end, we finished 3rd place, which isn’t bad for a couple of rookies. Somehow I’m betting that next year I won’t be the only one on the team looking for an unfair advantage in the simulator—but that’s fine by me as long as we come through with the win!