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By Matt Hunter of The Online Racing Association (TORA).

Back in January I was asked by a member of the motorsport industry what the value of ‘virtual motorsport’ really was. It’s an interesting question and one which has gained a lot of momentum in recent years.

My first ever recollection of a top level driver using sims as a tool was Jacques Villeneuve back in his F1 days. He claimed that driving around on the Playstation assisted in initial track knowledge of venues he’d yet to visit.

That sentiment is probably shared by professional and amateur drivers more and more. With technological advancements, the accuracy of track modelling and relative physics it can be extremely useful to grab a few laps on your sim at home before jetting off to a new circuit and heading into FP1 with at least a general appreciation for where the circuit goes!

What about looking a little deeper though? How does virtual driving/testing then become proper racing in its own right? There will be a number of people who would, fairly, argue that it can never be considered a real part of the sport as you’re not really ‘driving’ in the true sense of the word. However, the competitive aspects are all there whichever way you look at it. From out-qualifying a team mate, engaging in a race long battle, sharing a car in an endurance race or even discussions on balance of performance, it all happens and this is why places such as TORA and other similar communities exist.

Increasingly, virtual drivers are now able to prove their worth on the real race track as they make the jump from gamer to real racing driver and clearly there are some exceptional talents. There are also two distinct routes to the race track. Competitions such as the GT Academy are fantastic ways for big numbers to try their hand at an entry to what has become the most prolific virtual driving competition in the world. The initial stages are largely based around ‘hotlapping’, essentially producing the fastest time possible. Once whittled down, the finalists find themselves in real cars with traning that many of us can only dream of.

On the other side there are the growing virtual racing communities run by fans of the sport often using categories of racing that are popular such as GTs, touring cars and grand prix style racing. Where the process differs here is that while those drivers making the transition are extremely fast, by being ‘brought up’ in the sim racing community they have learned a lot about acceptable racecraft in a safe, secure environment. I would argue that this was the better way around. Surely it’s more acceptable to have a safer driver who becomes quick over one who may be extremely fast but often prone to errors in judgement?

I believe this is the other major benefit of virtual racing. With proper procedures and rules packages in place and being able to mirror the expectations of the MSA, TORA and others like it are fantastic environments for budding racers of all ages to develop a range of skills from team management and livery design to set up work and media coverage. Most of all, however, competitors can safely learn acceptable racecraft without incurring expensive bodyshop bills at the end of the day!

For eight years we’ve made it our mission to be as close to reality as possible and that’s why I think a good number of karters, club racers and enthusiasts use our championships to get a feel for what it may be like should they ever reach that far up the ladder. It’s why we have the trust and support of major teams, drivers, technical partners and championships like British GT.

There is clearly a change occurring and virtual motorsports is rightly taking its place in the e-sports arena as an exciting alternative to actually being there. Virtual series even get coverage on tv nowadays. It’s a safe, cheap way to go testing for professional teams. It’s a learning tool for those drivers heading to new circuits for the first time. It’s a great way to learn about real world championships and it’s also a fantastic amount of fun!

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I am fairly new to driver coaching, but have been racing myself since 2008. I am happy to announce that I am Lamborghini Super Trofeo Am World Champion after winning all 4 races out in Malaysia, Sepang in November. I owe a lot of my success to winning the world championship from being able to learn the circuit with Base Performance Simulators.

Being totally honest, I have always been a little put off coaching due to the inherent risks of getting into a car with someone you may have only just met, and the last few years peoples fears have become a reality with the sad passing of Sean Edwards whilst instructing in Australia. Tragic events like this unfortunately is a massive part of people’s decisions to stay away from coaching, which then in turn makes it harder to help people get into the sport, and to improve driving standards as quickly as possible.

There is now a new way of coaching with virtually zero risk to your safety. Instead of being at a freezing cold track in early February, all wrapped up trying to keep warm, after a 3 hour drive to the track first thing in the morning, you can use a simulator in the warm and dry! I have been very lucky to be able to use Base Performance Simulators for coaching in the last year, which is great to use. I have used both their single seater simulator and the GT simulator for coaching and it is such a simple and straight forward way of being able to interact and guide new drivers all the way around every lap throughout the day. It isn’t every day you can sit alongside a novice racing driver in a Aston Martin GT car with a great bunch of really helpful people around you, risk free!

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With everything in the fast world of racing constantly changing I see this being the best coaching tool. Not all coaches encourage the use simulators with their customers, but even without the potential for damage bills on a track day, using a simulator is much more cost-effective for your customer whilst they are still covering the basics, which might help save their funds to take their racing further down the line.

Whilst it may be cheaper, it’s certainly just as good, if not better, for teaching than a normal days coaching on general admission trackday for a few reasons. When you are coaching on a normal track day, can you pause the customer half way around the lap and talk about the corner you just went through? Can you guarantee no traffic and no red flags? Some circuits on the British and European racing calendar don’t have a huge amount of availability. A simulator gives you such a massive selection of tracks from every part of the world, which you just wouldn’t be able to get to otherwise.

Every time I have used BPS for a day of driver coaching my customers have come away extremely happy and wanting to book another day straight away because they can see the improvements they’ve may in the course of a few hours, in lap time, consistency and confidence.

It is not just safer for yourself and for your customers to use a simulator for driver coaching, it also develops them technically. They are able to review every part of each session with same detailed telemetry they will see at the track, which both the coach and customer can take home with them. I love the simulator for coaching for its simplicity and easiness for both customer and coaching. If you haven’t used it yet, now is the time to get involved and have a try.

Posted by and filed under Formula Student, Guest blog.

Everyone in motorsport knows how important lap time is. And if you don’t, you should ask yourself what you’re doing in such a fast paced industry. A good lap time has always come down to two core components; a good car, and a good driver. In the past, the only way to ensure a good driver and a good car, was to go testing. However in the last 20 years, simulators have stepped into the breach to provide teams from all areas of motorsport with the opportunity to optimise their set-ups and drivers without the cost of going testing, or even the need for a fully built race car.

DIL (driver-in-loop) simulators are now used by all the teams competing in top level motorsport. This is one of the reasons we at Oxford Brookes Racing use the Base Performance DIL simulators to great extent. We use DIL simulators for 4 mains reasons.

The first is set-up. There’s no point turning at up any competition, let alone the international ones we compete at, without a properly set-up car. Regardless of how good it is, if not properly set-up, the car/driver combination won’t be competitive. The joy of using DIL simulators to set-up a car is that we can make adjustments and have the driver back on track in seconds. Where in testing it would take 15 minutes to lower the ride-height on all 4 corners, with a simulator, it can be done in seconds. And when you’re paying hundreds of pounds an hour for the use of a race track, you really do have to ask “is it worth it?”

The second being major changes we wouldn’t even be able to do at a testing session. Implementing possible changes for future cars like wheelbase, track, engine and gearbox changes can be done in seconds with a simulator. But would take weeks of design, development and manufacture at a huge cost. We can prototype test different engine configurations, different suspension designs and even different engine aerodynamic packages in the space of a few hours.

Driver training is probably the most common use of DIL simulators. They provide a driver the opportunity to drive round almost any track of their choice, without the cost of flying, paying a test team and renting the track. We use the simulators as an opportunity to test new drivers alongside current, more experience drivers with years of Formula Student experience. Base Performance Simulators has helped us replicate the track configurations from competition to allow prospective drivers an opportunity to drive the track and familiarise themselves with it, months before competition and long before the car is completed.

The last – and in my opinion – the most important advantage of using DIL simulators is the ability to extract data from everything we do. Be it driver training, set-up tweaks or major car changes, we can collate data easily to allow us to systematically analyse and quantitatively verify any changes we make. Base Performance Simulators output all their sessions in a common data format, as used by most top level race teams. Not only can engineers present at the session analyse the live telemetry there and then for possible set-up improvements and tips for the driver, but we can also take all the data with us for a full analysis and debrief in the following days.

Without a doubt simulator development has made huge steps in the last 10 years and a good simulator is definitely a key asset to any race team or driver, regardless of size or financial backing, from Formula One down to Formula Student.

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Unlike most racers at the level I’m at, I didn’t start karting until I was 16, which is 8 years later than many of my competitors. Once I made the switch to cars, starting with Formula Renault, I began to use simulators to supplement my testing programme before a race.

Using a simulator makes such a difference because at race meetings you don’t always get loads of track time and you can’t waste all your sponsor’s money on testing every day in the week instead. I started using the simulator at Base Performance for a few hours before each race and made loads of improvements in my driving technique straight away. In the sim you don’t have any distractions or excuses. If your lap time goes up then you know it is something you’ve done. If you go quicker, you know that what you’ve tried works. You can’t blame it on the tyres or the weather.

My first full season in cars was in the BRDC Formula 4 championship, which I won. It was a really close championship with a lot of different people taking race wins in the early part of the year. It really kept you on your toes because the cars were very evenly matched, so it came down to the drivers a lot more than in karting. Using the sim made a big contribution to bringing the title home. I had a lot to learn in a short time as some of the other drivers had already been racing for a few years in other junior series, so I had to make sure I had the pace, and the consistency over a race distance, even if I didn’t have as much as experience. In the sim we could look a different elements of my driving (like braking or wet lines) one by one. I could try and find the limit without any fear of crash damage!

As I progressed from BRDC Formula 4 to Formula Renault I’ve switched teams to Mark Burdett Racing. Before a race I work with my race engineer and driver coach that I will work with at the track in the sim. That way we get the most of the session as they know exactly what my weak points were from the last race and we can get straight on to improving them. They are both very experienced guys, so when it is a track I’ve not been to before my coach can drive some reference laps for me and we can go through that data and videos to make sure I’m confident when I get there. Learning to use all the data tools and how to communicate with my engineer as well really helps, as racing is a team game at the end of the day.

This year I have been selected as a BMW Motorsport Junior driver, which is a great privilege. So as well as my Formula Renault 2.0 racing I participate in various tests and races with BMW Motorsport. My first race for them was around the Nordschleife – probably the hardest track in the world! It was also in a GT car. Other than a few laps at Silverstone as part of the shoot out for the McLaren Autosport BRDC Award last year, I’d never driven anything like it. I spent an afternoon in the sim with Darren, as he has competed at the Nurburgring 24 hours many times, and we went through the whole 20km that makes up the track in short sections. Once you get more comfortable with each section you can link them up. I definitely wouldn’t have be able to learn 172 corners in a practice session that I was sharing with my co-drivers! Using the GT sim got me more used to what sitting in the GT would feel like as well, as it is very different to the Renault. The only thing it couldn’t prepare me for was what it was going to feel like getting up after a couple of hours sleep to do a stint in the dark!

Posted by and filed under GT, Guest blog, UK circuits.

It’s not every day that you get an offer from the head of a car company to race a ‘works’ GT4 car. Not in my world at least. I do have a race licence and for the last couple of years I’ve turned out as a bit of fun in the 360 MRC 6 Hour event. This was different though; two 18 lap sprints against aspiring BTCC drivers, who had done at least three-quarters of a season, were mostly a third of my age, on a track I’d never even driven in a road car. Oh and to top it off at least one of the races was on live national TV. The potential for personal embarrassment, or worse still, damage to the car was sky-high. The only option then was a polite but firm “thanks, but no thanks.”

Except, and to repeat what I said at the start, it’s not every day that you get an offer from the head of a car company to race a ‘works’ GT4 car. “Thanks. Yes of course” I heard myself saying. Lawrence Tomilinson of Ginetta was the man making the offer, a run out at the Rockingham round of the BTCC-supporting Ginetta Supercup was the drive in question. The G55 is a 355BHP V6 slicks and wings, paddle shift GT4, running times quicker than the BTCC cars and only marginally slower than the far more powerful Porsche Carerra Cup 911s. However unlike the designed for ‘gentleman driver’ GT3 cars the GT4 class eschews ABS and traction control. Great… I think.

Thankfully I had reported on Base Performance Simulators a while ago and had accompanied the Team USA graduates there for a session last year. So after a swap of emails with Ella Barrington, the incredibly well organised manager of the facility just outside of Banbury, I was booked in for a session on the GT simulator.

I was trying to be calm but this is different from the other times I’ve been there. This is serious, this is work. What if I can’t get it? Hell what if I can’t even get in the Aston Martin cockpit…? I know from previous visits that the whole team at BPS are top quality and a great cup of coffee is the perfect welcome. The GT set up is brilliant, and great news I CAN fold myself in. As I locate the steering wheel on the splines, the familiar view of the Rockingham pit lane is visible through the windscreen.

BPS has a massive variety of GT cars modeled in the system (and single seaters in the open cockpit room just on the other side of the corridor) so loading up a G55 takes no time at all. Before I venture out my ‘engineer’ helpfully gave me a few pointers as to the circuit, a briefing on controls and slammed the door.

Suffice to say my first laps are nothing short of a disaster. All I learn is how to do is how to reverse flick turn after spinning, and that most of the inside kerbs can’t be used. After a particularly lurid spin exiting the fast left before Tarzan, I’m startled when the passenger door opens. The wrap around screen is so immersive and the feel from the pedal and steering were so lifelike, I had completely forgotten I was in a simulator. The only thing missing from that first run was the huge repair bills I would have had in the real world.

With a little coaching from BPS staff and an unexpected visit from a very well respected team manager and engineer who was working with one of his young drivers on the single-seater rig, I progressed quickly, even with my novice capabilities, from just trying to survive and keep the car on track, to actually honing my breaking and turn in and having the confidence to try different approaches to corners and sequences of turns to see how it affected my lap times. I even managed a full 18 lap race simulation run without an off.

An hour passed in no time and after further discussion with my ‘engineer’ I was happy with a best lap of 1:23.8. I knew this was off the pace of the quick guys I’d be out there with but at least I was in the ballpark.

So to the track with just a single 20 min qually Saturday, two 40 minute practices on Friday were my only real opportunity to get familiar with the G55. Suffice to say I kept it on the island in FP1. Taking turn one on the oval flat in 6th and hitting 235KPH before breaking for the T2 hairpin is surely one of the best feelings in British national motorsport. The result was 5.7 seconds away from the fastest time. Not bad, especially as the guys at the front all slammed on new tyres at the end whilst I stayed on old rubber all day. I learned the racing driver excuses from Darren Turner not from his staff at Base performance by the way!

FP2 was awful. I struggled with the balance of the car on old rubber and committed the cardinal sin, overdriving! My lap times suffered by several seconds but ironically I was a little closer to the front of the field. BTCC rubber on the track was the general consensus of opinion for the slower times for all. A blow out exiting T1 did little for my confidence, but at least all that practice of recovering spins at BPS kept the Ginetta out of the wall.

The rest of the weekend was much smoother and a new set of Michelins for qually helped me find 4 seconds of pace from FP2 and now I was even closer to the front of the field… but still off the back of the grid. A 12th place in race one (from grid 14) was followed by me running in the heady heights of P9 in Race 2, having actually overtaken several cars and had a decent battle before a safety car bunched up the field. Ultimately a rear upright mounting failed causing retirement half way around the last lap but 2 signatures from the C of C was proof I’d performed in a satisfactory manner.

So here’s the thing. This very occasional racer (I won’t even call myself a racing driver) was able to be safe and enjoy an event that was frankly far beyond my experience level and probably my talent. So unless I’m a woefully undiscovered talent (oh I wish) there has to be another reason.

Simply put the difference was Base Performance Simulators. My time in the GT simulator and the expert help afforded to me by the staff at BPS, along with the data analysis of my laps, engendered me with technical knowledge of the Ginetta G55 and the Rockingham circuit, learned in an entirely safe environment. That was invaluable but just as important was that the BPS experience was so close to real life that I took confidence into the driver’s seat. That confidence would have taken me, with zero experienced behind the wheel of a GT4 racing car, many hours of expensive testing (and possibly crashing) on the track to gain. That experience allowed me to concentrate on being in the race and ‘racing’ not just in the car hanging on.

Did I make mistakes on the track at Rockingham, yes of course. Did I spoil anyone else’s race, crash the car or hurt myself, absolutely not. Was I slow – yes, but at least I know why and I got faster quicker than I thought I would. Do I want another drive in the Ginetta – what do you think? By the way in the real world in race 2 I got down to a 1:24.7 – less than a second away from my BPS time.

If Base Performance Simulators can make such a huge difference to an occasional racer, imagine what it could do for your as an up and coming professional racer or indeed to a driver (of whatever level) in learning a new circuit, a new technique (left foot braking, paddle shift, transferring front to rear drive) or a new car or series. Given the cost of track testing – and spares – it’s surely an easy choice. I’m still not a racing driver but BPS was the best racing decision I’ve made.

John Hindhaugh

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Come prepared

If you have never used a simulator before it will take a bit of time to get used to it. If you are a regular sufferer of motion sickness, be prepared that using the simulator might give you the same feeling. All is not lost though, prepare for your session by eating lightly and taking travel sickness pills throughout the day. Some drivers experience a sense of nausea as the visual cues tell your brain that you are travelling quickly, but your inner ears disagree. By reducing the projected image size within the simulator this feeling can be minimised. Some simulator users wear also acupunture wristbands or watches during their session, but take heart that for a vast majority of people this feeling will pass after 20-30 minutes.

Do your homework

Many of our customers use a simulator to learn a new track. Study any available onboard footage on YouTube just before your session, or use the BPS archive upon arrival. If your team has raced there in previous seasons, ask to see some video or a data trace of a good lap. You will get up to speed in the simulator even quicker and be able to make the most of your session. Data is also useful for the simulator technicians; by studying the traces the car model can be fine tuned to your individual car set up.

Work as you do at the track

If you work well with your engineer or regularly use a driver coach, encourage them to join you at your simulator session. If you share your car with other drivers, share your session. Whilst you will always have a BPS simulator technician with you in your session who will be able coach you, there is benefit in treating your simulator time in exactly the same manner as a test day at a track.

Don’t spend the whole session chasing a lap time

This is a common problem, particularly with young driver who feel they have something to prove. But posting the fastest ever lap in the simulator won’t score you championship points, and as each session is confidential, it won’t get you a multi-million contract with the team of your dreams. Use your time to try different techniques and lines. Try some wet running. Look for consistency across each runs – this is particularly important for our endurance customers. The advantage of one fast lap can easily be lost If the following 10 are sloppy.

Don’t cut corners

At BPS we don’t run our simulator sessions with “damage on”. This means if you spin the car, run through the gravel, or go head first into the wall, you can keep on driving. The first reason for this is to make sure you get the maximum about of laps in – particularly important for circuit familiarisation sessions. The second reason is to make it very obvious where the time can be found or lost in driving techniques. The car always leaves with the same amount of fuel and the same level of tyre grip, so the only difference must be down to what the driver is doing between two runs (subject to no set up changes being made). The disadvantage of this lack of damage is there is no penalty for running over high kerbs and pushing over the limit where in reality you would hurt your car. Although this might give you a fast lap time on the simulator, it isn’t true to life and won’t prepare you for the race.

Be methodical

Many of our drivers start working on a couple of corners at a time, then once they have found a quick and consistent approach to those, they can move on to another pair, and another pair, and so on (there are a lot of pairs at somewhere like the Nordschliefe!). It is then a case of “joining the dots” between all the sections you know. Trying to tackle a whole circuit at once can be overwhelming for even the top drivers.

Use the data

Each simulator uses a motorsport data logging system and analysis package, alongside live telemetry, sector timing and video playback. Any data recorded during your session can be taken away to study between that day and race day to keep what you’ve learn fresh in your mind. Make plenty of notes on the track maps we provide and pack them into your race bag. Your learning doesn’t have to end when you leave the simulator.

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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.

Base Performance Simulators.  Banbury, August 2013. Photo: Drew Gibson

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!