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!