The Racing Game: An insight into simulators and what they offer
12th April 2017
Before we start I have a confession to make. When simulators first arrived on the scene I was sceptical. After all, I’ve being teaching people to drive on the track since the late ‘80s and, like many, I had a PC with rFactor (industry-standard racing simulator) and a wheel at home. So why pay someone else to do the same thing? What could it offer over and above what I already had?
That view changed when a client needed to learn Thruxton before he raced there and due to his schedule, our only option was a simulator session. We visited a well-established facility and, within minutes of driving, my view had changed completely. This was reinforced by my client who, despite limited experience of computer games, took to the experience like new slicks on a warm day! My outdated belief that real world, on-track testing was the only viable option for driver training was blown out of the water! From that day on I started looking at what, how and why simulators add value.
Typically, all professional racing drivers use simulators on a regular basis, either as home set ups or at professional facilities. They are used to rehearsing techniques, concentration and mental capacity. Circuit learning is actually a minor part of a sim’s value to elite drivers who know most circuit layouts already and learn new tracks very fast.
So why has the use of simulators become a conventional method of driver development for pros and amateurs alike? Put simply, the available technology has developed dramatically in the past six years, making simulators more accurate, versatile and cost efficient, although there is no denying that it is still a minefield for private use.
The exact same principles of driving fast in the real world can now be applied to a purpose-built, professional, training simulator. Both hardware and software can be calibrated to fine details and tuned by the resident pro driver’s experience in the real world. Frankly, the only significant element missing for learning on a simulator is fear! However, the lack of fear allows for extra capacity to understand, learn and focus for the real world.
An off-the-shelf home simulator cannot be compared with the equipment and calibration time spent on a professional training simulator. For example, the steering wheel motor alone in a professional driver training simulator would buy a very decent home gaming rig including screen, wheel, pedals and PC and that’s only the start!
Simulator centres now offer drivers affordable methods of improving their skills when combined with driver coaching. Obvious benefits are no red flags, changeable conditions and traffic become a choice and hitting a wall whilst learning to stay cool under pressure doesn’t cost a bean!
Simulations can be set up to give manageable oversteer into a corner, developing genuine, real world anticipation and control skills or can be set up to be the most beautifully predictable and superfast car you have ever driven. It is even possible to have a “ghost car” to chase (taken from your coach’s best lap) and then refer to data to fine-tune mental focus to beat that time.
However, I think it is also important to dispel a couple misconceptions around the specification of simulators for training. The first of these relates to the need for motion! For the most common systems, the simulated motion is not particularly relevant for teaching as it cannot truly represent the G-forces of the real world (there is no weight behind it). Even the high-end simulators, such as those within the top F1 teams, have led to the likes of Lewis Hamilton being quoted as “not satisfied with his simulator’s mapping to reality”, finding more value in his static system at home. For the purposes of teaching, motion systems become a “nice to have” extra.
This view for me is reinforced when experiencing full motion simulators. I am conscious of the effect of the motion system for the first 10 – 15 minutes, but then begin to subconsciously ignore it. This got me thinking. What are the key cues that a driver bases his decisions and reactions around? These are primarily vision and then anticipation. These cues are delivered effectively through the screen and the quality of the controls, not an unloaded chassis.
Another misconception comes down to what we are looking at. Vision is the single most important skill in driving quickly. The real world is 3-dimensional, a TV screen or projector is not and so we are not required to move our head around when we use them. A professional training simulator must require head movement as a fundamental fact of use. It does not need to be an impressive 200 degree-plus wraparound projector screen. Curved projections often induce motion sickness, oversize the car and ramp up the end user cost significantly.
Times have moved on. Simulators are not games anymore. They are an affordable ticket for amateur racers and track day drivers of all experience levels to improve their skills and understanding.