‘Driving’ the Formula One British Grand Prix

Welcome to the world of Formula One simulators, where you can drive the new Silverstone Grand Prix circuit without even getting in a car.


In an effort to understand a little more about what Lewis Hamilton, Jenson Button and the rest of the Formula One grid have to contend with this weekend, I spent an afternoon driving as fast as I could around the new Silverstone circuit in a grand prix car. Not in the real thing – that would be so 20th century – but in an F1 simulator.

It’s a strange and rather surreal truth about modern F1 that when not actually racing, drivers spend much of their time sitting in darkened rooms completing invaluable test and development miles on incredibly sophisticated simulators. When the sport is trying to reduce costs by limiting the amount of on-track testing, simulation is a neat solution, which is why the biggest teams spend vast sums on creating bespoke simulators that mimic every nuance of the real thing.

When developed and run by a big team – and driven by a race-winning name – a simulator is a hugely sophisticated development tool for honing the race car itself. However, for small teams, which often take less experienced drivers with big sponsorship backing, or drivers in feeder formulae who want to fast-track their skills, simulator sessions are employed to learn new circuits and develop their techniques.

Following in their footsteps, I’ve come to Base Performance Simulators (BPS). Located in the historic market town of Banbury, BPS is in the heart of Britain’s “motorsport valley”. Created by Darren Turner, twice a winner at Le Mans, BPS is deliberately and shrewdly aimed at teams and drivers a few rungs down the motorsport ladder from F1. With a decade’s experience in helping McLaren and other teams develop their in-house simulators, Turner has applied his unique knowledge to creating a facility that can offer an immersive, realistic experience at a fraction of the cost. It also means people like me can attempt to drive an F1 car without risk.

The suite housing the simulator is dominated by a 180-degree wraparound screen and a wheel-less racing car tub in the middle of the room. It’s a generic single-seater car rather than the genuine F1 monocoques that the biggest teams use, but as you slide your legs down into the tight confines of the tub and wriggle your shoulders to get comfortable, the effect is uncanny.

The simulator is operated by BPS’s Michael Japp, who works the bank of computers from the other side of a large window, rather like a sound engineer in a recording studio. There’s a wide choice of circuits (and cars) to choose from, but I go straight in at the deep end with an F1 car on the new Silverstone GP circuit.

It’s a realistic test, for although I know parts of the circuit, it’s the first time I’ve driven the new sections. The view out of the car is very disorientating because you sit so low you’re eye-level with the top of the nose. As in an F1 car there are only two pedals, a throttle and a brake, so you’re forced to left-foot brake. Steering and pedals require a lot of effort so, although you’re not moving or subjected to any g-forces, it’s still a physical experience.

My first laps are a bit of a blur. The sensation of speed is very real, the precise action of the steering wheel-mounted gearshift paddles beautifully tactile. What takes some time is getting a feel for the brakes and the amount of grip you can rely on. In the first 10 laps I crash countless times, but then something clicks and it begins to make sense. Turner calls it “submitting to the sim” and he’s right. As soon as you tell your senses to stop fighting it, you become one with the visual and aural cues and it genuinely feels as if you’re driving and – crucially – not playing a game.

Japp offers some feedback. I’m overdriving, turning in too aggressively and my braking is a bit panicky. I feel like shouting: “Well, you try braking from 185mph into a second-gear hairpin!” but he’s got a point.

The simulator’s purpose is serious, but it’s also huge fun. The highlight of the lap is charging flat out into the Maggotts/Becketts sequence, steering right-left-right-left, changing down a couple of gears and braking to trim your speed, but always focusing on getting the cleanest possible exit on to the Hangar Straight. The unbelievably quick right-into-blind-left at Farm is like threading the eyes of two needles at 180mph. It’s addictive and properly awesome.

The simulator is so absorbing I end up driving more than half a race distance without a break. I’ve begun to feel as if I’m really getting to grips with the car and circuit, even though the lap times suggest I have a depressingly long way to go.

Perhaps most sobering of all is the fact that I’m at the limit of what my brain can muster in terms of hand-eye co-ordination on an empty circuit in perfect conditions with no heat or 5g loadings pummelling my body.

I have a feeling I won’t be quite as harsh an armchair critic when the race starts tomorrow afternoon.

Inside the McLaren simulator

In the world of car simulators, the one developed by McLaren is commonly acknowledged to be the absolute state of the art, thanks to some 200 man-years of intensive work over the past decade or more.

McLaren’s simulator is unusual in that it is used by both the Formula One team and McLaren Automotive, maker of the road-going MP4-12C sports car. Pioneering work in motion and audio cues creates a remarkable level of sensory immersion for the driver, not to mention nauseating “sim sickness” for some unfortunate souls.

Obsessively detailed software development enables engineers to assess the performance-enhancing effects of new aerodynamic upgrades and things such as the impact of tyre degradation on handling balance and lap time. With F1 reducing the amount of on-track testing, the ability to conduct meaningful virtual mileage on a simulator is becoming crucial to a team’s success.

All of McLaren’s F1 race and test drivers use the simulator extensively, both to prepare for a forthcoming grand prix and to give feedback on the latest developments.

Such is the level of accuracy there’s every chance that the big teams will already know to the nearest fraction of a second what lap times they can expect from their cars before they start today’s qualifying session at Silverstone. Scan the pitwall for pre-qualifying smiles to see who fancies their chances.

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