In the last four years, Formula One drivers have had to discover, learn and tame five tracks (Singapore and Valencia in 2008, Abu Dhabi in 2009, Korea and the new Silverstone layout last year) and will this weekend experience yet another brand new circuit during the inaugural Indian Grand Prix. Then next year, there will be another new track as Formula One returns to the States in Austin…
What’s more, learning these new tracks is complicated by the testing restrictions first introduced for the 2009 season. The new regulations banned on-track testing during the season and put a limit of 15,000 kilometres of track testing per calendar year. Given all these parameters, the drivers have very limited ways of learning a track quickly and efficiently… and, for some, the simulator can be a key tool.
The testing limit has led to an increased focus on the use of simulators as a means of giving the drivers the experience, and the engineers the data, that they previously would have achieved with track testing. Through constant technological improvements, the simulator is quickly becoming a vital engineering tool; time spent working in this virtual reality enables the team to shave off valuable tenths of a second in the real world and be more prepared ahead of the race event.
So what exactly is a simulator? “The Formula One simulator is most easily described as the closest possible experience to being inside the Silver Arrow car itself,” Andrew Muir explains. Andrew is our Senior Simulator Engineer and works with the team and our drivers to make the experience as realistic as possible to the feel of driving the actual car, as well as the level of technical information that can be achieved through its use.
The means of rendering the visual display images utilises the same technology as commercial gaming software but the levels of detail and quality of information we are able to produce is in no way comparable. The system aims to replicate real life through a process of “developing the complex machinery into mathematical formulae”. The quality of this conversion determines the accuracy of the data and the realism of the simulator itself.
The simulator can aid the team in a variety of ways as we strive for improvement. One of the most recent examples is the major role it had in the operational development of the KERS system that was reintroduced into the sport for 2011. The extent to which the simulator is able to assist, begins with seemingly trivial things, such as the buttons used to deploy the boost.
“We started to train the drivers and build up opinions on what was likely to be manageable in terms of workload with the buttons,” explain Andrew. The simulator was further used in the development of tools and procedures with which to manage the KERS system, such as the communication between race engineers and drivers, which are streamlined to make them easy to use and error-free.
The simulator also acts as one of the team’s platforms for investigating car performance, different set-up aspects required at any of the tracks on the Formula One calendar and also the development of new concepts for the car. “It is accurate to a level that we can test out concepts and know whether one is going to be better or worse,” Andrew says.
Simulator technology started with aircraft simulators and has been rapidly evolving ever since, but only in recent years has the technology become good enough to be used at the highest level of motorsport. The drive to improve the simulator used by the team is unrelenting as hardware and software updates are constant.
“Once the limits of technology in the larger areas of improvement are reached, they do not have to be adapted for years,” says Andrew. But during this time, there are constant improvements to the finer points of the equipment in order to maximise the gain from using it. “As the simulator gets better, what is expected from it is constantly increasing, and those who work on it get more demanding about its performance.”
The future of the Formula One simulator is limitless; “The next big improvements for the systems will come from technologies that don’t even exist yet because [the technology] is moving so fast...”
o The simulator has two main purposes – to help train the driver plus conduct engineering preparation for race events and to simulate new technology on the cars.
o All factors affecting performance on the real car can be simulated and altered on the simulator, such as the springs, wing levels, camber, fuel levels .
o The drivers can do well over a race distance in the simulator before they see the track for the first time, such as with the Korean Grand Prix in 2010.
o The motion cueing systems give the simulator a realistic feel, with the drivers receiving immediate feedback from every kerb and different road surface they encounter.
With thanks to Andrew Muir and Craig Wilson