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Progress of Sim Racing As A Strategic Racing Team Advantage

Progress of SIM Racing As A Strategic Racing Team Advantage Showing my age now: I remember when this was a HUGE step forward in computer-based video games, an early form of POV style:

This was “Pole Position” released in 1982 which became one of the most popular and successful arcade games in the world and was ported to a PC platform. Let’s see, 1982. What did a Formula 1 car look like in that year?

How things have evolved

I have had a technology-related career for most of my life and was fortunate to be at the forefront of the introduction of desktop computing – a PC on every desk; once upon a time, I was the person who put them there and kept them going. And from a time when you could pretty much know everything about a computer, to today when entire careers focus on one niche segment of high tech, so too has the use of computing in physical motorsport rapidly advanced and continues to accelerate.


Far from playing computer games, today’s racing simulators are a critical competitive advantage with a direct impact on race-winning engineering decisions and driving tactics. Those drivers who until quite recently in some cases, dismissed sims as being too artificial, are now turning to them to find lost tenths, practice overtaking moves, and familiarise themselves with new track layouts.


A very prominent example of the realization that sim racing has a credible, even crucial part to play in driving a physical car, is seven-time F1 World Drivers Champion Lewis Hamilton. Before the Styrian Grand Prix in 2021, trailing his Red Bull rival Max Verstappen in the driver’s championship, Hamilton made a number of visits to the Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 factory in Brackley (12 minutes from where I am writing this) to help engineers accelerate car setup for the race. Hamilton said: “I think just really, you know, particularly after the last few difficult races we’ve had, I just went in to try and see if there's any way I could try and help the team just be better prepared.”


We will come back to Verstappen.


Anyone who has an interest in sim racing and a Twitch account will almost certainly have come across the smiling Lando Norris who seems equally at home racing physically or virtually. In many ways, Norris has become recognized as the benchmark for today’s crossworld racers and is credited with matching the performance of his then McLaren teammate Carlos Sainz, and even improving the design of the 2020 McLaren F1 car based on all his sim work.


Norris’s sim setup is a £30,000 investment with Cool Performance supplying the complete setup. From a steering wheel that closely matches that of many F1 cars to the fully hydraulic pedals, every component of Norris’s rig was selected to offer him the best racing performance, as well as being far closer to the real-world racing experience. Norris’s preferred sim game is iRacing.


Sim racing can give the stars of tomorrow a distinct advantage. Traditionally the route up the ladder to professional international motorsport started with karting. Lando was no different. But before he was a teenager he was able to supplement physical karting experience with an early sim rig, all manufactured by Logitech which, at the time, was primarily a steering wheel and pedals attached to an appropriate PC. And over the many years that Norris has competed in sim racing events, he has had the opportunity to develop a deep understanding of every track he has raced on – optimal lines; overtaking options; parts of the track where one car has an advantage over another. The opportunity to spend as much time as he likes on many of these tracks makes those tracks part of his subconscious thinking. I have no doubt he reacts to circumstances and situations on track almost instinctively, not pausing for a nano-second to consider options and consequences.


And let’s consider another reality. Driving a real-world car on a physical track means that the only way you are going to find the limit is to risk putting that car in to the gravel, tyres or wall; all undesirable, time-consuming, and potentially costly. So imagine being able to find the limit with none of those constraints. You crash in the sim world? No problem. Start your run again. You can go off at the same corner time and time again until you establish the perfect path. Then you can practice that perfect path until it is a part of who you are. And then you can take it to the track. No late night rebuilds by the mechanics. No awkward conversations with sponsors to pay for a new body part. No embarrassing TV interviews.


Now let’s talk about Anthony Davidson.


Does anyone here watch Sky F1? Was that a silly question?


Anthony is a Sky F1 commentator and analyst. I came across Anthony many times while covering the 24H of Le Mans when he was driving for Toyota and Jota Sport. Anthony is also a development driver for the Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team, working on their simulator program. Ahead of the 2022 F1 season, with all new cars coming to the grid, sim work was a massive part of car development. And two races in to the season, with Mercedes trailing Red Bull and Ferrari, sim work is even more important, allowing engineers to test new components that they believe will make the car faster, before committing to manufacturing, shipping, fitting, testing, and racing.


Let’s also realize that sim-world/real-world is a two-way street. Not only do teams and drivers benefit from sim testing for real world racing. Real world data is vital for sim racing and testing. This year’s 18 inch wheels in F1 were tested extensively in sim environments thanks to mule car laps over the past 12 – 18 months. It is no longer “either/or.” One is mutually dependent on the other.


And then COVID stepped in and offered another viewpoint.


In 2020 when things got majorly messed up, the super smart and entrepreneurial people at the Automobile Club l’Ouest (ACO), organizers of the 24H of Le Mans, decided that a global pandemic was not going to stop them racing. And so the first Virtual Le Mans was hosted, and the outcome exceeded all expectations. Gerard Neveu, who, at the time, was CEO of the World Endurance Championship, led the building of the team that created, promoted and hosted the Virtual 24H of Le Mans which featured 200 drivers competing across 170 simulators. Among the drivers taking part were Fernando Alonso, Max Verstappen, Pierre Gasly and, of course, Lando Norris. The Le Mans-winning Toyota team competed alongside American giants Team Penske. The race was won by Rebellion Williams Esports on the rFactor 2 platform.


Sure there were some problems, but for such a huge event, with so many dependencies, many of which were outside the control of participants, it was a massive success, 14 million view online, and was even recognised with the Leaders Sports Award for Live Experience at the end of 2020.


One of the teams competing was WEC and Le Mans regular, Jota Sport. I went along to their factory before the virtual event, to understand more about their motivation for taking part in the online race. I was amazed at the huge investment they made in their simulator room. The team was kind enough to boot up a Le Mans sim for my visit, and one of their senior engineers took the car out for several laps, something that had not even crossed my mind that teams can do.


And in speaking to the Jota Team about their involvement, they explained to me that the virtual event was actually very good practice for the real world Le Mans, scheduled for September 2020. The experience, the data points, the performance of other teams that Jota could track on screen, all provided very valuable information that, interpreted correctly, could offer a competitive advantage. And they could also test different scenarios that inevitably occur at huge events such as Le Mans: low fuel; accident at the far side of the track; mixed weather conditions; even a view of the pace of each driver that made up the three-driver team, and how best to take advantage of that pace during different times in the race. All rehearsed, all data stored away for the physical September race.


Now let’s get back to Mr. Verstappen.


Who knows the Blanchimont corner at Spa?


Let’s face it. Blanchimont is barely a corner. Hamilton described it as “too fast to keep DRS open.” That’s fast. A left-hander towards the end of the lap, Blanchimont is not for the feint-hearted, and yet Max pulled off what is considered one of the greatest overtaking moves in F1 history when he stood his ground, in his Toro Rosso, alongside Felipe Nasr’s Sauber. The crowds rose to their feet. The commentators yelled into their microphones. TV watchers leapt out of their sofas.


And what few, if any, realised, is that this was not the first time Max had made such an overtake around Blanchimont.


As part of his work with sim racing’s Team Redline, Max had made almost exactly the same move just one week earlier during an iRacing event, this time against sim racing expert Atze Kerhof. This was essential for Max’s psyche. He knew it could be done. And with Max having spent so many of his formative years in a sim rig, he has a huge amount of faith and experience in translating the sim experience to real world interaction. There is no doubt that Max’s knowledge that the overtake at Blanchimont could be achieved in a sim environment translated to his subconscious belief that it could be done in the real world.

And the results proved he was correct.


There can be no doubt that sim racing and real world racing are no longer “us and them.” They co-exist. There is a symbiotic relationship between them. The two worlds are becoming one. The race, now, is for those drivers and teams to best embrace this symbiosis. The closer they can get to replicating real world racing in an office building, especially with limitations on real-world testing, the greater their competitive advantage will be.


I have no doubt that investments in graphics, artificial intelligence and machine learning along with haptics and haptic feedback, are all on the shopping lists, or in the secret labs of top flight racing teams.


Sim? Real world? Who cares?

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