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How Simulators Changed the Game for F1 Drivers

Written by Isha Reshmi Mohan, Edited by Juan Arroyo

Credit: Mercedes-AMG F1

In the world of professional racing, simulators have emerged as indispensable tools for drivers across all categories of motorsport. These virtual setups bring the racetrack experience closer to home in a time when they are becoming increasingly important for setting up and developing a car.

Racing simulators use laser-scanned/imaging data to provide a highly accurate representation of race tracks. This includes replicating bumps, curves, and corners, resulting in an experience that closely mirrors real-world driving conditions.

Some take it a step further, wearing their racing gear, such as helmets and suits, to fully immerse themselves in the experience.

Some professional drivers have their own home simulators that—although not as sophisticated as those provided by F1 teams—offer a more relaxed and personalised training experience.

Simulators provided by the teams are usually used by drivers who have little to no experience with certain tracks and also by simulator drivers to help assess the car and other requirements. As for drivers who are already used to the track, they will be assigned sessions prior to the race weekends as planned by their respective teams.

Different simulators

There are two main types of simulators: 'Driver in Loop' (DIL) simulators and computer simulations that do not require heavy hardware.

For Driver in Loop simulators, the basic form is the static simulator, which is a replica of the car's cockpit placed in front of a widescreen that displays the track. These simulators incorporate authentic F1 steering wheels and cockpit shapes to replicate the feel of a real car.

However, since static simulators are mounted to the floor, drivers do not experience the G-forces and motion elements they would during an actual race. The primary purpose of these simulators is to help drivers familiarise themselves with the track and specific areas to avoid delays during races.

Motion simulators take the experience a step further by placing the cockpit on an elevated platform that responds to the driver's movements on the virtual track. This setup involves simulating G-forces through pushing and pulling, especially during cornering. Some motion simulators are equipped with wind machines to enhance the immersive experience.

Computer simulators, on the other hand, differ from hardware-intensive setups and large screens. They are primarily used to monitor drivers' data on the main simulators and analyse their performance.

The use of laser-scanning technology for the track allows for an accurate representation of the track's nuances and year-on-year adjustments.

The car data collected helps teams make timely adjustments and improvements to the cars, rather than waiting for race weekends or free practice sessions for performance data. It allows teams to compare their performance against rivals and test various strategies under different weather conditions.

Laser-scanning technology used by iRacing developers at Circuit of the Americas. Image credits - Getty Images

The very first type of simulation was the basic arcade model. One of the earliest examples that emerged in the 1980s was 'Pole Position,' developed by Namco.

This game was highly praised at the time for incorporating AI-powered cars to cause collisions and providing a sense of competition similar to that of a real driver. Over time, this model evolved, and additional features like hydraulic motion simulators were incorporated, as we see in modern simulators today.

In 1997, Microsoft introduced 'F1 Racing Simulation,' further allowing users to give it their best shot at being a virtual mechanic: steering ratios, camber settings, and more—the start of an evolution.

McLaren is believed to be among the first teams to adopt a Driver in Loop simulator in the early 2000s, as mentioned by Adrian Newey in his book "How to Build a Car." Their use gained prominence when the FIA banned teams from having private testing in 2009.

The Mclaren simulator uses ATLAS software for telemetry. Credit: F1 Simulator Maniac

But are they perfect?

Even with all the accurate details of the tracks and the general cockpit feel, drivers will still miss out on the adrenaline rush and unexpected events that may occur when racing alongside other drivers on the track.

No matter how many hours drivers spend on a simulator, perfecting and predicting the real-life events that could happen would be nearly impossible. Moreover, replicating the actual effect of G-force and other factors, such as drivers' physical changes during a race, including fatigue and weight loss, remains a significant challenge.

These limitations are among the reasons why many drivers refrain from having their own simulators at home and opt to familiarise themselves with the tracks through console games, as highlighted by Lewis Hamilton in 2021 when he mentioned that he had only used the simulator 20 times that year.


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