F1 drivers will get their first runs in their new cars at Valencia in two weeks’ time. Actually, that’s a lie – they started driving them months ago.
The increased use of simulators in F1 means that while the FIA puts ever greater restrictions on testing mileage, teams are relying more heavily on virtual testing to develop their cars – and their drivers too.
Last week I sampled one of the simulators used by F1 teams to find out how they do it.
Once the 2010 F1 season gets started at Bahrain on March 14th the teams won’t be able to test their cars at a circuit until the championship is over eight months later.
Despite that the development race goes on – the cars will still have updated parts at more or less every Grand Prix. And the teams will already know more or less exactly how the new components will change their cars because they’ll have tested them in the simulator.
One simulator used by a number of current F1 teams – they wouldn’t tell me who or how many – is Cruden’s Hexatech IV which we featured on F1 Fanatic last month. I sampled the technology at the Autosport International show last week and had a chat to the company’s commercial director Frank Kalff.
More than testing
The first advantage simulators have over real-world testing is that the driver doesn’t have to be in there on his own. The latest version of the Hexatech has three seats, meaning he can bring a pair of engineers along with him. Kalff says:
Because the engineer is sitting there with the driver they can talk about what the car is doing in each different corner and how it can be made better.
The three-seat arrangement means the simulator can be used for more than just car development:
Teams use it for driver development as well – a driver can go into the simulator with a driver coach who can talk to him as he’s going around the circuit.
They use them for setting cars up for different tracks and working out race strategies.
And, of course, for simulating race distances. In fact we did a full 24-hour race once, with three drivers swapping turns. The only problem was every now and then we’d run out of memory and have to clear the buffers.
Car development presents one of the greatest challenges for simulation, however, as it needs to be able to emulate the car so accurately that changes to its set-up also have the correct effect:
The engineers have to ‘tune in’ the simulator so it models the car and any changes to it accurately. Once they’ve got a baseline where the car’s handling is realistic they then have to program in how it behaves when you change something on it.
As we talk a show-goer is strapped into the simulator, which is pushing and pulling him in every direction. It looks bit over-the-top, though – as if the simulator is exaggerating the effect going around a corner would have on a driver. Kalff explains why:
The system can be configured in a range of different ways. Racing drivers are very sensitive to car behavior, and if we set the simulator up to be as realistic as possible the average person wouldn’t feel an awful lot of movement.
At the moment we have this unit configured more for entertainment – the movements are a bit more exaggerated.
Behind the wheel
I get to experience that for myself first-hand when it’s my turn to sample the Hexatech. An assistant wearing a Cruden T-shirt bearing the slogan “The best way to cheat” directs me up the half-dozen steps towards the cockpit.
This model is fitted with an ordinary set of pedals mounted fairly low – in an F1 car they would be much higher. The steering wheel, however, feels very realistic, requiring a lot of force turn-to-turn. I move the seat into position and do up the full racing harness.
It’s running Cruden’s bespoke software which today features the easy-to-learn Elkhart Lake track (which would be my first choice of venue for an American Grand Prix) with Ferrari F430s. As the lights go out I stamp on the throttle and lurch backwards – as the simulator mimics the effect of heavy acceleration.
The first corner at Elkhart is a right-hander so I get on the brakes roughly where the computer cars do and yank the steering wheel. Now I’m being tilted and pressed into the side of the seat, and beginning to wonder if I should have done up the belts more tightly than I did.
But it’s remarkable how quickly you absorb the sensations of being pummelled from side to side and use the feedback to modify your driving. Mash the throttle too eagerly in a corner and the back end wriggles realistically.
The motion effect does fell a bit over-the-top and I’m keen to try the ‘full realism’ mode. Unfortunately there’s a queue forming behind me.
The Hexatech commands a price tag of £120,000. That’s a lot of money if you’re just buying one to play “Forza Motorsport 3″ but small beer to an F1 team.
It uses six pistons to move the driver in every direction in a configuration called a Stewart platform. The technology was developed early in the 20th century for tyre testing, and simulators for other industries such as aviation have used the same principle for many years.
It allows the driver to experience six degrees of freedom – the full range of movements an object can move in.
Simulation will probably never replace real-life testing entirely. But it offers teams new ways of testing their cars as well as developing their drivers and honing their race strategy. As the technology improves future simulators will be able to perform even more of a team’s testing workload.
For me, the only thing it failed to simulate accurately was my name. ‘Kieth’? E before I next time, chaps.