F1 testing resumes next week with the teams pounding around the Circuit de Catalunya for four days. They’ll be back again the week after – and that’s their lot for the year.
For the rest of the season the only testing they can do is in a virtual environment. Teams have made rapid progress with simulation in recent years but some, such as Ferrari, are only just beginning to exploit its potential.
James Rossiter joined Force India in the second half of last year to help develop the VJM05 on their simulator and investigate set-up options before each race weekend. Results came quickly.
“We were doing a reasonable amount towards the end of the year,” he told F1 Fanatic. “We did find there was a benefit in optimising set-ups for the different circuits, the characteristics the car needed for the circuit.”
“A world of difference”
It paid off in Italy, where Paul di Resta matched the teams’ best qualifying performance of the year, with fourth place.
Unfortunately the team were compromised by other setbacks: a gearbox change penalty demoted Di Resta to ninth and Nico Hulkenberg was sidelined with a fuel pressure problem in Q1. But the drivers were pleased with the set-up work done for one of the calendars most unusual tracks.
“Paul mentioned after he qualified in Monza that the simulation work was working really well,” said Rossiter. “It’s just trying to make sure you can optimise what you’ve got.”
“It’s so close in Formula One at the moment that if you can make your car have slightly better degradation or you can make just switch the tyres on that little bit earlier so you can make lap one perfect in qualifying and you can gain the extra tenth from doing it or two tenths then you’re going to be on the cusp of getting into Q3 and that makes the world of difference.
“And that’s really what we’re looking to do, we’re just looking to use it to optimise our package.”
180 laps per day
Rossiter spent four years as a test driver for Honda (previously BAR) before the team left the sport. In the days before testing restrictions he reckons he covered tens of thousands of kilometres on the track. Now he does the same on Force India’s simulator.
The opportunity to join Force India came when he met the team’s chief operating officer Otmar Szafnaur, formerly vice-president of Honda’s F1 team. “He said why don’t I come along and do a simulator session and how I get on with the guys there.”
“That obviously went quite well, I was very impressed with what I saw in terms of their personnel. Actually they’re quite good at using their resources. They don’t have the best resources but they’re very efficient with them.”
Rossiter’s experience as a test driver proved valuable: “At the time they’d just been using obviously the race drivers, but they’d been using a couple of other younger drivers. But the experience that you get – or that I was lucky enough to acquire through the testing with BAR and Honda – really has come into its own at this time.”
“The testing mentality and being able to sit there for a whole day just going through different test items is quite different to a race driver mentality. So that proved to be quite beneficial, I think, for the engineers. We started working and things progressed.”
On a typical day in the Force India simulator Rossiter racks up between 150 and 180 laps, “which are very focused laps, no sort of crawling around or anything like that”.
“You do get to do a lot of virtual kilometres on the simulator but that great thing is you can make adjustments you might not be able to do on the real car but it gives you the direction that you need to develop your real car,” he explains. “I think that’s a big advantage of the simulator.”
Gaining an advantage
“It’s possible to do a wide range of set-ups quite quickly through a couple of hours,” he says. “If you were at the circuits it would take a day or maybe two days.”
“And then you’ve got all the variables at the circuit. The simulator is very consistent: the ambient temperature, the circuit temperature, all these things are not variables.
“If you’re doing real testing at a circuit during the day you’ve got all these things that change: the wind might change direction, then that affects the aero, you’ve got the tyre temperatures which might change because the ambient temperature or the circuit temperatures changes.
“All these variables the simulator takes out. So there are some areas of benefit in doing a day in the simulator rather than at a real circuit. Obviously the cost is a significant one as well.”
But Rossiter can’t enlighten us on how the official Formula One game compares to a bona fide F1 simulator: “I haven’t actually played it,” he laughs, adding: “I’ve already got the world’s best computer game!”
The difference between the teams in the midfield last year was measured in hundredths rather than tenths of a second. For Force India having a simulator may prove a decisive advantage over rivals who do not, such as Sauber.
“A Formula One team that has a simulator has a unique opportunity to develop the car in terms of you can push certain areas very hard on the simulator and if you do see some lap time benefit you can obviously make it onto the real car,” says Rossiter.
“In order to bring an update like that to the real car without testing in a simulator you don’t know if it is going to work or not. It gives the team an opportunity to have direction with its development.”
Rossiter had his first run in the team’s 2013 car in December. The team is yet to make a decision on its second race driver for 2013 and that gave Rossiter a chance to drive the real thing in Jerez last week.
Rossiter drove the new Force India late last year in the simulator before the real car had been completed.
“It was quite important that I got to drive the real car, the real version, just to make sure that it all correlates,” he said.
“That was the main purpose of last week for me to correlate the virtual car to the real car to make sure the sensations are the same, to make sure that all the things I’m expecting the real car to be able to do it can do and vice-versa.”
Naturally Rossiter is keen to seize any opportunity to return to racing: “I still have a signed contract to race for US F1 in 2010,” he says. It’s not clear yet what role he’ll play in Force India’s 2013 plans:
“It’s important that whatever direction the team go in in terms of the second race driver I think it’s going to be important that we still manage to correlate the simulator during the year. How much I will get to do I’m not entirely sure, I would obviously like to drive the car more, but that’s out of my hands.”
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