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September 22, 2017

Creating the GT Experience in a Professional Simulator

Creating the GT Experience in a Professional Simulator

Welcome to this two-part examination of the new GT racing simulator at Base Performance Simulators near Banbury. This piece takes a look at what it offers the driver, what the drivers think of it plus first impressions at the wheel from us too! Next week we’ll drill down into some telemetry, to show what simulators are capable of looking at – and how useful that is for a driver.

Everyone is familiar with the concept of simulators within a real racing environment. Virtual racing software, which first appeared in the 1980s, has been totally transformed by technology and software development. Much of that was pushed forward by the Formula One teams in the 1990s, most notably McLaren, as they recognised that an “always available” means of replicating a plethora of racing scenarios can translate to real engineering benefits on track.

The last six years or so has seen that pushed even further. In Formula One, tightening budgets designed to keep costs down has led to on-track testing being seriously curtailed — to the point of virtual extinction during the season itself. Nevertheless, development has to continue, and, as processing power continues to rise, simulators form an invaluable tool to try to bridge the divide. One look at Ferrari’s full motion rig and you can see they have now reached the point of complexity that only aircraft companies enjoyed just a decade ago.

The same is true in sportscar racing. The worldwide economic decline over the past five years impacted too on that most expensive of sports. There have been fewer cars on the grid and, for those who remained, outside of the big manufacturers, less cash available for expensive testing sessions. Economies may be picking up again, and with it potentially higher budgets for teams, but the use of simulators is here to stay.

And it’s here in a secluded part of the Oxfordshire countryside that I have visited to check out the latest product for sportscar drivers. Base Performance Simulators has just unveiled its GT Simulator to complement its single-seater programme that’s been running now for several years. The facility is run by Aston Martin Racing factory driver Darren Turner, who helped develop the original McLaren simulator.

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What they have done is taken a genuine Vantage GT2 bodyshell and packed it with all the necessary hardware. It sits in front of a wrap-around screen which is fed by three projectors, some clever software marrying up three separate images to form a seamless, single visual representation of the track. It works great: very sharp and bright to match what you might expect on a typical monitor.

Inside the unit and you feel you’re in the actual car. Proper roll cage to get into (fat bellies get squashed trying to get yourself in!) and the genuine wheel with associated buttons and usual paddle shifters. The dash comprises an LED unit showing the normal rev lights for shifting, plus an indicator for the gear itself. There’s no LCD display which you might get on a GT3 / GTE machine, but that might change. More will be done with the interior but it is already highly immersive.

The seat is a Corbeau Revenge GT unit, comfortable and secure. The best bit is in the footwell though. Here genuine AMR pedal units are positioned, with authentic braking forces required etc (more on that later) and feedback. They are fantastic.

That brings us on to the software. Running the show is the venerable rFactor from Image Space Incorporated, which has been around for some years now but continues to deliver authentic physics and the ability to add third-party tracks and cars, particularly important for a facility like this. Data is exported, in real time, to screens in a room behind the simulator, allowing a team’s engineers to work through a programme of development and set-up options. A tweak of front anti-roll bar here, one or two degrees less wing, altering a bump stop … a plethora of things can be altered to help find a good set up.

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One issue with simulators is that they can take a bit of getting used to. The visuals, sometimes tied to a lack of motion feedback in the seat, can induce “simulator sickness.” Michael Schumacher was famously afflicted by this during his career. No doubt others too. The same is true in sportscar racing particularly when all your time is spent in the real thing. One remedy is motion/sea sickness pills. One of those can usually sort you out.

The Pro Drivers

We met up with Richard Abra and Mark Poole of Barwell Motorsport. The Aston Martin Vantage GT3 drivers were getting in some practice ahead of the 24 Hours of Barcelona in a couple of weekends’ time. As well as track familiarity, their session also saw them experiment with various gear ratios and wing settings to optimise their time when they get to the real circuit.

Richard Abra with BPS Manager Ella Barrington
Richard Abra with BPS Manager Ella Barrington

When we arrived, Richard Abra was banging in the laps at the Circuit de Cataluyna, closely watched by team-mate Poole and BPS’s Michael Japp, before Poole went back into the simulator for another stint. So as a Professional driver, what did Abra think of the facility?

“Well inside it looks exactly the same as the GT3 car. You know that the visuals, and what you can actually see, where the curbs are, is representative from the cockpit. The way we have got it set up at the moment is so that they tyres don’t go off. We’ve done a couple of tweaks on how the car should feel and it is very similar how our car would feel on brand new tyres.

Abra analysing data from his team-mate's run
Abra analysing data from his team-mate’s run

“It’s quite an expensive exercise nowadays to go testing, especially for GT3 cars, so it’s a good tool for drivers to get their eye in on the circuit. And it’s good here because Base Performance have a good model of the GT3 Vantage so it’s good for us to see what gears we should be using, where we can brake and accelerate. A lot cheaper than running the real GT3.”

My Turn

At this point it was my turn.

I squeezed my somewhat portly frame between the aluminium tubes of the roll cage and the car fired up. Gave it a fair few revs, pulled out of the garage and exited the pitlane. From here on the sensation is one of complete immersion as I top-toe round the track at Barcelona. I had tried this track the last time I was at BPS in a single seater and remembered the layout pretty well.

Partridge at the wheel
Partridge at the wheel

Then the shock. Charging down the start-finish straight, I decided to brake shortly before the 100m board. Pushed the brake pedal and nothing happened. I sailed towards the barriers at Turn 1, thinking there was something wrong with the brakes. Same thing at Turn 2. It wasn’t until Turn 3 that I realised I was applying too little force. You have got to totally stamp on these pedals like nothing else, and hold it there. Leave the ABS to do its stuff as you provide the brute force. No maximum braking force then feathering off the brake as in a normal single seater.

Once I had worked out that much more needed to be applied, at least for me, I got into my stride. There is very little movement in the brakes themselves, just grunt to use them properly.

Another shock was the degree of understeer of the simulated car. It just wouldn’t turn in for me. The Barwell drivers considered the understeer representative of the real thing, but for me it just meant that I was applying ridiculous amounts of lock to get the car to do what I wanted it to do. No doubt that lost me valuable time. Clearly I was not slowing the car down enough – driving it incorrectly. The tyres took a pounding not only from this (thankfully wear was not simulated today) but also the rears as I pumped the throttle through the Turn 3 long right hander to try to gain more turn-in.

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Barcelona is a fantastic track, whose characteristics make it a great test circuit. Turn 10 is pure evil because it is so easy to run wide at, after being tempted to stay on the throttle on a previous long straight.

I kept going and gradually my times came down. After 18 laps I had achieved a time of 1min 48.6s, which I was pretty pleased with. With sweat dribbling down my forehead, I called it a day.

The Boss’s View

Darren Turner is pleased with how the new simulator has been received by drivers and he sees this new product as another important step for Base Performance Simulators. When we met him, he was in the middle of packing up a bespoke simulator unit for another top-end pro sportscar driver. He maintains a deep level of involvement in the company in addition to his real world racing commitments.

“Obviously, I only race sports cars, GTs now, and it was something I personally wanted to do because there is a growing market for people wanting to use the sim. It has taken longer than I had hoped to get one built, but I’m very pleased it is up and running. It’s still early days. We still have a long way to go to get it to the level that we want but already the positive feedback we’ve had has been very encouraging.

The new simulator came about by demand from gentleman drivers, the ones who literally keep the financial wheels of the sport turning.

“We had quite a few gentleman drivers come through the door, tried the single seater and actually were saying: ‘I can see the benefit, but I just don’t feel comfortable in the car.’ They knew about our project with the GT sim and they said when we had that up and running they wanted to come back. That’s when I really wanted to start my (GT) simulator programme. Now that it is up and running we can explore the possibilities of these drivers becoming regular customers.”

The number of circuits available to BPS is growing weekly, and the cars too. “There are plenty of generic car models that are available but what we try to do is build that relationship with the driver and build him a specific car model that suits his racing programme.

“That could be touring cars, GTs, LMP … whatever it is. If they come regularly, we can build it up from their real data and build a car model that suits and should be very accurate to what they are racing themselves.

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“If you want to make the most of what you are racing you need to become a bit more involved in what we are doing and help us create your car model. The guys that have done that, they are getting a better return for their time inside the simulator. We are going to grow and get better with the car models but we are only going to do that with people that come here on a regular basis,” says Turner.

With technology getting better and better, and along with that things like physics development within a sim, I was interested to see where he thought sim technology would be in five, or ten years, time?

“The top simulators are within Grand Prix racing but their role is very different from what our role is. Their simulators are being used as an engineering tool, rather than driver development.

“So they are looking for tremendous amounts of data being pumped out of that simulator to help develop their cars, whereas in reality we are just looking for something that will make it possible for a driver to come away from here having gained some experience before getting to the race circuit in reality.

“Whether we end up capable of being an engineering-level sim? I’m not sure. As soon as you go down that avenue, the costs go up dramatically. And in reality do our customers want that? Maybe not. Maybe there are a few who want to come here to do some engineering work on their car but the majority of people would not want to budget that.

“At the moment we are pitched at the level where it is relatively small compared to what they would have to pay for the same amount of mileage at a race track so they can see it as a proper benefit. If suddenly we charged five, or ten, grand a day then it becomes a situation where they can nearly do that cost at the race circuit. It’s a balancing act.”

Reality Check

There is a note of caution from Turner about how a simulator compares to the real thing.

“It doesn’t matter how good the sims are, they are never going to give you the 100% same feeling you’re going to get in reality. And it’s about immersion. If you are driving with exactly the same inputs as in reality and you are feeling like you are finding the limit then you are getting the same sort of rewards back with it. And that’s quite difficult for people sometimes who’ve never raced a sim before: they are expecting it to be exactly like it is in reality, and sims are not.

“When you drive in reality, you’ve got hundreds of things you don’t even know and they are all giving you feedback as to where the limit of the car is. Here, everything is stripped back to two, albeit very important aspects, visuals and steering. But you are stripped back to just two elements and it takes time to adapt to that.

“Once you have adapted, then you’ll get the same experience from the driving. Plus you get extra seat-time per kilometre, in real life it may be red-flagged or whatever. Here, as long as there is power then the simulator is running and you can just go pounding round and round and round. And that’s how people can really hone their skills.”

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