The drivers from the Red Bull Racing and Scuderia Toro Rosso Formula One teams are taking their first laps on the great unknown that is the new Korea International Circuit today – at least their first laps in the real world. Previously all four of them got to try out the virtual version in the simulator.
That can prove invaluable when it comes to learning a new track like Yeongam it’s the only chance they’ll have to ‘see’ the track before driving it flat-out at the wheel of a multi-million dollar racing car.
Andy Damerum is Red Bull Technology’s VR guru. As the driver development manager for the F1 Simulator at Milton Keynes, Andy puts everyone through their paces and ensures the simulation is as close to the real thing as science can make it. A toy it isn’t.
Andy, what is the Simulator?
The Red Bull simulator is an old cockpit taken from the chassis of the RB1. It isn’t like one of those seats you buy for a games console; it’s important to get the driver sitting in the right position to be driving a single-seater racing car which is why we use the real thing. The driver sits in the correct position, using the same pedals they would use in their race car, with the right level of feel and travel in those pedals. The steering wheel is a current model and all of the buttons work. So should they wish to, the drivers can use it do things like change the front wing angle of the simulated car they’re driving, moving around the level of front end grip.
The cockpit sits on top of a hexapod platform, which has six degrees of freedom, and around the platform is a 180° panoramic screen that completely immerses the driver in the environment. Added to that are other ways in which we simulate the motion of driving around a circuit, such as feedback through the steering wheel. Basically, it’s a set-up to completely immerse the driver into the simulation.
How many virtual laps do drivers normally do before a grand prix?
Between 20 and 30 laps would be normal, but there’s no particular standard; it very much depends on the driver and their level of experience. For instance a very experienced driver like Mark Webber just wants to get a feel for the track; he doesn’t want to spend a long time doing development. The Toro Rosso drivers on the other hand have much less experience and so will do a lot more development work.
All of Red Bull’s contracted drivers use the simulator, so we’ll also have the Red Bull Junior Team drivers spending time in here. We tend to use them for set-up work and downforce scans, so this year Daniel Ricciardo and Jean-Eric Vergne have probably used the simulator the most.
What sort of things can you get the simulator to do? Can you programme in set-up changes?
Absolutely. In fact we can simulate any set-up that we might see on the track during a race weekend or during a testing programme. We can change springs, [anti-roll] bars, weight distribution, camber, toe-in etc. We can adjust wing levels and change the overall aerodynamic drag, we can change fuel levels. In fact pretty much anything we can change on the track.
And just how well do the simulator models compare to the real thing?
They stand up very well, certainly within a couple of 10ths of a second. Obviously the track will evolve over a race weekend; the grip level goes up as more rubber is put down, whereas we take our grip factor from the beginning of Friday practice and usually work to that. The teams are confident that what they see in the simulator will be replicated out on the track.
Presumably a new track has a less accurate simulation than an established one?
Not necessarily. Looking back to last year and Abu Dhabi, we got the Yas Marina circuit very close according to the feedback we had from all of the drivers. We’re hoping we’ve done as good a job with Korea.
How do you model a new track like Korea where there’s no car data to base a simulation on?
Firstly we have access to the architect’s data, and the geometry of the track is available on their drawings. We can use video footage if it exists to provide us with information about where buildings and grandstands are around the track, but also to do minor but necessary tasks like ensuring we’re placing braking boards in the right places in our model.
Of course once someone has driven around the track we can fine-tune the model by taking the data from the car, adding in factors like road noise that we can’t simulate just by looking at the geometry.
How extreme are the inputs from the rig? The Red Bull Racing Twitter feed claims you made someone sick last week!
Ah, well yes – but that wasn’t down to the aggressiveness of the simulator. Suffice to say if you suffer from motion sickness, the simulator probably isn’t the place for you. That said, the whole point of the simulator is to not feel the platform moving. It should feel natural, like you’re driving. You should be completely absorbed in the sensation of driving the car. As you turn into a corner you should feel the roll and yaw you would feel from the real thing, likewise if you get a snap-oversteer, you should feel the car come violently around, complete with the steering wheel feedback and audio of going into the gravel. It’s supposed to feel completely natural.
…But watching it from the control station down below, it looks pretty fierce, especially when someone loses the car.
But is it better than the PlayStation?
Well, drivers can learn new tracks from the PlayStation, but this is another level up. The main difference is being fully absorbed with the motion platform. You’re in the right cockpit with the right belts, steering wheel and pedals, and driving the car is hard work. After a session in the simulator the drivers have had the same upper-body workout that they’d get on the track. It’s pretty tough in there and they emerge sweating hard. It’ll give them an extra edge out there on the real thing.