23 June 2011

Why do racing drivers use simulators?

Drivers have been heavily involved with simulators ever since the FIA announced the ban on testing. Not just for Formula 1, even for junior formulas. We are only given limited days of testing during the winter and during the season.

But what are simulators? Simulators are being built from an old racing tub with fitted screens or 180 degrees projection screen in front of the car. Steering wheel, paddle-shift gears, throttle and brake paddles are also fitted in, exactly like in the racecar.

So, since testing has been banned lots of drivers do simulator runs as they can simulate the work and car development that they would usually do at a test, for example: testing gear ratios and doing mechanical changes, as well as circuit familiarization, especially if it is a new track for the team and/or the driver. With the technology we have now, the accuracy is extremely good. The feedback from the steering wheel is like the real car, with the reactions of understeer and oversteer. Even the brake pressures are being maximized with a brake spring mechanism like we have in the racecar.

There are also some simulators with fitted racing modes, for example, Drag Reduction System (DRS), Kinetic Energy Recovery System (KERS) and others. And from this, drivers can maximize their driving abilities to the limit. Another important factor is communicating to your race engineer. Giving precise feedback and changes that you need in the car are essential for optimizing the car setup and using the simulator the relationship between the race engineer and driver can be developed so that there is a good understanding of each other.

Many of the Formula 1 teams have invested to have in own simulators. There are also a few private companies and a few race teams around who run their own design of simulator for young drivers to test. As the technology develops I think we will see every team have their own set up or access to a simulator setup, particularly with the restrictions on testing.
The downsides I think are that some of the graphics can be quite poor and some models of the track are not accurate. There are strong chances of the corners not being very well shaped. And some simulators can be like playing video games, which is not so ideal for a serious race driver. The other big difference is the G forces and loadings, which in simulators can’t be replicated to a real life situation. Another factor is that if you were planning to do a lot of days of the simulator, it can be quite expensive, but not as expensive as testing in the real car. However, I would prefer driving the real car, where you are penalized if you fall off the track – it’s not as easy to get going again in the real car as it is in the virtual world.

I personally think that simulators are very helpful. As a young driver, all I need is to do as much driving and as much practice as I can and I do believe that practice makes perfect. I will take any opportunity I can that helps me become a fully equipped racing driver.

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