Designing and developing a Formula 1 car is a serious business but, paradoxically, the latest engineering tool to do it is based on a game. We've been driving F1 'sims' on PCs and consoles in our homes for years, yet only quite recently have teams taken them to the next level for practical use. We hear furtive stories of what they look like, but we've not been able to get a true handle on exactly how they work and what they can really do - until now.
Under condition of anonymity, AUTOSPORT sampled the simulator of a leading F1 squad, which we'll call Team X. The hardware is an imposing Cruden 'hexapod' platform with six degrees of freedom (it moves in all directions), plus a rack of PCs to numbercrunch the aerodynamic map (from windtunnel and CFD figures), engine and transmission data (from dynos), the vehicle dynamics (from CAD data and vehicle models), tyre model (ah, the tricky bit!) and circuit characteristics (GPS-ed by software developers).
Just as F1 leant on the aerospace trade in the '80s to embrace carbonfibre and wind tunnels, this technology also originated there (Cruden evolved from Dutch plane manufacturer Fokker). Couple this know how to the video games industry, which has produced head-spinning high quality graphics, and the technology is surprisingly off-the-shelf - anyone rich enough can buy the base version of one of these enormous systems for about £100,000; the software is out there too.
To get up to speed with your system, you'll need to be taught how to use it, which is where Aston Martin and Nissan sportscar star Darren Turner's new simulator-development company Base Performance comes in. It's no good having a gizmo like this if you're not going to learn what it can tell you.
But what does Team X get out of it?
1) DRIVER COACHING
With in-season testing banned, and off-season running limited too, it's obvious that simulators are the way forward for drivers to get F1 seat time. If there's a new track on the schedule, such as Abu Dhabi this year and South Korea in 2010, the race drivers can get an accurate picture of corners, racing lines, gears and braking points.
Another aspect is to develop young drivers, whose chances of real testing time are now extremely limited. They can learn all about the operational parameters of the car, such as the complex steering-wheel functions and getting a feel for the braking systems (which can be replicated on simulators) without wasting precious track time. Lewis Hamilton spent ages in McLaren's simulator ahead of his 2007 debut season - would he have been so well-prepared without it?
This year, the advent of cockpit-controlled adjustable front wings meant simulator time was devoted to their development. Before Silverstone, one of Team X's race drivers found he didn't have time to adjust the front flap when he wanted to for the Complex because he was too busy in the cockpit. Imagine if he'd only found that out when he was heading towards a real wall at 165mph. Before simulators, race scenarios took up a decent chunk of time in testing; now the drills they used to run through can be done at base.
2) CAR SET-UP
In Team X's case, the schedules of its star race drivers mean it's more likely to put one of its test drivers 'in the loop' to run anticipated gear ratios and wing levels for the next circuit on the schedule. Before this, an offline simulator, featuring a 'robot driver' that accelerates and brakes at optimum levels, has calculated the ideal gear ratios for each track.
Team X's engineer explains the next step: "With the new gearbox rules, where one box has to run for four races, you have a limited number of ratios and final drives. We had to decide quite early which sixth and seventh we were going to use, so with Monza in mind we got our test driver to tell us what the gaps between the gears felt like.
"You can focus on Parabolica and Lesmo 1 and 2 to determine what's happening on the downshift and, while the theoretical numbers might line up nicely, in practice the car might feel clumsy in some critical areas.
"He can also take into account the way the track will rubber in, so he might want to be a gear up through Parabolica as the track gets quicker - are those gears too far apart to be able to do that? If he short-shifts, will he still be in the powerband? Is he risking locking the rear on a downshift? Only a driver can tell you that."
3) CAR DEVELOPMENT
In olden times, designers would design a part, there'd be a lead time to build it, and then it was track tested to find out if it made the car faster/better. Beyond basic developments, there are ever-changing regulations, all of which have knock-on effects. When the cars switched to slick tyres from grooves for this year, the level of grip from the front end became much higher. This had an impact on the car's power steering, which means the system's effectiveness had to be increased to compensate.
Team X's engineer takes up the story: "The designers can develop the system to a specification, but only the drivers can tell you what that should be. If you want good front-end feel, you need the steering to be heavy to feel where the grip is. But, if you have lots of weight, you'll never live with it for 60-70 laps. You have to work out the correct levels of assistance at different rates, but it can't be so loaded that it rips their arms off."
This is the perfect example of where the simulator can back-to-back different set-ups in identical conditions, with the driver developing the numbers that the designers can then replicate in real life.
4) CONSTANT EVOLUTION PROCESS
Team X's simulator is barely out of use - we only get this chance because it's between the Singapore and Japanese back-to-back long hauls. Its simulator-development group is now treated like the test team of old, in tandem with the vehicle-dynamics-and-design group and the race-engineering group. And, just like the F1 car, the simulator itself is continually being updated. Next year's rule changes, including a ban on refuelling and narrower front tyres, have already been programmed in. How will that affect the aero balance and weight distribution? How will the tyres degrade due to the extra weight? All riddles that need solving before next March's season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix, and this is the tool the team will use to answer them, before a component has even been manufactured for its 2010 challenger.
If you're still unconvinced of its merits, then how about this: one of Team X's race drivers camped out in his motorhome in the car park over the winter so he could spend a whole week in the simulator. If it was just a game, wouldn't he have stayed at home?
GETTING BEHIND THE WHEEL
Getting into Team X's simulator involves climbing a ladder onto the platform, which sits atop electric-server-driven, spider-like legs, and then clambering into the seat, where I'm belted into a harness. The pedals are straight from the F1 car and are cupped at the bottom to stop my heels from being bounced off the pedals.
As the system is primed, the platform rises another three feet vertically. That feels spooky. The steering wheel for this exercise is plain, and paddle shifts are mounted higher than you'd expect, requiring your index finger to shift. Although the g-forces cannot truly be replicated here, I work up a decent sweat as I chase quicker laptimes. The movement of the platform definitely helps me zone in, and I achieve my target of a time in the 1m25s around Barcelona after a few low-gear spins. My session ends when I backflip over the pitwall entry!
Only when I get out, to watch instructor Peter Dumbreck show me how it's done, do I appreciate just how much it moves around. To generate the braking force, the platform shoots backwards to push you forward. It rocks, literally!