Behind The Scenes
When you watch Formula One cars take to the track, what you probably don’t realise is that much of the preparation work needed to get these vastly complicated machines and their drivers working in perfect harmony will have been done, not in the factory’s workshop, but in their simulators
For several years teams have been pouring millions of pounds into developing ever more sophisticated rigs and analytic software which allow their drivers to `feel’ as accurately as possible how the car will handle at the next race and for the engineers to get the best settings for the suspension, aerodynamics, engine and gearbox.
How accurate are they? Well, when Lewis Hamilton found he had trouble getting his Mercedes off the grid at the start of a race because he couldn’t feel the `bite point’ in the millisecond when the clutch was beginning to engage, the team put him in the simulator to try new settings for it. In modern F1 cars the clutch is operated by a lever behind the steering wheel (there is no room for a third pedal in the footwell) and so accurate, so realistic is the simulation that one of the things the team found was that Lewis made better starts when they changed the stitching inside his fireproof glove so his fingers had more feel on the lever…it is that sensitive!
At Monaco this year he could not get the car to balance properly or to get the tyres at the right temperature for them to work properly. He could only qualify 13th on the grid and finished a disappointing seventh. Back at base the team worked the simulator on a 24/7 basis, with him and younger test drivers, to iron out these problems. A fortnight later he won the Canadian GP in convincing style…
The simulators are multi-million pound machines and a world away from even the most sophisticated gaming console money could buy. It’s more military grade and of a level the RAF might use to train fighter pilots, possibly even higher given the rate of development. However, so obsessive is the secrecy in motor racing that no one is giving away many details.
In essence they have a full size cockpit for the driver, the same as the real car, which sits on a hydraulic bed with pistons that move it to replicate as closely as possible the acceleration, braking and cornering of being on a track. In front of the driver is a wrap-around screen, more accurate than a cinema screen, which replicates the race circuit, all of it linked to a battery of sensors so the engineers can monitor how all the elements of the car are working.
They can fine tune it to an incredible degree.
For example, if the weather forecast is for a hot race day they can change the engine settings, the aerodynamic parts such as the front and rear wings, make minute adjustments to the suspension to alter the way the car rides over the kerbs or the angle of the tyres on the track and so on. At a track at higher altitude where the air pressure is less they will factor that in, do the sim work and adjust the settings for that environment before the cars leave the factory. There are dozens and dozens of parameters which all have to work in harmony and for the driver to feel comfortable.
But to make all the hours spent on sim work effective there has to be a very close correlation between what is done there and how the car actually behaves in the real world and chasing that degree of accuracy is probably where the real gains are to be made. Reigning World Champion, Nico Rosberg, was once asked how accurate the Mercedes team’s simulator was; “It was a good correlation definitely, and that’s always amazing. The engineers put some new suspension data in there, new aero and all of a sudden I feel the new car.”
There is the old saying that motor racing improves the breed and many of the lessons learnt in F1 are now beginning to move over to road car development. Manufacturers are doing much of the initial work for new models on simulators before actual prototypes are built or go anywhere near a road.
Oddly enough, a growing area of concern and where a lot of sim work is being focused, is car sickness, set to be a real problem with the era of self-driving cars fast approaching. Manufacturers are trying to find ways of reducing the nausea many people feel when they take their eyes off the road, to read, or work on a laptop, which they will do when the car controls itself. Engineers are already looking in virtual time at designing different shaped windows and eliminating the vibrations from different road surfaces to minimise the chances of car sickness.
As Formula One teams have proved, the gap between the digital world and the real one is getting ever closer and work done in the former can bring dividends in the latter. It’s getting cheaper, quicker and ultimately, more accurate to do virtual testing than it is to build prototypes.