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GP Week : Issue 232
As a kid I remember Friday nights my father would drive us into the city to see my mother at work. she worked in a department store, her area alongside the electrical appliances. It was about the time that personal computers were becoming more affordable and entering the mainstream, and I remember being fascinated by them all. Truth be told it was probably the bright colours attracting me like a magpie, but I vividly remember tapping away at the demo models that were setup on the shelves. Our first computer was an Amiga 500, the computer which was really the first low end home computer. To begin with I'd play whatever games we had, and occasionally tapped out the odd school assignment which would be printed on the dot matrix printer, but that was before Geoff Crammond's Grand Prix was released. It was a defining moment in my life as, rather than playing mildly educational games I'd instead bomb around Monaco in a Brabham. Grand Prix was the first real racing simulator. I could fettle with the setup, even though I had no idea what I was doing, and race around my home town of Adelaide. I must have spent thousands of hours playing that game, graduating to its sequel in 1996 when GP2 was released. Jacques Villeneuve revealed that was the game he used to learn European circuits like Spa-Francorchamps that he'd not raced on before. While not perfectly accurate it was pretty close, and as the years went on the game developed a cult following with mods and updated cars and all sorts of things keeping it relevant well beyond its expected shelf date. As computing power increased so too did the sophistication of the games. Even consoles now have the sort of realism that was unimaginable even a decade ago. The extent these games go to is ridiculous – sur veying circuits, scanning cars and developing physics models that accurately reflect real life. For most of us, it's as close as we'll ever get to driving a Formula One car. An off shoot of that development has been that the teams themselves have developed their own systems which supplement their programmes. These are fully blown simulators, typically with an old tub decked out to make the whole experience as realistic as possible with wrap around screen immersing the driver in the experience. They're a training tool for the drivers but they also play a key part in a race weekend as test drivers find a baseline setup prior to the race and refine it over the weekend. The moment the chequered flag fell on practice on Friday in Mexico the simulator would have been switched on back at the factory. For McLaren, the likes of Oliver Tur vey would have continued working through the night so come Saturday morning in Mexico there is a list of changes for the drivers to try. At new circuits like Mexico these simulators are ever more important, especially given the limited track running over the weekend. The teams have accurate circuit data, develop their model well in advance and spend weeks working on a basic setup so come opening practice they're pretty close to the ideal setup. Everything they're doing at the track is fine tuning, all the heavy lifting is done back at base. That's why Mercedes was able to predict pole position would be a 1:19.500, just 0.020s off the time set by Nico Rosberg. That's 99.95% accurate from the team, far higher than a good guess, and generated before the cars had even landed in the country let alone seen the circuit. To some extent every team uses simulators, and these aren't the home setups like many domestic racers claim to use. These are fully blown professional setups that take up an entire room, much in the same way airlines have flight simulators. They use the computer aided design data from the cars to provide a realistic handling model and real world data from the circuit to give things like grip levels, degradation information and circuit improvement. Every lap turned at the circuit adds to that bank of data and improves the simulator's accuracy. For me though it begs the question; what's the point? What do the simulators add to the sport, other than a huge expense? If everyone is using them and allow teams the opportunity to refine their cars to within an inch of perfection, aren't they actually harming the sport? Imagine if teams had rocked up at Mexico without having been able to run through the simulators. Opening practice would have been far busier as drivers learn the circuit and teams closed in on their baseline setup. The second session would then be refining things and final practice an opportunity to rehearse ahead of qualifying and tick off any last minute items left to be tested. That would increase the variation as some drivers and teams would adapt faster than others, and that is a good thing. The engineers would have to think on their feet, the drivers feedback would be far more critical and it would spice up the show because it would be a case of who could adapt the best. There'd also be the trade-off between developing the car for the current weekend or sacrificing time to test parts looking a race or two into the future. Simulators are great, but I don't think they have a place in motorsport if it means they're adding to the predictability of the racing. That Mercedes can be freakishly accurate heading into a circuit it has never visited before means the question really needs to be asked. Do simulators add to the spectacle, or are they an unnecessary drain? 14 GPWEEK.com // 14 GPWEEK.com // PARTNERS: OPINION OPINION Mat coch Editor more than a game