Enabled by the development of extremely high performance microprocessors at very low cost, a revolution in graphics and computation has led to the emergence of hi-tech simulators that are used to help train fighter pilots, maritime students, surgeons - and racing drivers. With a ban on mid-season testing in F1, simulator usage has taken centre stage and the role of the test driver is carried out away from the circuit.
At this year's Silverstone race, McLaren brought out some aero updates for its cars that didn't work very well in the Friday practice. Knowing it only had one practice session left before qualifying, the team knew it didn't have enough track time to test new qualifying and race setups. So McLaren flew the test driver, Gary Paffet, back to headquarters where he spent the night on the simulator testing different setups with the older parts, which they then applied to their two race cars on Saturday morning. Hamilton finished second and Button fourth.
The software is extremely sophisticated and lets the team simulate the performance of all key aspects of its car on a virtual model of the race circuit, complete with bumps and cambers. The range of adjustments the driver can feel is almost infinite and allows for aerodynamic parts, engine, torque curve, differential and mixture mapping as well as brake and tyre temperatures. The "car" is mounted on a hydraulically operated platform that is linked to the computer and can simulate more Gs than a real road car driver would ever feel. Even the steering wheel, which of course looks and operates identically to that on the F1 car, will give the driver a real kick if he gets out of shape or spins. It won't be long before we see drivers being injured in simulator accidents!
This has led to a very interesting development where a bank of around 10 simulators can be interfaced so that drivers can compete in extremely realistic races together. They have to go through the exact same race protocols on track as real racers; they obtain a race licence and start in a low-level race series and then graduate to faster and more sophisticated races. This is serious stuff and the driver learns a huge amount about racing and driving a single seater in competition.
My prediction is that we will soon see a new and very popular sport emerge that will enable a whole new generation of virtual racers to participate in the safest and greenest form of motor racing the world has ever seen (with the exception of Scalextric, I suppose). No doubt many of them will go on to race in the "real" world. A former GulfSport race engineer and 2004 Formula Renault BARC Champion has been instrumental in developing this capability. He tells me that there are three major benefits his drivers gets from using a simulator at this level: racecraft, braking and learning the circuits and race lines. We would very much like to bring this capability to the UAE to help with the education programme for our Formula Gulf 1000 drivers and then to expose the public to motor racing in a very exciting, low cost and fun environment.
Barry Hope is a director of GulfSport Racing, which is seeking the first Arab F1 driver through the FG1000 race series. Join the UAE racing community online at www.singleseaterblog.com