Simulators can provide more help than just familiarising drivers with circuits. Graham Caygill reports from Oxfordshire, England.
F1: Stationary cars that simulate the learning curve
At 9am Central Standard Time today in Austin, Texas, the first Formula One cars will turn a wheel in anger at the Circuit of The Americas track, when the opening practice session for the United States Grand Prix begins.
The venue is new on the F1 calendar and none of the 24 drivers competing have tackled the 5.5-kilometre circuit before.
But modern technology, in the form of the simulator, has ensured they are not in the dark on what to expect from the Hermann Tilke-designed facility, which has 20 corners.
Like their rivals, Williams, who are eighth in the years constructors' championships, have done their research thanks to the simulator they have in their factory in Oxfordshire, England.
Mark Gillan, the chief operations engineer of the British team, made it clear the preparations of the team for the penultimate round of the championship had centred on work with their engineers away from the track to ensure they hit the ground running in Austin.
"As this is a new track, with no historic database of information to call upon, it places even more importance on one's circuit simulation tools and simulator to ensure that we're fully prepared in terms of both car set-up and proposed run programme," he said
The focus of the simulator is a cockpit and front wing to a car, which, for realism purposes and to get the most accurate results, resembles as closely as possible the chassis that drivers race on during the season.
The driver wears headphones to communicate with engineers as well as 3D goggles to clearly see the three-dimensional display on a large screen in front of him, and he will "race" around a laser scan of whichever track they are tackling.
Pastor Maldonado and Bruno Senna, the Williams drivers, have both done laps of a laser scan of the Circuit of Americas as part of the team's preparations, although Dominic Harlow, the senior operations engineer, said that with the venue being so new, their scan of the track was not perfect.
"With somewhere like Austin we are quite limited in the data that we have as we have never been there before and have not seen the surroundings," Harlow said.
"But we have a scan of the circuit itself, so it does allow the drivers to familiarise themselves with it before they get there.
"It is standard now [to use simulators]. Nearly all the teams have their own or have access to one. It is definitely part of the series and you are now seeing it filter down to lower formulae."
Simulators, however, are not just a way for drivers to work out which way they have to turn after every corner.
Current cost cutting regulations ban in-season testing in F1, apart from a three-day session in Italy in May and the Young Drivers Test in Abu Dhabi, meaning the chance to develop the car on track is limited.
Besides, the teams only have a small tyre quota from Pirelli to last through practice, qualifying and the race so they cannot afford to waste time and resources learning a track.
"The further up the learning curve you are with a new track before the weekend the better," Harlow said.
"In terms of the general car set-up, ratios, grip level, the effects of certain changes to the car, having that information before you go to the circuit so you can benchmark it against the real circuit is obviously what you want to do."
Williams began developing simulator technology more than 10 years ago and the team's simulator, which Harlow estimates costs "in the millions" of pounds sterling is an integral part of their push to be competitive in the sport.
With testing limited, the simulator is also used to test the car. When The National visited he factory earlier this week, Valtteri Bottas, the team's Finnish reserve driver, was doing an engineering test for the team, driving around a simulation of the Circuit de Cataluyna in Barcelona.
Data from the cockpit's performances and telemetry readings are fed to monitors and laptop computers for engineers to analyse as the test goes on - just as they would during a practice, qualifying or a race session at the track.
The realism of the cockpit means that performance data can be translated to the cars themselves, with aerodynamic developments on the car being assessed before it is decided whether upgrades should be made.
"The simulator is based around the car itself. It is a model of the car, so everything adjustable on it is adjustable in the simulator," Harlow said.
"With new parts you can explore them in the simulator to see if they are desirable or undesirable."
In the past, before the ban on testing during the season, teams would spend large sums on test sessions where they would accumulate thousands of kilometres in a bid to boost performance.
Now, thanks to the simulator, teams can do this from the comfort of their own factory, and Harlow, who had previously worked at Force India, feels this is a step in the right direction.
"Perhaps in the past our track testing was slightly inefficient," he said.
"We used a sledgehammer to crack some walnuts quite a lot.
"We did thousands and thousands of kilometres when there were other ways to solve those problems.
"What the rules have done is just drive us in another direction where we focus more of our efforts on simulation and rig testing rather than track testing."
Another advantage is that teams are no longer at the mercy of the weather. In the past, a winter test, particularly in Britain, where most of the F1 grid is based, would often be washed out or shortened by rain. This is not an issue anymore, which is real benefit for the teams, Harlow said.
"You can control conditions that you can't at a track test," he said. "You can take out the wind and bad weather or the variable grip of the track or the tyres.
"It can be a very a useful way to objectively test in that you can test only certain aspects of the car.
"The other way of looking at it is that you want it to be a simulation of reality and want to make it as realistic as possible for the driver and a learning and training tool for them and for the team."
The simulator cannot replicate everything. Like every team at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix earlier this month, Williams struggled in the opening practice sessions while dealing with dust on the Yas Marina Circuit track - until the racing line on the track developed as more laps were completed by the field, something that the simulators cannot replicate.
The other part hard to recreate is tyres, according to Harlow.
"There is always a difference between the simulator and reality," he said. "Tyres are a very difficult area to model.
"There is a lot of different materials and construction methods in there that has a thermal effect and a mechanical effort.
"Tyre modelling is still a developing science and it is probably one of the hardest areas to accurately represent."
So do not be too impressed when you see the drivers immediately go flat out in Austin today.
Thanks to technology they have had a head start.
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