Hi-Tech Driving Simulators: For Modern Racers And Vintage Enthusiasts Alike
Photography by Florence Walker
“We’ve got to add a few more to the map,” says Ella Barrington, managing director of Base Performance, a company that makes driving simulators, “we delivered two more to Italy last week.” There are already a fair few of these driving machines around the world; location tags denote a few in Japan, a couple in the middle east, Florida, and even the Bahamas.
I’ve come along to their HQ near the Britain’s Silverstone to have a go in a simulated Bentley GT alongside factory racers Andy Soucek and Max Soulet, but I throw a spanner in the works, as I’m only interested in historic racing.
The PR director’s face falls. I stick to my guns. Modern racing doesn’t really float my boat. Thankfully Marc, our technician for the day, is quick off the mark—it’s not a problem at all. “What car would you like?” I go for a vintage Porsche 911. Within a matter of minutes, a few adjustments have been made to the seating position as well as tweaks to other things I didn’t take enough technical classes to describe, Max does a couple of laps to make sure the configuration feels realistic, and before I know it I’m sitting behind the wheel of an old Porsche, trying to figure out what kind of racing prowess I can expect from myself when risks are off the table.
I don’t know Silverstone, at all. Well, I know about the complex that includes Becketts, but I’m more knowledgable about its name coming from “that damnable priest” that King Henry II wanted rid of sharpish (and the fact that this corner spells his name wrong) than the fact that I should be positioning myself to the left of the track to prepare for the right-left-right weave. Fortunately, Max is in the passenger seat to guide me through, “I never sit in the passenger seat on real cars. I’d only trust the driver if they’re sitting in one of these things.” I can’t say that I disagree.
Andy and Max are puzzled as to why I want to drive a historic car—their Bentley GT would be much easier and probably more fun for a first-timer. For instance, I wouldn’t have to worry about peddles or the gear stick. Also, the traction or lack thereof on the Porsche has me spinning off every couple of sharp corners, something that I wouldn’t have to give a second’s thought to with the Bentley and it’s downforce-aided slick-tire grip. But they’re missing the point if that’s the only consideration. What I want to know is, could I get to a point where letting me onto a track in a real version of my virtual Porsche wouldn’t come with the nail-biting fear of causing untold damage to the car and to myself?
The answer, according to everyone around me at least, is absolutely and emphatically “Yes.” And at much less cost of course. Indeed, there are now chaps zooming around on real life tracks who learnt their racing lines in the virtual world first. Just look at racers making their way onto circuits around the world from the GT Academy, a product of Nissan and Playstation that pits drivers who have grown up playing video games against each other for a shot at a professional driving career. Jann Mardenborough, who circumvented the expense of the normal route that beings with go-karting from a young age, set the fastest ever supercar time at the Goodwood Festival of Speed in a Nismo Nissan GT-R, and has gone on to race for the manufacturer at such hallowed tracks as the Nurburgring and Le Mans’ Circuit de la Sarthe.
But enough about modern pathways into the sport. Back in the simulator, I’m beginning to settle into my racing lines—or at least understand what I’m aiming for—and I’m also starting to learn the corners and remember when a nasty bend is coming up. But wait, I’ve spoken too soon, and off I spin, straight into a wall at 70MPH. I see the lesson as being at least £50k’s worth of damages, and possibly the ability to walk.
It’s truly weird to crash in a simulator. As you spin and the car corrects itself, the force from the steering wheel can feel like it would be enough to break your arms if you’re not being careful. The feedback is so realistic that eventually the fact that you can’t hear the wind or are sweltering from the heat from the engine doesn’t figure—that is, until you crash into a wall. Or rather, you don’t crash into a wall. Your brain is telling you one thing, but your body is telling you an entirely different story. The crash isn’t real, but the fear is.
So how useful are simulators to professional racers? For Andy Soucek, they’re invaluable, “I’ll use a simulator to remind myself of the course before I race it. It’s strange, sometimes I’ll remember a corner in the race and I think ‘Where do I remember that corner from? From last time I was here or the simulator?’ And it often turns out I’ll have remembered it from the simulator.” The data collected is also exhaustive; your performance can be measured against other laps you’ve taken, analyzing acceleration, braking, and gear shifting to show you exactly where you can pick up valuable lost seconds.
And for the teams too, simulators can mean that the 30 minutes of set-up that F2 teams get to figure out their best wing angle setups on the track can focus on just the setups they know will work best, having eliminated the non-starters in the simulator. And as for the cost of this convenience? Base Performance figures that their simulator can save a team £37 per km when you tally everything up.
So what about the drawbacks? Well, it’s not going to teach you what it’s like to feel distances between cars, or prepare you for the full physical demands of racing. But in terms of learning the twists and curves from tracks across the world from the comfort of a safely stationary car, this can’t be beat.
At the end of my session, I’ve managed a laughably abysmal best time of 2:49:730 around Silverstone, a good half minute slower than Max. But for someone whose racing career consisted mainly of Mario Kart up tim now, it’s fairly respectable for a short test of five laps which began with a slow but harrowing 3:30:000 first lap.
Were I in a position to try to find my way to the starting grid at the Goodwood Revival, this is where I’d want to train. The cutting edge technology coupled with the support from the staff here make it an obvious choice. There’s nothing basic about Base Performance.