How Assetto Corsa’s Developers Digitize Classic Tracks And Iconic Cars
Who remembers playing Grand Prix Legends back in ‘98 on their PC? How about Pole Position way back when? Sega Rally Championship anyone? We all have experiences with these epic simulators of the past, and have certainly tried our hand at the ones currently on the market from the future, but when our friends at Assetto Corsa invited me to Vallelunga raceway to do a side by side comparison of the real track with their laser scanned version in PS4 and Xbox One, I came away incredibly impressed. Not just by the accuracy of the track detail mind you, but also how they were able to so accurately and faithfully recreate the driving experience of cars that literally have no telemetry. Not only that, they do it on a massively miniscule budget.
I had a chat with Aristotelis Vasilakos recently to talk about exactly how he makes this happen.
Ted Gushue: How do you digitize a totally analog car that has no telemetry? Assetto Corsa showcases some incredible cars that employ no digital technology.
Aristotelis Vasilakos: What you have to do with cars like that is try to find the actual engineers that worked with the car. Possibly have access to the car, be kind enough, give lots of Italian pasta and wine, and they will let you you go in the car and measure all the parts, talk with them, get lap times, and hopefully you would have something important by the end of that process. With the fact that we can perfectly laser scan tracks, we can [also] accurately compare our lap times to the historic lap times. Once we successfully replicate all of the variables of each track time and we can match the time digitally, we can be confident that we are as close as possible.
TG: It is kind of like algebra, you can solve for x by using y & z variables.
AV: Exactly. You do some kind of reverse engineering, especially on the older cars, right? You get all the data you can. You kind of, as we say, “lock them” once we know that this data is certain. I know that the suspension travel is 300 mm long. Okay. I put it into the simulator and I lock. I will never touch it again. Then we have various values that I might lock, always trying to recreate the behavior in the lap times and handling of the car as the drivers and the engineers tell me, any variable I can lock whether it be wheel camber, you name it, I try to lock that in. I will try to see how I can play with the other values, the unknown ones, to get closer. That is what we are trying to do with cars where we don’t have all the data available.
TG: What other challenges come up in digitizing old cars, especially if you cannot access the original engineers to give you insight? Like the Lotus 49, for example.
AV: I will give you some examples. It is easy to understand. Real professional drivers’ feedback is very important. But equally important is to have the experience to understand what they are saying.
Because every driver wants just one thing, to go faster, and if he cannot do that means that the car is terrible for him. For example, we were working with James Glickenhaus’ car. Fantastic car, great guys. We were trying to recreate the car, great data from the engineers, fantastic car.
Finally we had the car ready, and Giovanardi, a very famous Italian pilot, he was driving the car on the Nürburgring, comes to us and he says he would like to try the car on the simulator for training and so on. He started driving: no problem. This is something really good. We put real drivers on the simulator. If they get on the simulator and can drive the car naturally without crashing straight out of the pits, this is a huge deal for us. We want them to feel totally at home in the simulator as they would in their car.
Lap after lap he goes faster and faster, improving every lap as he would in the real car. That already is a very good sign. But the most important thing is once he comes out of the car from driving for about a half an hour, so he says, “Yeah, okay, that’s enough”. He gets out from the cockpit.
How was it? “Ehh, not so great. I could have gone faster.” I thought we were in a mess now, really scared. “It doesn’t turn well, and then when I accelerate, boots are on the mat, and then when I break I have to be very careful with the down shifting because otherwise the car would not be stable.” And while he was speaking and literally bringing hell onto me, I had his race engineer behind me give me thumbs up.
So I asked the race engineer what the hell he meant by the “thumbs up”? I thought the race driver hated the simulation, I was heartbroken after so much hard work to get it ready for him.
So the race engineer says to me after the driver leaves that we have done an amazing job. It turns out that the racing driver hates the car just as much in real life, and that the notes he was giving me were the exact same feedback he gives to his race engineer when he gets out of the real car.
TG: Oh wow!
AV: Then obviously, yeah, for cars like that where they have more than we get in telemetry, we put it side by side or from the telemetry from the simulator in the real car. When we see that, every single thing is just identical, we are very happy with that. We know that we are going towards our target because I’ll be honest, there is no perfectionist simulator racing.
TG: No, of course not.
AV: Even the best simulators used by Formula 1 teams, some of which actually use our laser scanned tracks, they are not perfect yet. But every day we wake up, come to this office and try to move the technology forward. Every track experience we have is real data that we input to make our simulation stronger. We will never stop improving this simulator.
TG: What is your favorite car to drive in the simulator?
AV: That is a very hard question. That is a terrible question, actually. To be honest, I have plenty of great cars that I like, and one of them is a different type of car, you know. I love the type 72 Lotus classic.
TG: What settings do you drive it on?
AV: Nothing at all. Hard core. To the bone. That’s what we do. The car moves around but still has enough grip. I like the Lotus 49 but it slides too much.
TG: It’s all over the place, but that’s by design.
AV: Yes. The 72, it moves around, but still, you can feel the grip and dig in the ground, trying to accelerate. I like that.
If you’d like to give Assetto Corsa a try, visit its website to find the appropriate download links and platforms it’s available to play on, including Windows PCs, Sony Playstation 4, and, soon Microsoft’s XBOX One.