Virtual route to car set-up

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Prodrive’s simulator is used to test car parts as well as young drivers

So how much can Formula 1 teams actually achieve on their simulators? It’s always been a closely-guarded secret, but after a trip to Prodrive it’s all a little clearer. The company is temporarily housing a Cruden simulator that’s only two years behind what the top teams now have, and it is definitely not a simple ‘learn a new track’ device. As Damian Harty, a vehicle dynamics engineer at Prodrive, points out: “You can use a PlayStation for that.”

The modern crop of simulators test new parts – in some cases to a better extent than having them on the car – and help with set-up, so much so that almost everything goes through them before even getting near the car.

“You simply have to tell it the tyre size, aerodynamic co-efficients, the types of springs and all that,” says Harty. “As I describe it, the software is like a big mincing machine – there’s a hopper on top and you just pour in different numbers to represent different parameters, you turn the handle and out it comes – a GP2 car, F1, rally, anything you like.”

Former McLaren F1 tester Darren Turner has logged many hours of simulation work over the years and he says you can get to the right area of set-up on a car before even walking through a track’s front gate.

“The beauty of the simulator from an engineering side is that you can have the same settings for the whole day,” adds Darren. “In real life the track evolves so it’s very hard to get an accurate answer. Is the track two-tenths quicker or is it down to the part you’ve just changed?” Add to this the cost of testing – and the lack of it – and the simulator route makes a lot of sense. To rent one for the day could cost up to £6000, which for a Formula BMW team is a pricey sum. For a GP2 team? It probably equates to the cost of flights and hotels for a two-day test.

Once a team has bought a simulator it might be easy enough to set up a circuit and run your car on it, but if it doesn’t feel like your car, then the machine will be of limited use to the (quite possibly new) drivers.

“That’s where I come in,” says Darren. “I’ll make sure it’s a useable tool before their younger drivers get in. You also need to make sure you don’t use a PlayStation mentality where you have the ability to reset and start again. You have to have a lot of discipline and not chase lap times by sneaking a bit more kerb to get a couple more tenths. Does that represent what you’d do at a race circuit? No, so you’re kidding yourself really.”

Turner visibly lights up when the conversation turns to the LMP1 Aston Martin and the prospect of another year at La Sarthe. The Astons may still struggle to match the diesels at Le Mans, but you can be sure that Darren will be leading any simulation work on them.