An indoor pursuit

The new I-Way simulator offers an affordable and realistic F1 driving experience – and allows you to take on five of your mates in a virtual race
By Ed Foster

Most of us don’t have a hope of racing a Formula 1 car. Through the modern world of virtual reality we can get closer to the action than ever before without going anywhere near a circuit, but race simulators – at least those within reach of the general public – can’t recreate the 5g that a driver undergoes through fast corners. They can’t replicate the assault on your senses as you slam on the brakes and decelerate from 60mph to standstill in 17 metres. Or can they?

Well, the answer is yes, near as damn it, because of technological advances that are now within reach of you and me.

It’s all thanks to an ex-professional tennis player whose career was abruptly cut short by a shoulder injury. Back in 2004 Pierre Nicolas asked himself how he could bring a ‘real’ F1 experience to the masses. His only link to motoring was that his father owned a trucking company, but he started work on a project that would involve the most advanced race simulators outside F1. “We wanted to give access to something that was inaccessible,” he tells me over coffee at the new I-Way simulation building in Lyon, France. “We wanted to make sure it was not only for people who have a lot of money, but for everyone. Our aim was to let people drive an F1 car, and actually ‘race’ one for less than 100 euros.”

“We [Benoit Dupre, a friend of Pierre’s, and his father, Daniel Nicolas] are not technical people, so when we started we didn’t immediately go down the simulation route. We didn’t know anything about it; the only thing we knew was that it existed in aviation. That’s it.”

Simulation can mean something as simple as a PlayStation in your living room, but here we’re talking about the top end of the market – what’s called a six-degree simulator. That means the seat/vehicle that you’re ‘driving’ can pitch forward and backward, side to side, and up and down, giving you the most realistic feeling of cornering, braking and accelerating. When you first watch the I-Way simulator from the outside it’s amazing how much the cockpit mock-up moves, and how quickly. Of course, racing cars don’t tip forward when you brake, but this is simulation, not reality. When you’re in the I-Car it feels like you’re braking normally.

So does it work? Well, whether you try the endurance cars (designed by Henri Pescarolo), the WRC cars or the Formula 1 machines, you’ll be amazed. They can simulate up to 2g and are absolutely shattering to drive! It’s like nothing else we’ve tried before.

“Honestly, there is no technology in existence at the moment that is more advanced than this,” Nicolas claims. “In fact, what is special about this project is that this kind of technology has existed for 10 years, but not in race simulators.” Until recently the technology has been limited to flight simulators and even then it certainly wasn’t available to the general public.

So how close are these simulators to the multi-million pound wonders used by the F1 teams, which contribute so much to development in these testing-restricted times? “They are not used for the same thing,” parries Nicolas. “What we know is that the constructors don’t have this kind of movement because they don’t need it. Here, the simulators are used for more than just driving an F1 car – we are here to give the feeling of driving.”

The secrets of the F1 teams’ simulators are strictly guarded. What we do know is that Mika Häkkinen tried McLaren’s a few years ago and out of curiosity he crashed on purpose. The shock through the steering wheel nearly broke his wrist.

I-Way makes no claim to match what the F1 teams need, but the 12 million euro investment seems to have been worth it. Just ask the professional drivers who have made the journey to the outskirts of Lyon to try the simulators. Yvan Muller, Sébastien Ogier, Bruno Saby, Henri Pescarolo, Nicolas Prost and Loïc Duval are just some of the names to have sampled this ‘hyper-reality’ experience. “You really feel the weight and reactions of the car through the steering wheel,” says A1GP racer Prost. “The big curves, the braking and the g-forces are very, very realistic. It’s pretty eye-opening, but you settle in quite quickly and feel very much like a racing driver.”

In keeping with making sure you feel like a driver, you are kitted out in racing boots, helmet and overalls – bear in mind how hot you feel in these when you’re outside – and then briefed on the car and which track you want to race on. There is a choice of three circuits, but all have been created especially for I-Way. This may seem like a cop-out to avoid licensing costs, but it does ensure that every driver starts from scratch. You are then given five minutes to set a qualifying time before being thrown into a 10-lap race with your fellow drivers in the five simulators around you.

If this is all too much, the striking I-Way building offers more soothing amenities. There’s a shop, a bar and restaurant, and a spa, plus for those with business on their mind two conference rooms – although during our visit the meetings lasted for about an hour before all concerned disappeared downstairs to try the simulators. “The first part of the project was the car, but afterwards it was important to include a lifestyle place where people can come to do more than just drive,” says Nicolas.

And it’s not just racing that goes on in the simulators: in under six hours the WRC I-Cars can be dismantled to be replaced by road cars in which you can hone your driving skills on various surfaces such as snow and ice. What’s more, if you have points on your licence you can come to I-Way, which has been given authorisation from the French Ministry of Transport to run a short classroom course to regain a clean licence.

So can you drive an F1 car for less than 100 euros? The simple answer is no, you can’t. But you can ‘experience’ what it would be like.

I-Way proves just how advanced this type of technology has become. Of course, part of motor racing is the smell, the sense of occasion and the feeling that at any moment you could be facing the wrong way, without a ‘reset button’. So even better than the real thing it isn’t. But you won’t find anything closer, especially at this price.