Driving through Eau Rouge is usually a mindless throttle-to-the-floor blur in virtual F1 racing. But not this time: I’m being steadily crushed down into the cockpit as the car bottoms out over every bump, fighting to heave it across from the pit wall on the right to the apex on the left.
Airbags in the safety harness squeeze my ribs and chest, as I guide the car up and cresting over Raidillon, the steering column stubbornly resisting as if it’s set in concrete having to be wrestled loose. Stopping is no less effort, with my left leg straining to get enough force into the brake pedal to slow the car down in time, putting a modern driver’s fitness levels into perspective.
It’s quite literally a breathtaking experience to feel the simulated compression in the cockpit. Combined with the feedback from the wheels, pedals and sim suspension, it’s the closest you’ll get to racing at Spa, short of strapping yourself into a single-seater at the circuit.
That’s the experience that Cranfield Simulations is trying to perfect with its bespoke racing sims, which can be installed in any well-sized spare room. The AXSIM rigs have been developed from its years of experience working with the armed forces on cutting-edge fighter jet simulations, as well as Formula 1 teams’ own in-house simulators, although the firm won’t reveal who.
The sense of driving a racing car at speed is a step up from a high-end home sim set-up, let alone playing GT Sport with a Thrustmaster wheel.
Designed predominantly with Assetto Corsa in mind though fully capable of running any modern sim racing game, the experience can be tuned to preference with your favourite title in mind.
“What we try to do is focus less on what the car does and instead focus on what the driver feels”
Among the customers are World Endurance Championship racers — gentleman drivers cramming in extra practice ahead of races. Many take advantage of the live analysis offered by Cranfield’s engineers, who monitor lap data from the Bedford factory, and offer advice on improving times.
Although the airbags are what remain in my mind — and muscles — after an intense session in the sim, they are only part of the most crucial part of the setup, says engineer and Cranfield graduate Nikita Miliakov. “When you go on track personally, the most important feedback that you get is from the seat. You don’t get it from necessarily the steering wheel, or the pedals or the chassis itself, it’s the seat.
“We always say drivers have really sensitive bums because that’s where all the sensitivity is.”
Cranfield’s engineers have taken data from the real-life counterparts of every car it runs on its sim, incorporating driver and race engineer feedback to adjust for accuracy and then refining the physics and feeling to provide as true-to-life version as possible.
The rig features an FIA-endorsed D-Box haptic system that uses four vertical actuators underneath the seat to replicate sensations such as vibrations, wheel locking, oversteer and understeer, as well as the ‘submarine’ effect when you hit the brakes and dip further down into the cockpit. But this gold-standard of sim set-ups is just the start, forming part of a unique feedback loop that incorporates Cranfield’s G-cueing system.
The set-up can be fitted in your own home with your own custom touches
This provides the driver with a sample of forces the car is undergoing at any one time through the use of airbags that rapidly inflate and deflate in the harness and seat, which can be tuned to offer differing levels of pressure depending on the downforce and speed capabilities of the car you are driving.
These are combined with a yaw platform that moves the rear of the simulator laterally, allowing you to feel the limits of the car and tyres and when you inevitably overstep them pursuing lap time. Audio cues are courtesy of KEF speakers and Rega amplifiers that combine to create a sound that accounts for every bump and every metre of track in the sim.
“What we try to do is focus less on what the car does and instead focus on what the driver feels because that’s what gives you the more immersive feel,” says Miliakov.
“That’s where our G-Seat stands out, in the sense that it can give you both traction loss as well as sustaining force”
“The yaw sensation cannot be replicated with just four actuators. You need that extra axis and that gives you a sensation and that fills an extra void in your brain. So when you try to find the limit of the car and not just learning the track, we have a pretty realistic model to take advantage of that.”
“When you try to go around the corner you don’t feel it in your hands whether the car is sliding, you obviously have the yawing sensation when you also have that sustained G that you can’t replicate anywhere else,” Miliakov continued. “That’s where our G-Seat stands out, in the sense that it can give you both traction loss as well as sustaining force.”
Despite the increasing discomfort from the aggressive airbags, I would have happily driven all day, and I could, given a decent-sized spare room and a little more in my bank account. AXSIM models start at £16,400 but you’ll need just under £90,000 for the full motion and G-force GT car simulator. The top-end F1 model, with moulded cockpit is an extra £10,000, and there’s a 2022 version in development. Included is a fitting so the race seat is moulded to fit perfectly.