Driving Toyota’s Le Mans car (sort of)


Approaching Tertre Rouge at 130mph in the Toyota TS030, the words of Sébastien Buemi came back to me. ‘You can get through with only a lift, but you have to be very accurate.’ Accurate it was then. Just before turning in I eased the pressure on the throttle for an instant before nailing it to the floor once more. Buemi was right: the car with which Toyota will aim to finally to win Le Mans adjusted its line like a fighter plane and howled off down the road to Mulsanne. It had been easier than I expected.

The first chicane soon appeared. I guess we were doing around 215mph. Past the 200m board flat out, and then as hard on the brakes as my left foot knew how from 130 metres, easing off the pressure to account for the reduction in downforce as the speed dropped. Same again but the other way for the second chicane before Mulsanne itself hove into the view. These days the road kinks right before the actual hairpin so the question was, do you brake before or after the kink? What the hell, I was on a roll. I braked after the kink.

Had I actually been in one of Toyota’s TS030s at the time, rather than its £2 million simulator, the accident that followed would have made the one suffered by Anthony Davidson at the same corner look like a minor coming together in the car park of your local Asda. In fact all that happened was the barriers filled my field of vision, the shriek of the 3.4-litre V8 ceased to be replaced by the voice of the controller saying, ‘OK Andrew, a bit too hot there. Neutral please and we’ll try again.’

The simulator is not what I expected at all. From the outside it’s an old Toyota F1 monocoque suspended on six rams with some screens onto which images are projected through an arc of 200 degrees. But to get in and drive, it is one of the most astonishing contraptions I have ever encountered.

Whatever it might look like, the sim (as everyone calls it) has an ability to replicate both the characteristics of the car and the track on which it is being driven. And it is so good at this that last year Buemi went to Le Mans and went third fastest on his very first run in the car. At a track he’d never been to before. I asked him how close to the real thing it was. ‘Of course it cannot replicate the gforce of the real car,’ he said with small shrug, ‘but otherwise it is the same. It reacts to your inputs in four 100ths of a second which, so far as your brain is concerned, is instantaneous.

But it’s not just a neat way of letting drivers learn new circuits. Its primary purpose is to make the car faster, which is why the sim can accept raw wind tunnel data and adjust its behaviour accordingly. It can do bad weather, different tyre compounds, hybrid strategies and so on. In essence, if the car can do it, so can the sim.

I spent around 40 minutes on board before rather embarrassingly having to call time on my session on account of feeling too ill to continue. I am reassured travel sickness is a familiar complaint and that even Alex Wurz has to fight through waves of nausea when he’s on board.

Worse, I was a colossal 15 seconds off Buemi’s pace. Toyota’s staff seemed surprised it was as little as that over an 8.3 mile lap like Le Mans, but I wondered only how much slower I’d be in the real thing where crashing at 200mph has rather more serious consequences.

Even so, it was a fascinating insight into the world of modern sports car racing. All I need now is a test in a real TS030, just so I can provide independent verification of the simulator’s accuracy…

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