Simulated thrills


Here’s something you might not know: in 2008 I won the Indianapolis 500. Sort of.

I was killing time in the Playdium, a huge video game arcade in Mississauga, Ontario. Against one of the walls was Sega’s Indy 500 and I thought I’d try my hand. While it was pretty far from a simulator, I was at least in a single-seater-shaped pod, even if said pod responded to every bump with clunking, jarring spasms. I can’t remember where I started or how many laps the race consisted of, but I do remember spinning twice. This was apparently several times fewer than my rivals managed because, to my surprise, I was first at the end.

I hadn’t thought about that in a while, but it came back to me when I visited the Ultimate Race Car Experiencesimulator facility in Salisbury and sent my digital Dallara up into the Speedway’s fencing. For a brief moment, as the wheel snapped out of my hand and the responsive seat churned my stomach with imaginary g-forces, I missed Sega’s boneshaker.

Modest exterior hides powerful technology

It all shows just how far technology can take the art of race car simulation. In my last column I outlined how the circuits themselves have become more realistic, but the whole package is so much more involving than I’d realised.

URCE has only existed since November 2013 – its official launch was in May of this year – but occupies a friendly niche in a potentially intimidating market. The experience isn’t as visually immersive as professional sim facilities but the unique technology is head and shoulders above even the best modern gaming set-ups and the sense of motion is incredibly accurate.

“We want what we do to be open to people of varying skill levels,” says URCE co-founder Mark Lush. “If a group comes in for a birthday or a corporate event we can give them a neutral set-up and make everything a little bit more forgiving. But if someone like Jenson Button showed up and wanted to spend five hours testing and working on his set-up we can do that too and give him a realistic experience.

“It’s one of the reasons we use iRacing as our platform. Apart from being a great simulator it’s easy to use and the selection of cars and tracks is excellent. We can pretty much cater for anyone.”

Homework needed to be done before that balance could be achieved and Lush looked at simulators all over the country and even as far as the Middle East before settling on URCE’s current SimXperience equipment.

Despite being user-friendly, these seats are serious pieces of kit. “Unless it’s someone we know who’s a smooth driver and experienced on this type of simulator, we usually only run it at about 73 per cent of its power. At 100 per cent, if someone crashed into a wall at 120mph, the seat’s actually powerful enough to bend itself.”

Those sorts of capabilities are one thing, but you can never fully simulate the g-force of a real race car. That’s why the equipment is designed to fool the brain into thinking the body’s experiencing more than it is. Using subtle manipulation of the muscles by pressure pads, the seat tricks your in-built kinaesthesia – or, according to theOxford English Dictionary, ‘the brain’s awareness of the position and movement of the body and limbs by means of sensory nerves in the muscles and joints’ – into feeling g-force where there is none.

Along with the accurate steering and braking systems (complete with master cylinders) it all adds up to a very physical experience. I was started off with a modest car – a Star Mazda, two steps down from an Indycar – and picked a circuit I knew well. I settled on Road Atlanta, a happy hunting ground in late-night Forza sessions when I was at university. The car was easy enough to handle and pretty forgiving, but I had no idea how different the experience would be from what I was used to.

Keep an eye out for the URCE trailer at shows

Leaving the pits I headed gingerly over the blind crest towards turn three and pointed the car where I knew the track went. Or rather where I thought it went, which resulted in a trip over the kerbs onto the grass on the far side of the road. I got the Mazda back on track and went for the swooping esses that followed, just in time to realise that they were much tighter than I thought and couldn’t be taken flat. I just managed to slither through but was still carrying far too much speed into turn five, put two wheels on the hefty kerbs on the exit and ended up tank-slapping my way down the next short straight.

This is where the track scanning technology stands out. Modern video games might look ultra-realistic, but they’re often built on models that could be years old and not designed to be 100 per cent accurate. For example, the straights at Road Atlanta are much shorter than I had anticipated, which gave me less time to relax and think about the next corner.

I did get the hang of it after a couple of laps and started to enjoy myself. Trying different cars on different circuits is enormously entertaining and the range of vehicles is pretty wide. In a moment of wish fulfilment I took a Lotus 79 around Watkins Glen and learned a lot about what it must have been like to drive a ground-effect car for the first time. Initially it felt awful, but instead of instinctively lifting for some corners – which results in an unsettling combination of under- and oversteer – you have to train yourself to stay on the throttle. Then it starts to feel like the g-force is pulling you through the floor as the car sucks itself to the ground and you really start to fly.

Mark Lush, showing the proper way to take Eau Rouge in a Williams

Speaking of flying, back to Indianapolis. My final run of the day was in a current Dallara DW12 and, even after everything I’d learned, I was still capable of turning a minor moment into a needlessly massive accident. I never even made it past the warm-up lap.

On cold tyres (yes, they can simulate that too), coming out of turn two, I got a bit of a wobble on and decided to power through it. This was, of course, a terrible idea and as the car got sideways, air got underneath it and tossed me up into the fence. The experience might have been an embarrassing display of ineptitude but I was slightly more dismayed that I found myself wincing, bracing for the whiplash that never came. My brain had well and truly been fooled.

Racing is prohibitively expensive, even at the lowest levels, and simulators can provide a great rush without anywhere near the same outlay. You can compete online against drivers from all over the world or, at URCE, challenge your friends in-house.

Harmer gets Brands right, briefly

But more than that, this type of simulator is a fantastic learning tool: learning what race cars are capable of and what they’re not; what you’re capable of; and what you can achieve with time. As your skills increase, so the safety net shrinks. With the absence of risk I probably learned more in two hours on the simulator than I ever would have on a real circuit.

It’s been said that you only find out where the limit is when you go over it. Here, a car-breaking mistake elicits nothing more than a sheepish grin, so you’re more inclined to creep closer to the edge. And, as steep as the learning curve can be, that’s simply a lot of fun.


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