Race fans love to throw shade at each other. Xbox versus Playstation, console versus PC, controller versus wheel; you name it, people will argue about it on the Internet. And one of the most common ways to teach the opponent in such an argument is to take the clean card. This is not possible with some variation of “my game is better than yours, because mine is a manualand yours is just an arcade game.” The implication is that you are not famous enough because you do something fun and accessible.
It’s not an argument I buy into, but it’s one I’ve thought about over the years. If realistic simulation is the be-all and end-all, then how do consumer games compare to the real thing? It’s not an actual car race on an actual track—I answered that a year ago. No, I’m talking about the driving-in-the-loop (DIL) simulators used by professional racing teams—these proprietary setups that move and shake and carry price tags in the hundreds of thousands or even million. It’s a tricky question to answer. DIL SIMs are few and far between, and they tend to be heavily used to actually do the job.
As luck would have it, the nice people at Mazda North America weren’t laughing when I recently asked them if I could ask them for a SIM card. In fact, they invited me to see in action how the team prepares for the upcoming race in the IMSA Weathertech Sportscar Championship. Two of their four drivers are new to the series this year, and they will spend a couple of days getting up to speed with a track they have never been to before. Suddenly I have the opportunity to see what pro drivers and engineers actually get from spending time in a sim, and to measure how the whole effort is different from even more. very, very hard the races. Plus, if I’m really lucky, I might even get to go myself…
Test, test, one two three…
In racing, as with any other sport, practice makes perfect. Instead of practice, racers call it testing. Testing gives drivers extra miles behind the wheel to hone their craft and mechanics have extra hours to perfect car systems. But testing isn’t cheap—some racing is, after all. That’s great when the budget is fat; the fatter the budget, the bigger the test system (and usually, the better the test system, the better the race results). But the days of easy money are a thing of the past. The seemingly bottomless well of tobacco sponsorship money has dried up over the past two decades, and time and again we’ve seen that economic downturns and corporate scandals can be the perfect excuse for OEM’s willingness to spend hundreds million a year on the sports program. .
Across the racing world, series have restricted the amount released during testing in the name of budget stability. Currently IMSA limits this to a maximum of 10 private test days with a couple of official test events in January and February. That’s not much if you’re trying to turn a racing car into a title contender—which is where DIL SIM comes in.
The racing world began to get serious about simulators in the mid-2000s, and adoption began in the top world of Formula 1. Teams such as Ferrari and McLaren were not allowed to run their separate test teams, which until then it will be lapping ten years of thousands of km in the circuit while spending tens of millions of dollars in procedures. Taking a leaf from the aerospace industry, those teams decided to spend that money on developing racing cars instead.
Until then, the simulation was not trivial, but it was a tool for engineers. They’d enter more numbers showing different suspension setups, and the software would spit out theoretical lap times for each based on mathematical models that take into account vehicle dynamics, aerodynamics, and tire performance. . But a DIL SIM needs to do more because a real human driver provides lap time by controlling the car in real time. This means adding a way for drivers to provide inputs (via the steering wheel and pedals) and receive outputs—graphics, sound, and motion.
The benefits are clear. There is no need to hire a music, or book tour. The weather cannot spoil your plans, and changing the schedule is a function of a few buttons. There’s no risk of even a skinned knuckle before your driver gets back out. Of course, all this works only if you are able to reproduce the activity in the sim with real life.
Fancy DIL Sims soon became de rigueur in Formula 1, but before long they began to appear in other well-funded racing programs. The one located in the Canadian Center of the Multimatic technology company has been in use since 2011 and is widely recognized as one of the best, especially in sports car racing. (An evolution of this setup, complete with 3D graphics, is now in operation at Ford Performance in North Carolina as well.)
As you will notice from the pictures, the SIM Multimatic does not use the hexapod manipulation common to flight simulators or earlier automated DILs. While those work well for aviation, they are large and heavy and suffer from unavoidable engine lag. This is not a problem with airplane pilots and flight sims, because the fields to visual cues in that area are very large. It’s also less of a problem with less than expert drivers, but for pros it causes motion sickness because the feedback from the inner ear doesn’t match what their eyes are seeing.
Instead, this DIL uses a stratiform system developed by a company in the UK called Motion Ansible. Ansible discovered that giving the driver the right amount and variety of physiological feedback is more important than trying to slavishly reproduce the exact motion of a car on a race track. This also features six degrees of freedom as the base moves laterally and longitudinally, plus it can rotate (with the cockpit itself also rotating on three axes). But this SIM is fast enough that all those sensory inputs agree with each other. (Another advantage to the stratiform engine over the hexapod is that it takes up much less vertical space—see the images in this article about Ford’s VIRTTEX SIM for comparison.)
Multimatic uses physics models developed by partner VI-grade, and these models include many optimizations of things like tire models made in-house by Multimatic’s technical director of vehicle dynamics Peter Gibbons and dynamics engineer Lars Ogilvie’s car. The graphics, which are projected on a 160-degree 4m by 1.5m screen, are courtesy of VI-grade and SIM.CO.VR, and the tracks are all based on the same lidar scans that go into titles like iRacing or Forza Motorsport.
All of this works on a number of workstations, including three that are compatible with the current high-end gaming cards to run the three projectors. (Sorry, I forgot to note the specifics of those GPUs.) The graphics aren’t as flashy as you’d see on a big-budget gaming console, but they’re more than good enough for the task at hand. Audio is played through a set of speakers; I am sure that this is the best system to the speakers for the engineers who work next to the drivers when the SIM is working.
The first of the SIM is a powerful space that recreates the driving situation in the actual race car. In addition to the mobility provided by the SIM itself, the shoulder belts of the six-point harness tighten under braking to recreate the discomfort you get when braking hard on the track in a real car. The steering wheel and pedals are basically the same as you would find in an actual car, like the Motec electric bus. The motor that drives the steering wheel is a step above even expensive consumer wheels like those from Fanatec, and the cherry pedal uses hydraulics (again, just like the real thing).
For the past few months, all of this gear has been in full swing as Mazda has gone out of its way to make its IMSA Prototype Racer a winner.