OPINION: Computing Editor Ed Chester gives the Motorsport Simulators F1 Simulator a run for its money alongside some of the F1 greats.
For true fans of motor racing the pursuit of the ultimate virtual driving experience can be never ending. From the host of gaming accessories you can buy to augment your PC or console, to dedicating whole rooms to the simulation experience, there are many ways to splash your cash.
But what if you just want to jump straight to the top of the pile? After all, Formula 1 teams use simulators to train their drivers – could you own one of those?
Well, it turns out you can.
Motorsport Simulators is a UK-based company that makes, rents and sells a range of simulators that it also supplies to some Formula 1 teams (the company isn't allowed to say who).
With that sort of pedigree I wasn't going to pass up a recent opportunity to try out one of these high-tech machines at a promo event for the upcoming Race of Champions.
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If you’ve not heard of the Race of Champions, it’s a fun annual two day event that pits famous racers from all manner of disciplines to race each other in a variety of different cars, with the winner crowned the champion of champions. This year’s event is taking place from 21 – 22 November 2015 at the London Olympic arena.
The event was attended by some of the F1 greats, including the likes of Daniel Ricciardo and Jason Plato, who both put the simulator through its paces. The pair were responsible for setting the early pace for us lowly journalists to then try and emulate – no prizes for guessing if any of us got close.
But the first challenge was just getting in the thing.
Being based on a proper F1-style chassis, Motorsport Simulators machines have the same confined cabin and leg space as the real thing. As such, it’s no mean feat sliding the likes of my six-foot plus frame into one. In fact, getting back out I swear I pulled a thigh muscle.
The version I tried included only the front end of the car, without wheels, and the chassis itself stayed put. In contrast, the top-end versions use a whole car, with wheels, and the whole thing moves about in response to what's happening on screen.
You can also opt for a seat/seatbelt combination that pushes against your body to further provide a sense of the G-forces involved in driving.
Instead, what this lower-end model includes is a high-spec, carbon-fibre, force-feedback wheel and pedals, as well as a massive wraparound projector screen and a trio of projectors (you can also opt for one or three monitor screens instead). There are also two massive speakers that side either side of you in the seat. So, not quite the full-blown experience, but an interesting one nonetheless.
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The simulator software is based on the relatively old but well known rFactor, which doesn’t have the stunning visuals of cutting edge racing games. Instead its focus is on simulation accuracy, with tire pressure, aerodynamics and all manner of other factors modelled and accounted for.
In fact that’s precisely what company director Patrick Ward was aiming for when he created the business six years ago. As he put it, “we’re not in the gaming industry, we’re in the simulation industry".
Behind the scenes the system runs on a fairly conventional PC, albeit one powered by a hefty Intel Core i7 processor and a pair of high-end Nvidia graphics cards. Crucially the system needs to run three displays at the same time, with custom software marrying them together, so even though the graphics aren't too taxing there's still a lot of work for the cards to do.
The overall effect is a thoroughly absorbing and addictive experience. Driving with the simulator set to Formula 3 mode, I completed around a dozen laps of Silverstone but could quite happily have driven all afternoon, slowly perfecting my driving skills and learning the track in ever more detail.
It’s particularly addictive having the kind of quality of steering wheel used here, both in terms of its carbon-fibre construction and attention to detail of all its buttons, the gear-change readout and of course the force feedback it provides. Every change in road surface and load on the wheels is accounted for and the force applied is quite something – this is a far cry from your average desktop force-feedback wheel such as the Logitech G29.
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Not that the whole experience is remotely what you’d call easy. Of the dozen or so laps I completed, I only managed two or three without going off the track or spinning. But that’s precisely what makes it so addictive as driving at those limits makes you learn fast, and quickly gets you throwing out your bad habits. Breaking while turning in? A big no-no. Changing gear while under high lateral loads? Not the best plan.
In truth, though, without some sort of physical feedback to give a sense of acceleration and deceleration – such as provided by the full-size systems – the sense of realism isn't quite what it could be.
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This was particularly noticeable when braking at high speed, where it can be difficult to not only get a sense of what speed you’re doing but how much brake force you’re applying and just how close to the limits of grip the car is.
As such, if I'm ever lucky enough to be in the position to splash the cash on one of these systems I’d jump straight to one of the higher spec systems with the reactive seat and chassis, and I'd maybe fit a speed-controlled fan to blast 200mph air at me as well.
However, with prices starting at £35,000 and rising rapidly to £75,000 and up, any of the systems on offer is a pipe dream for now.
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Could you get close to the same experience building the system yourself? Well, you could certainly put together the PC, software, display system and audio easily enough but getting the quality of chassis, steering wheel and pedals is much more of a challenge, let alone trying to do the full-motion systems yourself.
A number of other companies offer similar simulator experiences, though few offer quite the combination of the full car chassis, car and seat-motion and the ability to actually buy them.
For instance, CXCSimulations offers the full-motion experience but not inside a mock chassis, while a host of other companies offer similar non-motion systems centred around a racing seat with a frame to mount a wheel, pedals and screen onto.
There's also the likes of Let's Race, The Race Simulator and Simulator Driver Challenge that offer short experiences using similar kit to Motorsport Simulators, but they don't offer the opportunity to buy the devices.
As for those lap times, I don’t think I’ll be taking Daniel Ricciardo’s F1 seat any time soon. While him and Jason Plato battled it out in the 53s region, I was hovering around 59s. Sounds like a good excuse for me to get saving...