- The Laws of Physics: Why SIM Racing Can Never Be as Hard as the Real Thing
Virtual racing has come a long way, but a simulator can only go so far.
“A mini car crash at every corner.” That’s how Mark Webber, nine-time grand prix winner, describes the battering a driver’s body takes at the wheel of a modern Formula 1 car.
Why? Physics. Take Turn 13, the first part of the right-left flick onto pit straight, at Montreal’s Circuit Gilles Villeneuve, where Webber finished in the top five in each of his last three races there with Red Bull Racing. Every lap he’d mash the brake pedal, applying 275 pounds of force through his left foot for just a fraction over 2 seconds, to slow the car from 210 mph to 80 mph in just 400 feet. The rate of deceleration? About 5 g.
To your body, that’s like driving your car into a wall at 10 mph. Every lap. For 70 laps.
I thought about this as I watched the 24 Hours of Le Mans Virtual on MotorTrend. This digital reimagining of one of the world’s greatest motorsport events was deeply impressive: 200 drivers, including real-world Formula 1 champions and Le Mans winners, located in 37 countries, and racing 50 photo-real virtual cars on a photo-real virtual reconstruction of the iconic 8.5-mile Circuit de la Sarthe. They raced through a virtual night, managed virtual fuel consumption and virtual tire degradation. And when they had a virtual crash, they were virtually out of the race.
The GTE class featured virtual versions of the Chevy Corvette C7.R, the Ferrari 488GTE, the Aston Martin Vantage GTE, and Porsche’s 911 RSR. Meanwhile, the LMP class cars were virtual representations of the French-built Oreca 07 LMP2 racer, which in real life weighs 2,050 pounds and is powered by a 4.2-liter naturally aspirated V-8 developing just over 600 hp.
Overshadowed by the faster LMP1 prototypes and not as visually differentiated as the GTEs, the real-life LMP2 cars have generally been regarded a supporting act at Le Mans. This year, though, they were the main event, and utterly fascinating to watch.Although the same, the virtual Orecas were not identical. The software allowed race engineers to alter suspension settings, downforce levels, and gear ratios, just like on the real cars. For engineers used to setting up real cars, this was a unique challenge—they were optimizing against cleverly programmed software, not the more subtly capricious combinations of ambient temperature and wind direction and moisture in the real world. Even so, it’s fair to say that in terms of the machinery, the 30-car LMP field was the most closely matched ever to start at Le Mans.
The biggest variable was therefore the drivers, which meant it was possible to meaningfully compare the performance of the best SIM racers against top real-world drivers. The quickest of the SIM specialists were faster than the quickest real-world drivers, Finnish SIM racer Aleksi Uusi-Jaakkola clocking a 3:23.672 lap late in the race, 1.9 seconds better than the best lap from Fernando Alonso. But the two-time F1 world champion shouldn’t hang up his helmet just yet.
Racing is precision geometry, at warp speed. You need intense concentration and heightened situational awareness, lightning-quick reactions and calm control, focus and confidence and commitment, making sure your braking and steering inputs, your throttle applications, and your gear shifts are consistently at or near the limit while you place your car on precisely the right part of the track. Lap after lap after lap.
Now, imagine doing all that while pulling 6 g through a long, fast sweeper, holding your breath and tensing your core like a fighter pilot, your head effectively weighing 55 pounds, your internal organs all squished to one side. Or while braking so hard your tear ducts secrete and splash on your visor. Meanwhile, cockpit temperatures breach 130 degrees and cause you to lose up to 9 pounds in fluids during a race, reducing your brain function by as much as 40 percent. And do all this while ignoring thoughts of one’s fragile mortality should any action be performed incorrectly by a split second.
Don’t get me wrong—the 24 Hours of Le Mans Virtual showed top-level SIM racing can be interesting and engaging. But it’s nowhere near as hard as the real thing. And never will be.
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