You will undoubtedly have heard Formula 1 drivers referring to the hours they spend in simulators. They are largely mysterious beasts: teams keep their setups pretty much top secret, always looking to gain an advantage over the competition. But what exactly are they like? Badger GP visited Norwich to find out.
Surrounded by little other than fields I find Ansible Motion, a company so obsessed with simulation that they have achieved the pinnacle of the technology. We can’t talk about their clients, except to say that one was the now defunct Caterham F1 Team and that they supply some major movers in the automotive industry. Fortunately we can talk about their simulators and maybe have a go…
Entering the Research and Development lab, I head to the viewing gallery and am immediately taken aback. The simulator room has an almost magical, science-fiction feel to it, with a giant curved screen running continuously around a full-size front half of a car on a ridiculously well engineered platform.
The room is chilly, with temperatures controlled to keep everything stable and happy. With 5 giant projectors and more than 20 computers running alongside a giant box of tricks that powers the moving platforms, environment control is paramount. Yes, that’s right: there are over 20 computers running and it requires at least 2 people to run and maintain the setup when in use. This, I quickly learn, is a serious operation.
Can we have a go?
Visiting Ansible Motion, seeing the simulators close up and learning more from the man who created them is great – but seriously, can Badger have a go? Of course, and blimey, this is like nothing else I’ve ever done. Those theme park rides are fun – you get thrown about a bit – and those specialist sims are exciting too, but this is beyond the lot.
Once inside the cockpit, a feeling of claustrophobia is unavoidable and I quickly realise that everything I can see from all angles is virtual. Without even starting up the engine the feeling of immersion is instant. Once strapped in and shown where all the safety points are, it’s time to get going.
Throughout the whole experience you’re in radio communication with the control room, where they monitor everything you’re doing as a driver as well as how the virtual car is behaving in its virtual world.
To begin with I’m making wise-cracks to ease the nerves, but after some warm up laps and driving exercises on a skid pan, it all becomes very serious. I’m afraid of crashing, and paying more attention than you do on your driving test.
There are a brief few moments where I had to train my brain to not think about the fact that everything I am seeing and doing is virtual – but this messes with my head. Instead, I have to convince myself this is real – it’s the only way to carry on.
Before long I’m on-track and learning the braking points and racing lines. It quickly becomes fun, but I still have the fear of pushing too hard. A scrape with the barriers is enough to make me freak out. At the same time, nailing the hairpin and hugging the apex like it’s my favourite granny is so rewarding it’s untrue.
I could have continued all day such was the thrill of the experience; what Ansible have achieved is out of the this world and their thinking works. It’s exhausting, just as it would be in real life, but at the same time utterly thrilling. Kudos.
How does it work?
There are number of areas here. Firstly, the software – it’s the pro version of R-Factor, which has been built upon and customised for their needs. There’s the five projectors, each projecting an image onto the giant curved screen, giving a seamless, surrounding field of vision. Then there’s the ‘car’ which for our visit was setup as a NASCAR shell. These are essentially life-size replicas of the real thing, stripped down but with proper racing seats, steering wheel and dashboard. These are the simple bits. It all gets a bit more mind-boggling when looking beneath the cockpit at what I refer to as ‘the platform’.
Calling it a platform is probably offensive to the engineers behind it. In fact it’s far from anything resembling a platform – moving in 13 different directions on different planes of motion, it is so beautifully engineered that the lines between art and mechanics are completely blurred. It’s a sight to admire and if you know what you’re looking at you’ll be no doubt be as impressed, as Sam Collins from Racecar Engineering was when he joined us for this first look.
The multiple panes of motion are one thing, but unlike other more structure-based simulators, these recreate the motion of a car in the most lifelike fashion possible. The engineers aren’t just obsessed with the tech and mechanics – in fact the whole thinking of the design is born from an understanding of the human mind and how that is affected by motion and stimulation. To give an example, the central pivot of motion is not measured from the car, because that wouldn’t be realistic; instead it is measured relative to the position of the drivers head in the cockpit (which makes sense when you think about it).
There’s a plenty more to it which we’ll cover in follow-up article here on Badger GP. For now though, I’ll leave you with some more images of this incredible setup. Fancy one? You’ll need over £1,000,000 and a team of trained professionals to run and maintain it. Something to aspire to, right? Visit ansiblemotion.com for more details.