First Fang: Toyota’s F1 Simulator

Far from a glorified video game, Toyota's $10 million simulator plays a pivotal role in the race-winning speed of its latest endurance racing challenger

Toyota F1 simulator le mans

The triple-digit electronic speed display in front of me now begins with a '3'. Looking through the TS040 Hybrid's sliver of a windscreen, the dotted line in the centre of the road melds into a constant white ribbon, the trees and armco a greenish-silver blur in my peripheral vision.

A lap of Le Mans is 13.63km long, but I'm well over halfway and it's been clean so far.

Flash past the spot where Peter Dumbreck took flight in 1999 in a Mercedes-Benz CLR and ease the car right over the crest that follows. Brake hard for the fast right-hander approaching Indianapolis, hundreds of kilograms of downforce pressing the car into the road.

Down two gears, fly through the right-hander then stamp on the brakes again for the tight left. Two clicks of the left-hand paddle on the back of the steering wheel are each answered with a smooth flare of revs as the gearbox seamlessly drops from fourth to third to second.

Ease back on the power, feel the rear squirm as 1000bhp of combined petrol and electrical energy is transferred and rocket towards the slowest corner on the track, the sharp, first-gear right-hander called Arnage.

It should be a formality, but too much pressure on the brakes locks the rears and fires the TS040 head-first through the armco and into the pine trees beyond. Through my headphones, the heavily-accented voice of my French engineer says “Ok, I'll reset you now.”

Welcome to the ultimate driving simulator. Thankfully, attacking the fearsome Le Mans circuit in the virtual world prevents me from now owing Toyota several millions of dollars for destroying one of its TS040 Hybrid prototypes.

The simulator, situated at the headquarters of Toyota Motorsport GmbH (TMG) in Cologne, Germany, was originally developed for its Formula 1 program. It consists of an F1 monocoque, cut off at the front and rear, suspended by six hydraulic rams in front of a giant screen that wraps around your entire field of vision.

Construction was completed in 2007, but it took a full year of fine-tuning to ensure the sim was accurate enough to be a worthwhile development tool. Every track on the F1 calendar was laser-mapped to an accuracy of 10cm and a photographer accompanied the team to every race during 2008, walking the track and taking photos every few steps to capture any visual cues a driver might use.

“We found a lot of the visual cues are things like trees, or hot dog stands, things a driver remembers,” says TMG's marketing and communications manager, Alistair Moffitt. “If on the simulator [they aren't] there it's quite disturbing to them.”

Following Toyota's withdrawal from F1 in 2009, the subsequent announcement of its World Endurance Championship (WEC) required the car model and tracks be updated. The simulator is used before every race to establish a baseline set-up, and post-race to further refine the software.

“After each race, we get the drivers in and say “ok, you've just driven the car in reality on this track, now drive the simulator – where is it lacking?” It's also proved invaluable in allowing the drivers to practice the fuel-saving techniques vital for this year's efficiency-based WEC regulations.

About the only thing it doesn't replicate is tyre degradation; it is possible, but the sheer volume of data and complexity of the models required make it unfeasible.

Not all the drivers are a fan of virtual testing. Alexander Wurz does only what he needs to, but Toyota's younger hot-shots – Kazuki Nakajima, Sebastien Buemi and Anthony Davidson – feel there are advantages to be gained in the digital realm.

To provide a reference point, we're shown a recording from when Nakajima was last in the simulator. As you'd expect, the lap looks extremely fast, the 'car' dancing around through third- and fourth-gear corners, but it looks more or less like an onboard replay from Gran Turismo.

Squeezing into the carbon monocoque, though, dispels any notion that this will be anything like a conventional driving sim. Being slim and not too tall (180cm), I fit reasonably easily, but it's certainly not what you'd call spacious.

Imagine you're halfway through a sit-up and you're pretty close to visualising the driving position. There is no padding, so my tailbone is digging hard into the floor – I sheepishly ask for a cushion.

Digital readouts – speed, rpm, gear number – flash into life as the steering wheel slides onto its splines. A precise copy of that fitted to the actual race car, on its face are buttons for radio, drinks bottle, neutral, and eight rotary dials that adjust max engine rpm, the level of energy recovery, brake balance and three separate traction control systems. Unsurprisingly, they're not to be touched.

On the back of the wheel are four paddles; the top-most ones are conventional gearshift paddles, while in the race car the bottom ones flash the high-beam lights, crucial in getting slower traffic out of the way as quickly as possible.

However, as there is no room in an F1 cockpit for a third pedal, in the sim the lower-left paddle operates the hand clutch, which turns out to be about as easy to operate as the SuperHadron Collider.

Even with the luxury of being able to bounce off the rev limiter without fear of frying the clutch, getting the TS040 moving proves virtually impossible, the slightest wrong move with clutch or throttle triggering the anti-stall program and leaving you crawling along impotently at about 5km/h. Thankfully, more by luck than anything, it finally bites and we're underway.

Despite knowing which way the track goes and an engineer talking me through the lap, initial progress is embarrassingly erratic, as the controls feel horribly unfamiliar at first. The throttle moves freely but the ultra-quick steering is heavy and the brake pedal is rock hard; it feels like you're simply pushing against the monocoque.

Too little brake pressure and you spear into a gravel trap; too much and you lock-up and spear into a wall. Frustrating doesn't begin to cover it, and with only 15 minutes to play with, I'm desperate to do at least one full lap.

Slowly but surely it starts to come together. With familiarity, the controls that initially felt so cumbersome begin to make a lot of sense, as every tiny adjustment with the brakes, throttle and steering is responded to instantly. It may only be a computer simulation, but there's still a real sense of achievement in getting into a rhythm and stringing a few corners together.

It's on a completely different level to even hardcore driving sims like iRacing, probably because there is several million dollars' worth of hydraulic rig underneath you replicating the car's movements.

About the only thing missing is the g-force, which is just as well given some of the accidents that have occurred today. According to Moffitt, Red Bull Racing's simulator does replicate g-force, and apparently Jean-Eric Vergne was knocked unconscious when one of his virtual accidents became disturbingly real.

The end result of two clean laps was a 3:43.8, a bit over 20 seconds slower than the race drivers. Of course, the pros can do those lap times while evaluating the latest parts and tweaking the car set-up.

And then go out and drive the lap time for real to within a few tenths of a second. Aspiring racers can spend a day in the simulator for E4000 which, having had an all-too-brief taste, doesn't sound all that crazy. Can I have a go in the real one now, please?


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