Simulating success: The giant video game that trains F1 world champions

Story highlights

Driving simulators are used improve cars and drivers

F1 hopeful Pierre Gasly spends 30 days on the simulator during the year

CNN  — 

It’s no secret that Formula One stars like to flex their racing muscles by playing computer games.

World champion Lewis Hamilton and his younger brother Nicolas grew up racing each other on a virtual track while the sport’s youngest winner, Max Verstappen, reckons gaming has helped hone his overtaking.

Behind the doors of Red Bull Racing’s team headquarters, a secret machine sits in a dark room before blinking into life like a giant computer game.

Meter-high screens wrap 180 degrees around a cockpit raised on a moving platform. When the driver squeezes into position he cannot see the edge of the screen around him as he is plunged into a virtual world.

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This is the Red Bull simulator which only serious competitors can apply to drive.

“It is a simulator but the feeling is really close to the feelings we get in an F1 car,” the team’s development driver Pierre Gasly tells CNN’s The Circuit.

“We can’t compare this to a PlayStation game. It is so close to reality that you can’t make the comparison. It’s high technology.”

‘Rhythm of racing’

Red Bull Racing’s driver simulator has to be closer to reality than a video game because it plays a crucial part in the team’s success, which includes winning consecutive team and driver world titles between 2010 and 2013.

What looks like a giant computer game is, in fact, a very sophisticated tool vital to the development of the F1 car as well as the drivers.

There are around 50 members of the Red Bull team who work together to make sure the simulator is as close to its real race car as possible.

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In 2016, the teams had just two four-day preseason tests, as well as two-day tests in Spain and Great Britain during the season, to try out new parts.

“Simulator work is really important because testing is limited,” explains Gasly, who impressed when he drove a Toro Rosso at May’s test in Barcelona.

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“It’s important for the team to be able to test and that’s why we do a lot of development work in the simulator, testing different aerodynamic pieces on the car, for example.”

The lack of track time means the drivers spend less time behind the wheel too. F1 is a peculiar sport where its stars can’t just practice when they feel like it.

Most F1 racers, however, will come into each team’s headquarters in between grands prix to tune up for the next race on the simulator.

Read: Verstappen becomes F1’s youngest winner

“It’s great for us to get used to the track,” adds Gasly, who is racing in the 2016 GP2 championship, which appears on the under card at 11 F1 races.

“It’s good to get into the rhythm of racing to get back on your marks, your braking points and the racing lines.

“I spend around 30 days in the simulator a year. It’s half work for the team testing components and then half getting ourselves ready in terms of driving.”

As Gasly prepares for another stint in the stimulator, he makes sure he climbs into the cockpit from the left hand side.

“I always get in from the left,” smiles Gasly, proving superstitious ritual also applies to animated cars.

When the machine hums into action, the cockpit rises gracefully up into the air and begins to swing left and right as the Frenchman steers his way through a virtual world.

“It’s less physically demanding than an F1 car,” the 20-year-old explains. “But needs more mental focus.”

There are stories that simulators can make some drivers queasy – though you might be hard pushed to get any of F1’s stars to admit to not having the stomach for it.

‘I want to be in F1’

“I’ve been talking to Max and Daniel (Ricciardo) and everyone has always felt pretty good and hasn’t had any issues,” Gasly reveals.

“But I do remember in past years some of my teammates in lower series tried some strange simulators and some of them almost threw up after a session.”

Gasly was teammates with Verstappen in his karting days and the Frenchman is hoping to follow his former rival onto the F1 grid next season.

The 18-year-old’s sudden promotion to Red Bull could mean there is an opening with sister team Toro Rosso in 2017.

“It’s clear that I want to be in F1 next year,” says Gasly. “I need to focus on this season and then after that we’ll see what (Red Bull consultant) Helmut Marko will say for next year.”

Until he gets his hands on the steering wheel of an F1 car full-time, there is work to be done in a secret simulated world at Red Bull HQ.

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