Gentlemen (and lady): Start your engines

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#ChallengeCompleted: F1 Race Simulator

When? Sunday 12th February

Nominated by: Jon

This Challenge was right up my race track. Appealing Big Time to both the petrolhead and the F1 fan within me, the opportunity to ‘drive’ a Formula One car round a Grand Prix circuit was super-exciting.

I was under no illusions I’d beat Jon, my Challenger; he does a lot of karting and, by all accounts, is pretty handy round a race track. It’s also been a long time since I’ve put pedal to the metal in gritted determination. Mike, a fellow F1 fan and also a karter, was joining us and I fully expected to be beaten by him too, although I at least hoped I might give both boys a run for their money.

We went first into a briefing room to learn how to get comfortable in the cockpit and adjust the pedals (there are only two; no clutch. I’d rapidly have to learn left-foot braking). We were shown how to attach and remove the steering wheel, what the various buttons on the wheel did (I was relieved it wasn’t covered in buttons and switches like Lewis Hamilton’s is – there were only four, three of which I probably wouldn’t even need), and how to change gear – flick the paddle on the right to change up and the paddle on the left to shift down.

Hungary for success?

The facility offers all the current Grand Prix circuits; we’d be driving Hungary’s Hungaroring, a twisting circuit with only one real straight. This, we were told, is a ‘middling’ circuit: not overly difficult for the first-timer to get to grips with, but still offering challenges for more experienced racers.

I know the Hungaroring. Well I say ‘know’; I could probably have picked it out of a circuit line-up. When the lap diagram came up on the screen in the briefing room, yes: I recognised it. I also knew each and every one of those corners  would come as a surprise as I drove round…

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I was actually quite nervous as we entered the Race Room. Ten F1-esque monocoques lined up across two rows; no wheels, noses or wings but realistic enough nonetheless. Each car had three wraparound display screens. Getting in was a lot easier than I imagine it is squeezing into a ‘real’ F1 car and I virtually disappeared as I submarined into the cockpit. I’m not tall and the virtually supine driving position left my head all but completely below the rim. Surprisingly, it didn’t bother me nearly as much as I thought it would. I guess I’d have felt differently in a ‘real’ car on a real circuit.

We now had a 15-minute qualifying session, then a short break to receive personal telemetry that would potentially help us see where we could improve our performance. Then we’d be back for a 30-minute race.

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My heart was thumping as the lights dimmed and qualifying was go, go, GO! Cars streamed past my garage as I flicked into first and gingerly pressed the throttle, hoping nothing else was coming as I joined the pitlane. Safe! Changing gears seemed straightforward enough; I even remembered (eventually) to deactivate the speed limiter as I joined the track. Tentatively I approached the hairpin. The brakes were super-sharp so not only had I braked far too early, I virtually stopped before getting off the brakes and navigating the corner, past several cars already scattered in the gravel traps pointing in various directions.

Before I had time to be smug I’d joined them. I’d spun. Someone hit me (or did I hit them? It was all a bit of a blur, really) and I barrel-rolled (thankfully the simulator was limited to vibration only), ending up nose-on into the barrier. Where’s reverse? How the heck do I get back on to the track? Where even is the track? I spent a good while repeatedly crashing into the barrier and spinning in an attempt to get going before the computer apparently took pity on me and put me back in my garage to start again…

This time there were no cars to hit/be hit by, so I successfully (eventually) got round the first corner. From now on I didn’t have a clue what bends were coming next. Sometimes there were boards counting down to the corner, which helped. Sometimes I was in a corner – or, more accurately, the gravel the other side of it – before I’d realised. I did find a lot of gravel traps.

Fifteen minutes flew by. I was learning nothing about the track but had become proficient at driving through gravel traps. I was also good at selecting neutral or reverse at inopportune moments. I kept missing gears by not pulling on the paddles strongly enough. Hey, I could at least brake hard with my left foot!

Seventh heaven?

I managed a feeble five laps, with a best time of 2:07.475. To be fair, three other drivers also only managed five laps, the rest doing six. And that said, if the fastest lap was a 1:40.690 he must have had some serious ‘offs’ if he was that much faster yet only managed one more lap in the 15 minutes!

I’d qualified seventh. Out of seven. On the plus side I was the fastest girl. I’m taking that.

The most useful thing I learned from my telemetry was that there are, in fact, eight gears. For some reason I thought there were only six so I’d stopped upshifting at that point. I also saw my braking was either fully on or fully off. Is that a bad thing? I didn’t appear to have completely floored the accelerator at any point – I could certainly resolve that. At least my telemetry implied I was roughly accelerating and braking in the right places. And while I’m sure not one of my five laps was free of some kind of excursion/spin/crash, I don’t think it’s obvious where I struggled. Other than, erm, everywhere…

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Blue line represents me; red line represents the fastest lap set

The break was swift. Quickly we were back in our cars, lined up on the grid. My tactics were obvious: hang back and let everyone crash on the first corner, then tiptoe through the debris and hang on…

Lights out! I hesitated… but quickly realised the car in front (Mike) was going really slowly so I floored it – passing him and a further car (two cars?) as we headed into the hairpin. Hey, I can DO this! Predictably, the exit of the hairpin was carnage; cars off all over the place. Equally predictably, I joined them in the gravel…

The race was long. At one point it got quite dark and ‘rained’. Should that make a difference? Should I go slower? Brake earlier? One thing I shouldn’t have done was put a wheel on the grass as I floored it down the straight; instant spin and crash. Doh!

Sometimes I came up on another car (usually recovering from an incident). Sometimes I even drove past it… but I was re-lapped pretty quickly.

I never did manage a clean lap. The most frustrating moments were when I was actually going quite well, then simply bashed from behind or barged off the side. Yes, I swore out loud on more than one occasion.

The hardest part was the lack of any impression of speed or deceleration beyond the visual display. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t looking to experience the incredible G-forces F1 drivers endure, but only the onscreen speedo and selected gear display gave any real indication of what was happening in terms of traction. I’m also thankful that virtual tyres are apparently a great deal more resilient than Hamilton and co’s Pirellis, because I appeared to spin my wheels a lot, mainly by being in the wrong gear and using too much throttle.

Steering was tough on my arms – especially when trying to manoeuvre back onto the circuit. I felt a small kick every time I changed gear and there was a definite bump when I hit the barrier and a jolt when I went over the kerbs, but nothing even approaching uncomfortable, let alone painful. I certainly wasn’t experiencing the physical thrill of F1 driving, although the adrenaline rush was definitely there.

I was almost relieved when the half-hour race finished as I was starting to get frustrated at my lack of progress. But I was disappointed it was exactly on the 30-minute mark that my display suddenly cleared; I didn’t even get to finish my lap and take the chequered flag.

Scores on the doors

So how did I get on? Sixth. Yes, I beat Mike. There was a good reason for that, but I’ll spare (more of) his blushes on that one. I’d managed 11 laps, finishing three behind the winner – my Challenger, Jon. On the positive side, I had improved my lap time by a whopping seven seconds. Not many F1 drivers find that much speed between qualifying and the race!

That said, I don’t think Lewis Hamilton – let alone the back of the grid – have much to worry about… Hey, I finished the day the fastest girl. I’m taking that.

 

 

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