On Wednesday Brits on Pole was invited to attend the public launch of Puretech Racing’s ambitious plans to create a new sport – networked simulator racing. From their first centre near Gatwick Airport, with 10 industry-spec machines, they hope to expand and make motorsport accessible to everyone by fusing high technology with, eventually, a real-world racing team. Here, we look at the technology behind the system, and why it works for professional drivers.
If Puretech is to succeed in its ambition of inventing the new sport of competitive simulator racing, it’s essential that the technology matches the company’s ambition.
After all, racing sims have been a staple of computer gaming since the days of the ZX Spectrum and BBC Micro, while the bigger amusement arcades have had moving car-like machines to sit in for almost as long.
And the home-based racer of today can make a choice that ranges from the X-Box to iRacing, with specialist gamers’ chairs that offer surround sound and vibration feedback.
Against this, Puretech offers not just a social activity, in a centre with a cafe and big screens to watch the action as your friends or workmates compete. It also offers a system used by professional racing teams, made accessible to amateurs.
The accuracy of the system means teams can use the simulator for tasks like driver and engineer training, circuit familiarisation, testing and evaluating set-ups in advance of a race weekend when track time is at a premium and everyone is under pressure.
Among those who have used it is ex-Formula Renault UK champion Duncan Tappy, who prepared for the Auto GP season opener at Brno in the Czech Republic with it. And the launch at Puretech’s Gatwick HQ attracted a mix of GP2, GP3 and Formula Renault 3.5 drivers, involved either as individuals or through their teams, who took part in a demonstration race.
Dean Smith, current holder of the McLaren Autosport BRDC young driver award and a competitor in this year’s GP3 series, said it would be useful in helping him prepare for the forthcoming Istanbul races: “I’ve never been on it before today, so I’m learning about the graphics and the car – but it’s really good. The car moves around and it’s quite realistic, which is good.
“As graphics go on and on improving, these cars will be used more for professional drivers where they will help learn tracks. In our race weekends you get half an hour for practice and half an hour for qualifying, and you’ve got to get it right as well as getting the set-up on the car. It’s a lot to ask.”
GP2 driver Max Chilton added: “It’s good fun – we all had a good time on there. For the general public it’s going to be a complete blast – they’re going to feel like they’re getting into a Formula One car, which money can’t buy. For a race driver it’s really useful – when they get their professional F1 simulator up and running, that’s going to be a bonus for us.”
But Puretech is not only about what BRD’s simulation technology can do for drivers. Creative director Tim Ball aspires to demystify motorsport and make it accessible to as wide an audience as possible.
With that in mind, he is very happy to see the Puretech project at the point where the Gatwick centre can welcome the public: “I am looking forward to the day when people like myself can participate in racing as a sport.”
He says the project “has been years and years in the making” after his own love of racing and desire to be a competitive driver was thwarted due to lack of money or family connections.
Instead he indulged his interest by building a racing steering wheel as a game controller: “I got my racing fix that way. Then my father was made redundant and he saw that it was a good business idea.”
The result was the GP500 steering wheel and pedal control system which added a whole new dimension to gaming realism.
Ball Racing Developments was born and went on over the next decade and a half to develop and supply simulator training and engineering solutions to a wide variety of open-wheel and tintop racing teams. These days its partners include familiar names like iSport, Carlin and DAMS.
The company had always wanted to run its own race team and, in 2007, teamBRD made a mid-season entry into the 2007 Formula BMW UK Championship. Rookie driver Tom Gladdis, who had trained on a BRD simulator, finished in the top 10 at the fourth race weekend at Brands Hatch.
When, in 2008, Formula BMW became a European F1 support event the company decided it had gathered sufficient data for the time being and did not continue with the competition. According to its website, “shortly after BRD began work with a leading F1 team to develop its ‘Driver in the Loop’ simulator system.”
But the company is keen to operate its race team again and sees the Puretech project as a way of achieving that ambition, possibly by identifying talented individuals who have not previously had opportunities to develop racing skills.
Ball puts the success of BRD’s simulation technology down to its technical underpinnings, which differ from the commonly-used solution. He said: “We use a platform with three degrees of freedom instead of six.
“The hexapod system with six actuators adds a delay which disengages you. There can also be an issue with motion sickness. This platform is totally immersive.
“Full forward, left or right, no one action slows another action down. We can run it much more quickly, it is a better simulation of a single-seater.”
And simulating an open-wheel race car is not the only area where Ball and his colleagues have been putting their engineering expertise to work. The company has also used an innovative system to collect scans of tracks.
It uses a patented laser scanning method to map roads or tracks by collecting a cloud of data points to create a model that, according to its website, is accurate to 2mm. “We scanned our first track in 2001 when Rockingham opened.
“With this method you can feel every bump and it is pretty cool. We are now working on developing a much more detailed suspension set-up and this year we will be collecting a lot of additional track data.”