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 what the system can offer the public.
“Racing’s got to change – the age of just watching it on the television is dead,” says Puretech creative director Tim Ball as he introduces his company’s system of ultra-realistic networked race simulators. “But we don’t want to replace it – we want to enhance it.”
It’s this drive to de-mystify the sometimes closed world of motorsport that makes what Puretech is trying to do more interesting than just a fun afternoon playing at race drivers with your mates.
Fun is certainly on offer. A network of 10 simulators, each with three screens and a race-style cockpit that moves around with giddying realism, and an experience true enough to life for the professionals to use for real-life preparation.
But that could just be the start. If the company’s admittedly ambitious plans come to fruition, the Gatwick centre will be just the first of many.
Leagues will form at each centre, with remote networking allowing the best drivers from across the country to compete against each other while their supporters watch the action on big screens and cheer them on.
Customers will make their own carbon fibre steering wheels, change their car set-ups online from home and use them at whichever centre they happen to be nearest to, and design their own custom helmet and car liveries.
And the best of them – those who reveal a previously-unsuspected talent for the sport – will find themselves head-hunted by Puretech to show their abilities in a real-life racing car for the company’s proposed real-life racing team.
“Race drivers take to it like a duck to water,” said Ball. “But our plan is also to use this to pick out young drivers. We are racing in a real competition so it is real racing. You get the same adrenaline surge, the same competitive instincts.”
Right now, that remains a distant ambition. All there is to offer is one centre with ten simulators. But can an ordinary member of the public really match the professionals? Centre manager Nick Dunn says it’s already happened.
He says one thing that has really intrigued him about the launch is how, within the limits of the set-up that the simulator is currently operating, he has seen a member of the public match a benchmark set by a highly-regarded current GP2 driver.
He said: “Now, you can say that they cut the chicane or whatever, but that is testable – and they didn’t. We could certainly test to see if that time could be reproduced. And, if it could, then it starts off a train of thought.
“We could give them racing instruction in the simulator then work towards putting them in actual racing cars in the future.”
It’s important to stress that this is very much a possibility rather than a definite plan – one of the many directions that Puretech could develop in. But if it did come to pass Dunn reckons it might result in an entry into a series such as Formula Renault UK using drivers identified and prepared through the simulator network.
So, with the worlds of virtual reality and the race track potentially running on convergent paths, what does the company have to offer the would-be racing driver, whether they are looking simply for fun or for more intense involvement?
When the public arrives at Puretech it is Dunn’s job to make them welcome and ensure their experience is as realistic as possible.
“Think of me as the team principal,” he tells us as he takes a brief break from an exhausting 24 hours preparing the centre for its opening, participating in the demonstration race against GP2, GP3 and Formula Renault 3.5 drivers, and then shepherding hordes of participants including the local mayor through their first simulator experience.
“The race instructors are the pit crew and engineers. It is the complete personalised experience – we will make people feel that little bit special. When they get in the car I want them to feel that it is their car and they will be the first and last people to drive it.”
Heaven knows, the grizzled veterans of long queues, heavily-guarded turnstiles, burger vans and bum-numbing plastic grandstand seats under rain-filled skies would certainly welcome a bit of VIP treatment and the congenial surroundings of the in-house cafe we are presently sitting in.
Dunn describes how Puretech cast a wide net when deciding on its pricing with the management team considering other forms of experience such as track days and karting. And he adds what other members of the company have told us – that a major ambition is to open up the world of racing to as wide an audience as possible.
“There is such a veil between the pitlane and the people that are paying their wages. And there is not enough racing in motorsport. Saving the engine and gearbox for the next race – what is that about?
“The platforms can be whatever you want. It is a serious training tool and we get the settings as realistic as we can. We are always looking at ways to refine it and make it even more realistic.”
The Gatwick centre has all the things you would expect to find, such as arrive-and-drive packages and corporate hospitality. But the bit of the scheme that clearly interests its founders the most is the membership concept.
This would allow a community to form around each centre with members setting up teams, participating in leagues and competitions and able to qualify for different levels of licence. They could also log in and access their own unique race data and car set-up remotely on the internet for use at any of the company’s centres.
Dunn is also hoping to offer perks like factory visits, talks from engineers and drivers or even the chance to manufacture a personalised steering wheel or seat inset in BRD’s in-house carbon fibre composite shop.
“This is a level of experience that is only available elsewhere if you are in a position to get involved in club racing. As for changing the car livery or adding a custom helmet design, that is something that our graphics will allow us to do very easily.”
Like any business, Puretech will have to grow at a sustainable level if it is to succeed with its bigger plans, a process that will undoubtedly take time.
But, with the stated aims of redefining racing, solving motorsports inaccessibility problems and creating a new sport, this ambitious project offers the potential to redefine the way we relate to the sport.
We’ll be watching with interest to see how they get on.