The Laws of Physics: Why SIM Racing Can Never Be as Hard as the Real Thing
“A mini car accident on every corner.” This is how nine-time Grand Prix winner Mark Webber describes the blows that the body of a driver takes at the wheel of a modern Formula 1.
Why? Physics. Take turn 13, the first part of the film from right to left on the pit straight, at the Gilles-Villeneuve circuit in Montreal, where Webber has finished in the top five in each of his last three races with Red Bull Racing. On each lap, he stepped on the brake pedal, applying 275 pounds of force through his left foot for a fraction of more than 2 seconds, to slow the car from 210 mph to 80 mph in just 400 feet. The rate of deceleration? About 5 g.
For your body, it’s like driving your car into a wall at 10 mph. At each turn. For 70 laps.
I thought about it while watching the 24 Hours of Le Mans Virtual on MotorTrend. This digital reinvention of one of the biggest motorsport events in the world was deeply impressive: 200 drivers, including Formula 1 world champions and Le Mans winners in 37 countries, and races of 50 virtual cars photo-real on a virtual photo-real reconstruction of the iconic 8.5-mile circuit of the Sarthe. They ran through a virtual night, managed virtual fuel consumption and virtual tire degradation. And when they had a virtual crash, they were practically out of the race.
The GTE class included virtual versions of the Chevy Corvette C7.R, the Ferrari 488GTE, the Aston Martin Vantage GTE and the Porsche 911 RSR. Meanwhile, the LMP-class cars were virtual representations of the French-built Oreca 07 LMP2 racer, which actually weighs 2,050 pounds and is powered by a naturally aspirated 4.2-liter V8 developing just over 600 horsepower. .
Overshadowed by the faster LMP1 prototypes and not as visually differentiated as the GTEs, real LMP2 cars have generally been viewed as an act of support for Le Mans. This year, however, they were the main event, and quite fascinating to watch. Although the same thing, the virtual Orecas were not identical. The software allowed racing engineers to modify suspension settings, support levels and gear ratios, just like on real cars. For engineers accustomed to configuring real cars, this was a unique challenge: they were optimizing over cleverly programmed software, not the more subtly capricious combinations of ambient temperature and wind direction and humidity in the real world. Despite this, it’s fair to say that in terms of machines, the LMP field of 30 cars was the closest ever equaled to start at Le Mans.
The biggest variable was therefore the drivers, which meant that it was possible to significantly compare the performance of the best SIM runners with the best real world drivers. The fastest SIM specialists were faster than the fastest pilots in the real world, with Finnish SIM runner Aleksi Uusi-Jaakkola completing a lap of 3: 23.672 at the end of the race, 1.9 seconds better than the best lap of Fernando Alonso. But the double F1 world champion should not yet hang up his helmet.
The race is a geometry of precision, at speed of distortion. You need intense concentration and heightened situational awareness, lightning fast reactions and calm control, concentration and confidence and commitment, to make sure your braking and steering inputs, your accelerator apps and your gear changes are constantly on the verge of almost the limit as you place your car on precisely the right side of the track. Round after round after round.
Now imagine doing it all by pulling 6g through a long, fast sweeper, holding your breath and contracting your heart like a fighter pilot, your head actually weighing 55 pounds, your internal organs all crushed to one side. Or by braking so hard, your tear ducts secrete and splash your visor. Meanwhile, temperatures in the cockpit exceed 130 degrees and cause you to lose up to 9 pounds of fluids during a race, reducing brain function by 40%. And do all this by ignoring the thoughts of a person’s fragile mortality if an action is performed incorrectly by a fraction of a second.
Make no mistake, the 24 Hours of Le Mans Virtual has shown that high-level SIM racing can be interesting and engaging. But it’s not nearly as difficult as the real thing. And never will be.
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