The State of Simulation in Motorsport

Author : smacdon
Version 1.00.03
Published Date: 09/01/2009
Reads : 3608

by Greg Pachman; Sean MacDonald; Sean Yoder

Training with simulation is growing into an accepted, and in some cases required, addition to both driver and team testing regimen. This being the case, why isn't simulation a more widely accepted form of motorsport training?
It is only logical to look at the evolution of “Sim Racing” over the last decade and compare it to flight simulation. Flight Sims have been around for over sixty years starting with the Link trainers in WWII. Anyone who is interested, and professionally involved, with both flying and racing can't help but compare the two pursuits and the position of simulators in both. Aviation based simulation has a huge head start over Motorsport Sims in dollars spent, years of development, and acceptance by it’s target audience as the preferred training platform for the genre. It doesn't hurt, even this early in the game, to examine that issue in an effort to figure out why that is and if that should have any bearing on how future driving simulators are developed. While it isn't realistic to think that the two should be on equal footing at this stage there are several comparisons to be made. The up side to aviation’s current lead in both technology and acceptance with regard to simulation based training, when looking at both driver and team development, is that there are several areas that the motorsport industry can adapt available proven technology used in aviation simulation.

There is no argument that simulation is a completely accepted form of training in the aviation world. The easiest example is their use in the airline industry and the near complete elimination of actual flights in their training programs. The airline industry does all of its upgrade training in simulators. The only real flight training a prospective student gets is their initial operating experience at the end of training which is a single flight, with actual passengers, and a check pilot. While airline pilots usually have a fair amount of flight experience when they are hired it is pretty incredible (and totally accepted) that everything you need to know to fly an airliner is learned in a simulator.

With that in mind, why is the motorsport industry so far behind when it comes to simulation? Perhaps there are mechanical as well as cultural reasons for this. Let's examine a couple of possibilities.

The technology to produce hardware (motion cockpit, steering wheel and pedals) coupled with software and processing power robust enough to replicate driving a vehicle in a race scenario until recently has fallen far short from the goal of giving the end user the feeling of driving at the limit of adhesion. This incorporates both the seat of pants feel as well as the tactile feel of both the pedal and wheel system. Until recently aviation based simulation technology provided a much more immersive simulation experience than motorsport, but that gap has been closed considerably in the last three to five years.

Aviation simulations have a constant medium - air. Air is the same whether it is over Moscow or Cleveland. The surface that acts on the flight controls is mostly fluid and mainly constant. Race tracks, on the other hand, are made from a wide variety of surfaces and even different compositions within the same surface (such as different grades of asphalt, debris built up off the racing line and variations caused by weather to name just a few). Moreover, there are a wide variety of tire compounds available and they have a similar influence on the realism contained in the model.

Perhaps the single biggest challenge facing the makers of motorsport physics engines and the hardware used to transfer the software’s outputs into the driver’s hands is how realistically they can portray the action of four independent tires simultaneously to an almost infinite number of potential surface scenarios. The processing power required to calculate the reactions of four tires to the particular patch of ground they are traveling over along with parameters such as tire temperature, contact patch deformation, sidewall deflection, temperature and inflation along with drive train, suspension, steering and aerodynamic calculations all performed at anywhere from one hundred to eight hundred times per second were simply not possible on anything short of a supercomputer ten years ago. In 2009 however, the ability for developers to bridge the gap between what happens on a race circuit in the real world and what happens in the cockpit of a simulator is becoming so close that teams all over the planet are augmenting their real world test time with simulation training for not only the drivers, but the engineers and crews as well.

Another concern has always been the control systems. The feel of air over flight controls is relatively constant until the vicinity of stall. In some smaller aircraft, control forces change with airspeed and with the current generation of physics modeling this can be translated from the software to the simulator relatively easily with regard to airplane flight. In a lot of cases the physics engine does not even have to replicate in exact detail the way a certain type of airplane utilizes the air over the wings in order to maintain a high overall quality of training. In many cases flight training is about procedure over ultimate feel and simulators have been able to replicate procedure with complete detail for many years now. In motorsport based driver training the feeling of the contact patch through the wheel, pedals, and seat is crucial in being able to train for driving at the limits of adhesion. In addition to feeling what each tire is doing at all times, a true racing simulator has to give the driver a feeling of being connected to whatever it is they may be in the cockpit of along with the surface they are traveling over. The feeling of being “connected” to the car has gotten exponentially better over the last decade with the onset of force feedback technology for not only the steering but pedals as well. When a high end control set is coupled to a motorsport oriented motion simulator incorporating proper motion queuing along with various psycho acoustic elements the overall effect can be extremely powerful. When all of these aspects are combined in the correct way the experience of merely driving around to learn a particular circuit is transformed into a tool that can unlock subtle elements of car control and race craft.

Next we will address the issue of proper display systems. In regular flight training the only action that takes place in close proximity to the ground is take-off and landing and even those are not frequently practiced in anything less than an airline simulator. In the racing environment everything happens in close proximity to objects, other cars, the edge of the track, etc and that requires the ability to judge speed and distance accurately. Being able to effectively recreate this environment in a simulation requires a visual system that allows for good peripheral vision and depth perception. Building a simulator that incorporates display technology with the ability to recreate realistic peripheral areas as well as the element of depth is now becoming more feasible. Until recently recreating the racing environment graphically in detail enough to truly immerse even the most experienced driver required massive computational power. Today incredible visuals along with multi panel displays can be utilized to bring the end user directly in to the circuit or vehicle they are training with. These results are now achievable utilizing higher end PC’s containing current generation multi core processors and powerful graphics processors.

Lastly we will look at a couple of cultural differences between the two fields. The first is the goal of the training itself. Aviation training is used to produce skilled, safe, pilots as it is not typically a competitive industry like motorsport. If the goal of the motorsport industry was to create drivers who can start a race car, drive it carefully around the track without crashing, and return it to the pits that would have been possible to achieve twenty plus years ago. That, in effect is what the aviation industry does. There are competitive forms of flying; air racing, aerobatics, and air-to-air combat. The first two use simulators in a limited capacity while, even with huge budgets, the military does very little simulator training on actual air-to-air combat training. Most military simulation concerns basic aircraft flying skills and some tactical applications such as air-to ground combat. Flight training with simulation has been the standard for so long, there is no pilot either professional or recreational that has not been exposed to what simulation can bring to their level of proficiency in the cockpit. This exposure over the last sixty years has lead the flight industry to look to and expect high levels of return in their training programs. The other side of the coin sees simulation as a very new technology within motorsport. The newness can sometimes be interpreted by those that have been around racing for extended periods of time as just another expense that does not need to be taken into consideration. However, with the next generation of drivers, engineers and teams climbing the ladder to the professional ranks simulation is not just something to be looked at as a means to learn a particular circuit and move on. We are seeing a renaissance of sorts in the paddocks and homes of drivers and teams around the world. The influx of younger talent that has grown up in a world of computers and gaming means that simulation technology is no longer looked at as a foreign entity, but a useful addition to the teams training regimen.

Technology continues to expand at an exponential pace. Every day opens up another opportunity for us to incorporate the latest developments into simulation and give the end user what they truly want in their simulation experience. Complete immersion is the goal and the envelope continues to be pushed.