How racing simulators are helping IndyCar drivers rule the road

IndyCar icons share their thoughts on the evolving technology of virtual racing.

By Paul Biedrzycki on September 22, 2015

As with most sports, IndyCar races can be won or lost by the amount of team preparation. The more time on spent on track — allowing engineers to hone the setup of the car, and the driver to learn the circuit and find the ideal line — can lead to a higher success rate come race day. However, given the hectic schedules of the IndyCar season and the cost of renting a track for testing (around $40k per day), it’s just not feasible or cost-effective for teams to rely solely on real-world testing. Enter simulation technology, which has grown by leaps and bounds in the past few years. Teams are employing virtual driving to test new designs and develop the skills of their drivers, all at a fraction of the cost, and without the obvious physical hazards, of real-world driving.

Although driving simulators have existed in some form since the 1950s, their evolution, until recently, has been a relatively slow process limited by the technology at hand. The gap between the hypothetical and real has been comical in some instances; racing legend Mario Andretti remembers purposely crashing while testing an early simulation of the Indianapolis Speedway, and says he ended up “upside down and stuck in the grandstands, looking down on 16th Street. I asked the engineers, ‘did I die and am looking down from heaven?’” What Andretti found probably wasn’t a digitized hereafter, but a computer glitch.  

“Tracks are scanned with lasers down to the millimeter, giving the computer models all the bumps, cracks and imperfections of their real-world counterparts.”

Hiccups aside, Andretti sees the value of driving simulators. “You have to be as critical as possible about it,” he says. “Don’t just accept [it] because it’s there and be wowed by the technology, but let’s make it real.” Indeed, input from drivers of Andretti’s stature has provided crucial insight to guide the continuing development of the technology. Known as a driver who could find speed in any car and on any track, Andretti pointed out to engineers after those sessions that their rendering of the iconic track lacked a “groove” — the worn-in path that drivers look for, and that drivers like Andretti have a sense for.

Driving a race car is as much an art as it is a science, and having feedback from the sport’s Picasso pushed engineers and programmers to strive for nuanced and granular detail. Nowadays, tracks are scanned with lasers down to the millimeter, giving the computer models all the bumps, cracks and imperfections of their real-world counterparts.

Stefano de Ponti, CEO and General Manager of Dallara, a company that manufacturers race car bodies and operates a highly-advanced simulator at its facility just outside the Indianapolis Speedway (it also has an identical one at the Ferrari factory in Maranello, Italy), maintains that simulators, no matter how advanced they become, are simply tools, and their effectiveness depends on how teams use them. “If you go to a simulator just to verify, I think it’s the wrong approach,” he says. “You want to go into a simulator with ideas.”

The flexibility to change things on the car with the press of a key (that in the real world might require, at least, a trip back to the garage that would burn up precious rented track time) means that teams are able to take bigger and more ambitious swings at design challenges and explore unconventional setups. A miscalculation at the track can lead to costly and/or dangerous results, but on the simulator, engineers can be a little more brave; if something doesn’t work they can hit reset and try again

It’s not all play though, and de Ponti is quick to remind that simulators “aren’t video games… they are professional-level tools to verify and study concepts, even before realizing designs that are eventually made into race cars. Simulation is the future, as it adds the human into the design feedback loop,” he says. “With everything in racing, there is an evolution, a development, and this is just one of them and is part of our larger vehicle dynamic activity, along with aerodynamics and designing composite and carbon fiber materials.”

Although a piece of a much larger puzzle, simulation is having a profound impact on making race cars better. For a new generation of drivers, such as Andretti Autosport driver and 2014 Indianapolis 500 winner Ryan Hunter-Reay, it’s also given drivers a boost. “From a driver’s perspective, the most significant advantage is circuit familiarization,” Hunter-Reay says. “Without ever having visited a circuit that is new to a driver, he or she can arrive for first practice and be right on the pace with very little time needed to learn the circuit on the race weekend,” he adds.

However, echoing Andretti, Hunter-Reay points out that there is still some work to be done to 100% faithfully replicate the on-track experience. “The biggest drawback is the lack of sustained g-forces,” Hunter-Reay says. “This is how a driver interprets grip, which is ultimately what you are searching for. The more grip, the faster you go. We do experience an initial g-force, but the force is not sustained, so the feeling we cue off in the simulator is much different than what we key off in the race car.”

Like virtual reality technologies in other industries (medical and manufacturing, for instance), simulation has given the IndyCar community an increasingly powerful and cost-effective tool. But just as it is in the world away from the track, there’s still a lot of work to be done, and its effectiveness will be determined by how it meshes into everyday practice — in racing terms, where the rubber meets the road.

Paul Biedrzycki covers automobiles for such magazines as DuJour, where he is a contributing writer.

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