A sunny afternoon in the Eifel. I was on the Nürburgring Nordschliefe, a coil of unforgiving racetrack wrapped around the castle of Nürburg in the Rhineland Palatinate.
Jackie Stewart had christened it the “Green Hell” in far less cosseted times, when race drivers risked their lives on every lap. The name has stuck, perhaps because it describes the psychological as well as physical experience of driving it. A sense of foreboding unspools itself as fast as the pleasure of hurtling through its seductive turns and undulations. You know that somewhere in the serpentine complexity is a set of fangs.
I’m flying into Flugplatz, my ears full of metallic engine roar. The car loads up as I crest a rise – a lethal catapult for the unwary – before a gentle hustle into the broad right turn, full throttle, carried down the long curve towards Schwedenkreuz. The wheel squirrels gently as the tyres translate a universe of forces into the cockpit up through the steering rack, through the seat, into my body. Messages flash back into my consciousness – steady brake after the rise, feed it round, use the grip, watch the understeer, Aremberg next– but then a red speck in the rear view catches my attention for a moment. My reactions to my mistake come a split second too late.
I know two things now. The first is that the red speck is the Alfa Romeo I’d passed on the pit straight. The second is what is coming – a short, sharp lesson in cause and effect. I feel the lively mass of the rear lurch out. The tyres slip. I correct with my wheel, but the physical forces acting on the car are quicker than me, more brutal, unthinking, intent. I am whipped off the asphalt.
As I wait for the impact, I think of the costs. A very expensive BMW GT car. A very large section of Armco barrier. And the great unknown of what is going to happen to me.
I was, in a sense, lucky. The car survived largely unscathed. And the barrier was unblemished. But my injuries were significant. In particular, I’d sustained a critical wound to my pride, as Phil exploded with laughter in the control room behind me. Because I wasn’t actually at the Nürburgring on a beautiful autumn afternoon. Nowhere near. My venomous expletives were in fact bouncing off the walls of the driving chamber at GTS RS, one of the UK’s best professional driving simulators tucked away on a very scenic industrial estate just north of Heathrow Airport.
You’d be forgiven for missing GTS RS. We only found it on seeing a coiffured, sweating Mediterranean racing driver stumbling out of the front door clutching a pair of lime green racing boots. We were here to meet Usmaan Mughal, the genial creator and owner to answer some burning questions for ourselves: just how much could a professional simulator teach you about real driving? How did it differ from what you could get for home use? And (obviously) who was the better race driver?
Stepping inside the simulation room, you realise this isn’t just a glorified video game. A full sized touring car shell faces a huge wrap-around high definition projection screen, filling your peripheral vision entirely. Once you’re in the bucket seat, your feet rest on hydraulic pedals built to the same specifications and tolerances as a real race car. In your clammy hands you clutch a racing wheel sprinkled with glowing telemetry screens, mounted on a rack connected to an industrial strength, direct drive brushless motor unit which transmits every detail and imperfection of the track to your palms with incredible, visceral strength and clarity. Inside the car it’s hot, stuffy, and thanks to a bespoke speaker system, very loud indeed. Sitting inside a Porsche Cayman GT4 Clubsport on the baking tarmac of a virtual Brands Hatch, heart beating, I felt every part the racer.
The hugely powerful computer system behind GTS RS runs a commercial build of Kunos Simulazioni’s much-lauded Assetto Corsa, the purist simulation software originally released for Microsoft Windows and eventually ported to Xbox and PlayStation 4. However, in the name of accuracy and even greater realism, Usmaan and his colleagues have worked over and updated the laser scanned tracks, the cars and the tyre physics models provided by the Kunos team by using real data from race teams, track days, and endless hours of testing, by professional and amateur race drivers. In an era where real motorsport is heavily data-driven, parallel developments in the virtual world mean that GTS RS can comfortably claim to be one of the most accurate and realistic simulations of real-life race driving you can buy, save for flying out to Spa or Hockenheim and doing it yourself.
And even if you did take yourself to Belgium or Germany, you probably wouldn’t learn as much about your own driving as you can here. The glass fronted control room behind the car shell houses a bank of monitors on which your performance telemetry is shown for analysis. Throughout the afternoon Usmaan monitored our shoddy efforts with the quiet inquisitiveness of a lepidopterist scrutinising butterflies (or in our case, more like grubby moths). Every data point the software collects – from braking and acceleration timings and force, lap time deltas, to steering angle inputs – is available for analysis, with every element of your technique ready to be picked out, inspected, and improved. Phil’s rolling speed was low, my acceleration was hesitant, and we were both rubbish at braking properly.
All was not lost however; with Usmaan’s coaching the lap times began to come down as our, ahem, natural talent was combined with some sensible advice. Brake firmly, smooth ease off, squeeze the accelerator confidently. Fast and frenetic is slow, slow and calm is fast. We first took blocks of laps in turn around Brands Hatch GP, then jetted off to the legendary Spa-Francorchamps circuit in the Ardennes, finishing just west of Amsterdam with blasts around the sunny seaside track of Zandvoort in a GT3 class Corvette.
It’s uncanny how rapidly your brain adapts to the virtual world. The adrenaline and sense of speed are real, as real as the physical effort of handling the torque in the wheel and the stress of trying to beat the clock while remaining in control of the car. While I expected my mind and body to adapt to the challenge, what I hadn’t been prepared for was the sense of awe at some of the physical features of the tracks and how tangible they were once presented at full scale – the mountain looming over you after the Wehrseifen corner at the rollercoaster of the Nurburgring, or the imposing scale of the tremendously fast first corner at Spa, Eau Rouge.
As Phil conscientiously landscaped run-off areas in a BMW Z3 GT3, I asked Usmaan what kind of drivers he gets at GTS RS, and what in his mind distinguishes the great from the merely good. There are generally two kinds of driver, he said, with differing approaches. Some people want to learn extremely technically – they want to know exactly where the turning point is for a corner, where to brake and how much, and how to conquer a track like a computer executes a programme. Others have an organic approach and feel their way around a circuit; for them driving is more the art of the possible. There is no right and wrong, and the optimum probably lies somewhere in between. Perfect telemetry is evidence of a good drive; but it’s worth remembering that consciously chasing perfect telemetry is no short cut to a fast lap. I watched Phil use every last centimetre of an apex before flooring it on the straight, catching the oversteer not a moment too soon as the car threatened to throw him into the barriers. At least in a simulator you can find out what works, and what doesn’t, safely.
In the days before data took over motorsport, you could only rely on your human instincts and sensory experience to discover the limits of the possible. And with old-school safety standards, one serious mistake could be your last. The modern race driver on a competitive grid, conversely, is forced to be a technician and micro-data master, chasing marginal gains on the absolute limits of performance. In the same way that computer simulations help engineers make the best of the materials they have at their disposal, they are now being used to refine the human beings in the cars themselves. Max Verstappen is reputed to have practiced some of his daring overtakes in simulators before deploying them in Formula 1; Lewis Hamilton continues to work on his race starts in 2019. No wonder some of the racing we see now is so perfect as to appear almost boring. But it’s worth remembering that what you’re seeing is the new norm of incredible, smooth, maximally efficient performance driving. The refinement of the humans in the cars has been ludicrously accelerated by technology.
It’s also worth remembering there is now an entire generation of racing drivers and fans for whom simulations are a normal part of motorsports culture. Novices start at home with consumer software like Polyphony Digital’s venerable Gran Turismo series on the Playstation or the Forza Motorsport series from Turn 10 Studios and Microsoft, learning racing lines using a controller, before graduating to more sophisticated virtual realities as careers and interests develop. With this has come the growth in competitive eSports, based on complex software packages like RFactor, RaceRoom and the market leading iRacing, where competitors around the world race in online tournaments (often for real money) on accurate digital replicas of real-world tracks – so much so that there is now a FIA sanctioned Gran Turismo Championship, and iRacing leagues where the best amateurs spar with professional eSports teams sponsored by major manufacturers.
On a hardware front, for the real enthusiast, there is no limit – if you want race-spec simulation, wraparound screens and even virtual reality setups with hydraulic race platforms and commercial grade force feedback wheels, there is a growing market of specialist suppliers who will build you the rig of your dreams. And while this can cost vast amounts of money, it’s still cheaper than the real thing.
So while there is no danger of me and Phil joining an elite racing team any time soon – and they are probably sighing with relief at all those saved front splitters, nosecones and wheel rims – it’s a wonderful thing that the average punter like us can, with the benefit of technology, learn everything from scrappy racecraft in an online competition to advanced car control and telemetry analysis in a setting like GTS RS. And rather than alienating you from the ‘real thing’, you come away from GTS RS with a greater appreciation for it. You discover that driving fast is not just about the racing line, it’s about handling weight distribution, grip management, throttle and brake control, vision, and staying calm and focussed in a chaotic, exciting environment. Best of all, with the right data and a bit of intelligent coaching, you can improve all of those things and satisfy your competitive hunger. The telemetry doesn’t lie.
Of course, you’re still waiting to find out who was the better driver. I’d just like to preface this with the caveat that while Usmaan was happy to confirm we weren’t, you know, total crap, Schumachers we certainly are not. Anyway, while I had him licked at Spa, Phil trounced me so badly at Zandvoort that after a sullen lift back to London I found myself on my home rig later trying to beat his time, applying everything I’d learnt that day. Because if there’s one thing you really don’t need to simulate, it’s the pain of losing.
So… best of three, mate?
GTS RS Racing Simulation is based at Unit 8 Trade City Business Park, Cowley Mill Road, Uxbridge, UB8 2DB. Give them a call on 0208 037 5959 or email firstname.lastname@example.org to get a taste for yourselves.
Our thanks to Usmaan Mughal for his time, and for not laughing in our faces when we crashed.