“To get out of the car you’ll need to pop off the steering wheel. Just be careful not to pull too hard when you do so, or you could break your nose.”
Dan, our keen young instructor at the Lets Race F1 Simulator in Horley near Gatwick Airport, was ten minutes into our safety briefing in a side room adorned with pictures of F1 greats: Senna, Mansell, Prost, Hunt.
We’d already watched a video of Martin Brundle telling us about how these full-motion simulators accurately replicate the feel of driving a 200mph F1 car. “If you crash, you’ll feel it” he warned. Remember this is a guy who won Le Mans in 1990 and spent seven years in Formula One.
Added to the fact that Dan was sporting a fresh cast on his right arm, and I began to wonder quite what we’d let ourselves in for.
After reassuring me that a) his injury was not caused at work and b) no-one had ever broken their nose in one of these sims, Dan ushered myself and TraderLife petrolhead Sam into the arena.
Inside were lined 10 F1 simulators in two rows of 5, each with three screens of their own and all facing a huge main screen at the front of the room. At the back sat a grandstand for spectators, though thankfully there’d be no one in attendance today – it’d be just the two of us along with Dan watching over proceedings in the control booth.
Immediately striking was the hum of the simulators, a constant buzz that hinted at the £1m-worth of computing power that lies behind these state-of-the-art machines, as well as the golfing simulators housed in the same building. Carlin, a famous name in the world of motorsport, are the racing team behind the UK’s only full-motion simulator centre and their driver Max Chilton, now at IndyCar in the States, has been a regular visitor at the centre. It's his face you'll spot on most of the promo posters.
Dan told us he had loaded up Austria’s Red Bull Ring, hinting to us that it was a "sensible" choice for our first go and showing us a map of the circuit before we got in the cars. In truth, he could have shown us a map of the Fun House track for all that we were paying attention; excited and impatient, we wanted to get racing.
We soon got our wish and it didn’t take long for me to realise why F1 drivers are so athletically built – I was exhausted just getting in. Dan had said it wasn’t going to be comfortable in here and boy was he right, the half sitting half lying down position reminding me of long uncomfortable journeys on overnight sleeper buses in Thailand. Feeling ever so slightly too big for the cockpit ensures that you can never relax, which I guess is entirely the point when you’re hurling yourself round in a carbon fibre tube at 200mph.
Of course this isn’t the case in a simulator, but with three wrap-around screens at eye-level, lights in the room dimmed to near darkness and three motors simulating acceleration, braking and lateral movement, it certainly begins to feel like it. While the G-force experienced by Hamilton and co. is never going to be replicated, the experience is still immersive enough to bring on some nausea. Especially if you drive like me.
Unlike Sam, an F1 nut who has a racing simulator loaded on to his trading machine and who was taking it all in his stride, the only “racing” experience I boasted was the odd go-karting excursion on stag dos. Which, as I’m sure anyone who’s done the same will attest, is rarely anything other than a torturous way to significantly worsen a hangover.
Thankfully in this case no helmet was required, but that’s where the relief ended. After taking longer than any capable human should have done navigating out of the pit (like I said, thank god there was no audience), flooring the accelerator on the track unleashed a surround-sound roar that injected a thrill of adrenaline through my body. Seasoned racers will know the importance of tempering this adrenaline in favour of concentration and skill. Giddy fools like me do not.
And so I discovered my first experience of being thrown around in the simulator, which despite all prior warnings still managed to surprise me at just how physical it was as I made my first encounter with Remus corner. Ouch.
With the qualifying session over (and my steering wheel successfully removed without injury), we returned to see Dan provide the detailed breakdown at just how we did. The telemetry data maps your performance compared to that of the course record, set just two months ago. Along with standard recordings such as speed and gear usage, in-depth readings on braking, accelerating and even the degree of steering wheel turn at corners are provided. It was a fascinating insight into the intricacies that this sport hinges on at the highest level.
As we returned to race, Sam and I lumbered back into our cars with contrasting ambitions. He aimed to break his impressive qualifying time, I wanted to complete one lap without crashing.
It helped that the second time I got in the car I’d almost got used to the fact that my left foot didn’t need to go searching for a clutch it would never find. The paddle shifters certainly take getting some used to for anyone who hasn't used them before, but I’m pleased to report I completed at least one lap without meeting my old pal Remus. Sam, meanwhile, not only beat his qualifying time but recorded a time that Dan reckons would put him in the all-time top 150 at the centre.
As Sam pored over his telemetry readings and cursed not knocking off an extra second, I ignore my printed squiggles to put the all-important questions to Dan. The sort of journalistic scrutiny we hope TraderLife will one day be renowned for.
“You must get stag groups being sick in here all the time do you?”.
As I wondered whether my swishing stomach was influencing my skills of inquisition, Dan confirmed my suspicions. “One guy threw up all over the side of one of the cars the other week. It could have caused some serious damage to the computers and wiring. But it doesn’t happen all that often, thankfully”.
Instead, the centre is used to welcoming serious groups of racers, who recreate proper racing conditions over several gruelling hours. Which explains the grandstand.
It’s the sort event that would be perfect for a corporate or office event. A group of uber-competitive traders (like Sam) would have a blast over a few hours at Lets Race, including qualifying, pit strategies and full-blown racing. The venue even has a podium to fulfil full gloating potential at the end.
Sure, a simulator is never going to match the real thing (and Horley is not exactly Monaco), but if professional racing teams are using the same technology in their testing and training, then it really can’t be too far off. And, unless you count Christian Horner or Ron Dennis as a close pal, it's the closest you’re likely to get to racing an F1 car. Which, for the sake of my health and limbs, is probably a damn lucky thing.