Virtually Prepared

Monday, November 29th, 2010

BBC’s TopGear decided to conduct an experiment recently, putting, in its own words, the undisputed grandmaster of iRacing — a fiendishly difficult driving simulator that recreates the exact physics of scores of race cars and circuits from around the world — into a real Star Mazda racer to see how he’d do:

He’s a humble bloke, a quiet 30-year-old with a hint of podge around the midriff and, if we’re honest, everywhere else too. Despite the cameras and attention, he doesn’t strut like a superstar. Instead his head is bowed, his words softly spoken. He appears thoughtful — analytical, measured — and as he digests instructions, he simulates a gearchange and angles the wheel, like he’s sat here a hundred times before. Which he has. Virtually.

After one installation lap to check everything’s working, he starts his first flyer. All eyes turn to the final corner, a swooping downhill-right with a vicious wall on the outside, ready to collect understeery mishaps. Here comes Greger. The engine revs high and hard and his downshifts sound perfectly matched. Then he comes into sight and, to the sound of many sucked teeth, absolutely bloody nails it through the bend, throttle balanced, car planted. His only hiccup is a late upshift, that has the rotary engine blatting off its limiter. “Time to crank up the revs,” says Alan. “He’s quick.”

The telemetry confirms it. His braking points are spot on. He’s firm and precise on the throttle. And in the fastest corner, he’s entering at 100mph compared to an experienced driver’s 110 — a sign of absolute confidence and natural feel for grip. Remember, this is a guy who has never sat in a racing car in his life — he’s only referencing thousands of virtual laps. Then, on lap four, he pops in a 1:24.8, just three seconds off a solid time around here. He reckons the car feels more grippy than it does online, but that’s probably down to set-up and baking-hot tarmac. It’s a weirdly familiar experience, he says, like déjà vu… with added sweat.

So the computer simulation prepared him quite well — but the computer can’t mimic every element o the racing experience:

The air temperature is 34 degrees [Celsius]; in the cockpit, it’s probably closer to 45. It’s just too extreme for the increasingly sickly looking bloke from the Arctic. Then there’s the g-forces. Road Atlanta is a bucking, weaving, undulating place, where your tummy floats over crests, then smashes into your intestines through compressions. This is another first for Greger. He’s never been on a rollercoaster, or even in a fast road car. In fact, the quickest he’s ever been was on the flight over here, which also happened to be his first plane ride. Which would explain why, as he hurtles down the back straight at 100 mph, he throws up, right inside his helmet. When he rolls into the pits, little flecks of sick roll down his visor and his overalls are soggy around the neck.

He’s feeling woozy, but after some motion sickness pills, we coax him back into the car. “You’re doing a great job, much quicker than I thought,” Alan tells him. “Now let’s zone in on those shifts — keep them sweet.” Each time around, he gets smoother, employing a progressive technique and lapping faster and faster. But with every bump and turn, the physical forces inflict themselves on Greger’s ill-equipped body. He’s getting stretched and squeezed. At times his head weighs double. Now you know why F1 drivers have neck muscles like dock ropes and the metabolism of a gun-dog.

It’s easy to forget that race-car drivers are elite athletes.

Leave a Reply