If you fancy yourself as a bit of a Sebastian Vettel, get down to Surrey for a spin in a full-motion Formula 1 simulator run by the very team that launched the world champion. By Jeremy Taylor
If Formula One supremo Bernie Ecclestone wants another race to add to his 2014 season he could do a lot worse than visit an innocuous building near Gatwick Airport.
An enormous warehouse on the A23 houses the only full-motion F1 car simulators in the UK. With ten machines on the starting grid, a Gatwick Grand Prix might one day rival Silverstone for racing thrills.
The Let’s Race centre is owned by Carlin, a motorsport team with an impressive pedigree. Racing in Formula Three, GP2 and other track series, Carlin has launched drivers such as Nico Rosberg, Sebastian Vettel and Jenson Button into the limelight.
In fact, the only motorsport where Carlin has not tasted success is Formula One. However, the Let’s Race centre is giving thousands of enthusiasts the chance to experience the buzz of driving an F1 racing car for real.
I dropped in on the centre earlier this month to experience the simulators first hand. While it was pouring with rain outside, this is one of the few motorsport activities where you don’t have to factor in the weather.
After safely negotiating my way around the café and gift shop, I sat down with fellow racers to watch a ten-minute safety video presented by former F1 driver Martin Brundle.
Brundle’s pit lane commentary on F1 was legendary and his enthusiasm for the sport remains unblemished. As the lights go up, I feel as if I’m about to step into a real-life racing car for the drive of my life.
The racing takes place in a darkened hall, where the shells of ten F1 cars are firmly bolted to a motion rig. In front of each simulator is a bank of three video screens showing high-resolution imagery of a racing track.
Just like a Formula One car, I have to slip off the quick-release steering wheel to access the cockpit, then lower myself gently into the seat. Why gently? Because an F1 car has no seat padding and is just inches from the tarmac below.
I should point out at this stage that I have been lucky enough to drive a ‘real’ F1 car: Damon Hill’s Arrows, that he raced during the 1997 season. How would the Let’s Race simulator compare?
F1 simulator vs the real thing
There are three motors linked to the simulator that create the same effect as braking and acceleration, as well as sideways movement when the car goes around a corner. The movement isn’t harsh but there is a gentle bump if you spin off and collide with a wall.
The simulator does offer plenty of feedback through the steering wheel and I guarantee you will experience sore thumbs after 20 laps of trying to keep a 700bhp racing car on the straight and narrow. The brake and accelerator pedals feel real enough, with gearshift changers on the steering wheel too.
A thumping soundsystem adds to the drama but, in truth, the simulator isn’t the assault on the senses that I experienced in the Arrows. There’s no helmet and fire suit, no body-crushing safety belts to add to the claustrophobia.
An F1 car forces a driver to cope with 3.5G throughout a race, topping out at around 5G. That’s a pressure you simply cannot replicate in a simulator – not one that doesn’t require you signing your life away. I could only manage 120mph in the Arrows because of the wind battering my helmet.
Nothing can prepare you for the experience of driving a real F1 car. The smell of high-octane fuel, oil and tyre rubber are a heady mix. However, the Let’s Race computer screens can be programmed for any track in the world, so it does offer F1 drivers an opportunity to sharpen up on circuits before a race. Perhaps that’s why Marussia F1 driver Max Chilton is a regular here.