Why the F1 sims won over their biggest skeptics

On the one hand, it raised questions about the fairness of racing drivers working in the simulation at such a time and giving their teams an extra edge just hours before the cars hit the track.

But it also provided the latest proof that even for drivers who have long been skeptical of the value of simulators, like Hamilton, something had changed to make them embrace them so much.

For a long time, some of F1’s most seasoned stars had avoided getting too heavily involved in sim programs.

Kimi Raikkonen had hated them for a long time and saw no point in spending hours and hours in front of a computer screen.

And Hamilton himself, while doing what he could over the years, knew that simulations could never offer the same benefits as real-world testing.

“You can go and do a simulation day, and the simulation is not in the right place where it’s supposed to be,” he said at one point last year. “The level of grip is not good, or the effect of the wind is not good, or the thermal deg is incorrectly set. So you can come away with false numbers.

“You have to be very careful with the data you receive and the decisions you make.”

But being aware of the limitations is a different thing from being completely against it, and it was fascinating to see how Hamilton threw himself more and more into the simulation program last year.

For where he may have preferred to leave simulation work to others, in 2021 he did everything he could.

And while part of that reason was born out of necessity — because in a title fight as close as the one he found himself in, every job could help — there was another factor that couldn’t be ignored.

It wasn’t that people like Hamilton had changed their minds about simulators; it was that the sims had gained a level of sophistication to finally deliver clear benefits.

As Mercedes Technical Director Mike Elliot explains, “I think as these tools get better and more realistic, they become more and more useful to drivers.

“They’re moving away from seeing them as a toy at worst, towards something that’s a real engineering tool that they can use to get a head start for the race weekend.

“I think a combination of the improvements we’ve made to that and the sort of tightness of the championship has meant both drivers have been pushing to spend more and more time in there.

“I think the commitment has always been there. It’s more about saying, now that I have something that’s useful to me, I can use it, I’m really going to push it.

Romain Grosjean, Haas F1 Team drives a lap of the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve on a simulator

Photo by: Andrew Hone/ Motorsport footage

Indeed, as F1 simulation technology has intensified and the value has increased for drivers and engineers, the need for ever better simulators has increased.

It’s certainly no coincidence that McLaren has placed an improved sim at the top of its build list alongside a new wind tunnel, while Ferrari has invested in a brand new facility at Maranello which should be available for this season.

And while its computer processing power has increased, it was interesting to hear Charles Leclerc explain another important factor: driver experience.

“I think it should be an improvement on absolutely everything we feel, especially for the rider feel,” he said at the end of last year.

“It’s very difficult to recreate those G’s that we go through in the real car. So it will mostly be on that – on the feel of the driver that would be an improvement.

For Ferrari team boss Mattia Binotto there is no doubt that while drivers can be persuaded by the value of simulation, having top-notch facilities was now essential for any team that wanted to win.

“We think it’s very important to have a good simulator,” he explained last year when explaining why the team opted for an upgrade.

“If you look at tire wear [Ferrari suffered] in France, and how you can manage, understand and in some way try to react to these problems, if you have a good simulator which is good in terms of response or correlation with the race track, the exercise will certainly be more precise.

“That’s why it was important for us to upgrade. That’s why we believe that the new can put us in a good position for the future.

And there seems to be a virtuous circle at play here: the better the simulation, the more pilots will be eager to work on it and the better the results will be…

BMW Simulator

BMW Simulator

Picture by: BMW AG

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