While the idea of driving an actual race car might be too daunting or too expensive for most of us, racing simulators are a surprisingly affordable and safe way to get your motorsport adrenaline fix.
Nowhere truer is this the case than Racecentre, a state-of-the-art business featuring Australia’s most advanced racing simulation centres.
With a store apiece in Sydney and Surfers Paradise – and with plans to expand to new franchises in other cities – Racecentre offers an outstanding racing experience for everyone, right from your casual fans to your hard-core racers. A host of Australia’s top racing drivers use Racecentre’s facilities to hone their skills when they’re not racing out on the actual circuits.
You can choose to race against AI ‘computers’ or each other in a suite of custom-built, full-motion triple surround screen and surround sound simulators. There’s even the capability to race other people in the ‘sister’ store, which Racecentre frequently does with its regular F1 and V8 League events that follow both championships’ calendars and use the same circuits.
With literally hundreds of cars from a range of championships to choose from – not to mention almost any race track worldwide – you can opt for automatic gearing, paddle shift or a stick-shift gearbox. The staff can also help with configuring braking and traction assist for those needing a bit of driver aid support.
Forget your PCs, PlayStations and Xboxes, a race simulator is a completely different beast. Your vision is occupied by three surround high-resolution screens while you’re enveloped in a race seat, gripping tightly onto the force-feedback steering wheel.
I went with my features writer Jen Smith to Racecentre’s Darling Harbour store – complete with its Formula 1 car model in the foyer – to see what a real racing simulator was all about.
We opted to drive the 2009-spec ‘double diffuser’ Formula 1 cars around Montreal’s Circuit de Gilles Villeneuve circuit. Sounds simple enough: the Montreal layout isn’t super complex (so we thought!) but it also leaves no margin for error, as we were to find out…
Jen opted to race the championship-winning BrawnGP piloted by Jenson Button, while I took the less-competitive Toro Rosso STR4. We decided to keep automatic gearing on as the only assist, but you could still up- and downshift if you wanted.
Your steering wheel had buttons for the pit limiter, DRS, different view angles and an ‘auto assist’ function, which helped extricate you from the gravel or an escape road if you really made a mistake.
First things first: the simulation is so realistic. You feel the lack or loss of grip from low tyre temperatures or when you get dirt on them from running off track (a rather frequent occurrence at first!). And when the tyres start to go off towards the end of a stint, you notice the loss of grip as well.
You can also see the track marbling up as the rubber goes down, and you feel every bump on the track and the car bottoming out as the downforce pushes the car onto the track when you get quicker. Lose traction on the grass and enjoy the glueiness of driving through the kitty litter. Clobber and kerb or clip the ‘Wall of Champions’? You’ll feel that too!
Our outing would feature a practice session, qualifying and a race. Our out-laps and first flying laps felt like they would never end; we were both north of the two-minute mark and had held up several other drivers in the process.
There were a few trips through the gravel traps and the odd brush with the wall while we got used to the sensitivities of the throttle, brake and steering, all the while trying to get our tyres and brakes up to temperature and more responsive. Right-foot braking is out of the question, you need quick reaction times and a heavy left foot – even the brake pedal requires lots of force, just like a racing car.
Over the next half-dozen laps, our times progressively went down as we mastered the layout and tried to learn the braking points, which corners we could attack, and which we had to give a lot of respect to. The hairpin and the final chicane were the most trouble for me – I was either way too cautious with the brakes and had to lift off to get to the apex, or I was way too greedy and ran straight into the run-off with flat-spotted Pirelli tyres.
With my best time being a rather pedestrian 1:26.3, that put me eleventh on the timesheets out of 12 cars – Jen and I battled for wooden-spoon honours.
So it was off to qualifying, where we again had to task of trying to bring a brand new set of tyres up to temperature.
The traffic was far worse. Everyone headed out at once and was jostling for track position, but our first timed laps put us in the top-three, only to realize the other nine cars hadn’t posted a time yet!
Somehow I put a lap together where I didn’t fluff one corner or braking zone – to my incredible surprise it got me on pole, and I kept it by less than a tenth of a second. Jen had her laps ruined by traffic and was on the back row.
I fluffed the race start and was tagged into a spin by my AI rivals at the first corner; Jen dodged the melee ahead of her. I managed to pick off one or two cars over the race, but that was tough too because the AI cars know how to block you and take a defensive line to stop you getting by. I finished third in the end – it was just a five-lap race but we were exhilarated and exhausted by the end.
Whether you run first or last, the thrill of the immersive experience is something else. Getting behind the wheel is familiar to many of us, but to do it in a racing environment is foreign to most of us. There’s a satisfaction that comes from slowly improving your lap times, nailing corners you had messed up the lap before, or even hitting the back of Kimi Raikkonen!
While it’s a little intimidating to get to grips with, it’s all fantastic. This is a ‘must do’ experience for anyone who enjoys racing any kind of car, regardless of your age. We had a 12-year-old next to us lapping Mt Panorama in a Lamborghini Gallardo and doing a very good job of it too!
To learn more about Racecentre and to book your simulator experience, please visit their web site.
RichardsF1.com simulator experience provided courtesy of Racecentre. Images via Racecentre.