The sound of Formula One cars accelerating can be heard on the other side of the wall, but there’s no race-track here. The driver is sitting in a carbon fibre frame, with the latest version of the Ferrari steering wheel in front of him and all commands are functional. He can see the track for the next grand prix through his helmet. He can see the trees on either side, the stands, even the advertisements.
As he sits immersed in virtual reality, nested inside a giant black "spider" reminiscent of an LEM lunar module, our driver Kimi Räikkönen prepares for every phase of the coming race: starting the car, corners, braking. He can even “test” a new wing or new suspension with stunning similarity to real life conditions and can give the engineers feedback. Dave Greenwood, his Race Engineer, is sitting on the other side of the glass in a long narrow room facing the spider. His vehicle specialist Carlo Santi is also present, as are the technicians who work on the simulator.
The telemetry screens are similar to those seen in the box, the data is practically identical. 'The simulator,' Performance Engineer Daniele Casanova explains, 'is designed to "fool" the driver, to convince him that he is really driving a race car.' It’s a very different concept from that of a videogame: there’s only one car on the track and, rather than focusing on special effects, the focus is on the best possible match to data gathered from real circuits.
However, simply providing realistic images and data isn't enough: a simulator must work on the mind, on the ability to capture images and feel movement, the sort of illusion we experience when we’re sitting in a parked train and the train next to us starts moving. Without these details certain driving conditions could never be recreated: to recreate a corner like number 3 at Montmelò, for example, which causes lateral acceleration, "pushing" the driver to the left, the arms of the spider would have to be hundreds of metres long. But the simulator is a living machine, and it is constantly updated: besides the metal body, it has a soul made of software that is constantly evolving.
Race-track tests are limited to the bare minimum these days and virtual reality has won over even the most sceptical drivers. Those working in Maranello feel the same passion, the same sense of pride, as those who develop the car on the race-track. After a long day of work, Räikkönen almost feels more tired than he would have felt after driving the same amount of time on the track. It’s not physical exhaustion since reproducing all of the physical stress of a 4G lateral acceleration is impossible, but his mind is tired. His brain has worked hard, immersing itself in virtual sensations and capturing feelings and information that have one effect: improved performance.