This weekend sees Formula 1 take on a pioneering role once again, as the sport makes its first ever visit to India, for the eponymous Grand Prix, which takes place in Noida, a suburb of Delhi. As the globalisation of Formula 1 continues at a fast pace, with new venues coming on the calendar on a seemingly yearly basis – last year it was Korea, next sees a return to the United States – the teams face the challenge of being as well prepared as possible for Friday free practice, without the luxury of running on the actual race track.
Fortunately, the technology exists to deal with this, in the shape of the simulator. Originally developed for the aero industry to train pilots, the F1 version has been in use for a few years now, its development speeded up by necessity, when the in-season ban on testing was introduced a couple of years ago. Imagine a large scale version of a Formula 1 computer game and you have the overview of what is involved, although at this professional level the simulator is rather more complex. “We start by modelling the new track for the simulator, using CAD drawings, data, pictures and sometimes, laser scanning of the track, says Gabriele Delli Colli, in charge of Driver Simulator Development & Operations for Scuderia Ferrari. “After we have prepared the model, then it can be driven on using the simulator, where the first task is to look for a base line in terms of car set-up from which we can start work. In preparation for this weekend, Fernando and Felipe both were in the simulator driving the India track in the week after the Italian Grand Prix, having a good session, and they both enjoyed the track, finding it to be quite unique in its characteristics. This year, we have also been able to make our simulator available to those drivers who are part of the Ferrari Driver Academy, which means that Sergio Perez has also driven the simulator, basically to learn the track.”While the drivers are keen to know which way to turn the steering wheel and where to brake, the engineers are looking for any other useful track information they can gather. “From what we can see, the Buddh circuit is different to all the others on the calendar, because it has been given a very unusual layout,” continues Delli Colli. “It has several changes of gradient, going up and down a lot and almost all the corners are built with a lot of camber, or more accurately, they are banked. The other unusual characteristic is that many of the braking and turn-in points for the corners are blind, so there is a possible advantage in learning the track before seeing it for real for the first time.”“Normally a day of testing starts at 9 in the morning and finishes around 3, doing between 15 and 20 runs which equates to around 70 laps” – continues Gabriele – “Depending on what are our targets, we begin with a session dedicated to car development, trying different options starting from a basic set-up. If we have a session for a new track, again we start with a basic set-up with the work aimed at the driver learning the track. We also try and see if the track has some characteristics in common with other circuits to help in our development work.”
Scuderia Ferrari has a team of drivers it can call on to work in the simulator. “We have test drivers, with different levels of experience, who develop the simulator and the model,” says Delli Colli. “The final decision is always with Fernando and Felipe who come for about one session per month, to validate the tests we have done before. The best simulator drivers are Fernando and Felipe as they have something more compared to the others, because they know the car better, so the speed and final performance comes from the two race drivers. In the end, this work is quite similar to what we used to test on the track, although in my opinion track testing is a bit more straightforward. On the simulator you need to pay more attention to how the model is configured and of course the hardest part of the job is to find the true correlation between the simulator and the real car.”Delli Colli’s explanation shows that the simulator can be used by a driver to become familiar with a new track and for engineers to develop a starting point for the race weekend’s car development. But the simulator can also be used to help plan race strategy. “For a new venue, we are in the situation of having no historic data,” says the Scuderia’s Head of Operations Research Department, Neil Martin. “Therefore work on simulation must start several months prior to the event. After generating a virtual track and bringing in the drivers, you can begin to calculate the virtual forces on the car. This means you get an idea of the loads on the tyres and added to data provided regarding the abrasive level of the track surface, you can start to estimate tyre wear at this circuit, which is a crucial piece of data when it comes to planning strategy. Also, you can look at finding the optimal racing line or work out the chances of being overtaking and how far back a car can overtake from if it uses the DRS.”
Scuderia Ferrari and the other teams that use simulators will therefore have a rough idea what to expect when the pit lane light goes green on Friday morning, but no one can be sure what to expect from the new Buddh circuit. This is reflected in the tyre choice for the weekend, which Pirelli itself describes as “conservative”: Soft and Hard are the two types on offer, although unusually, the Soft is nominated as the Prime, which means teams automatically get more of these to use on Friday, while the Hard is there in case the track surface is much more abrasive than expected. The 2011 season has thrown up plenty of surprises and a new circuit is bound to keep that tradition going this weekend.