Why F1 sims have won over their biggest sceptics
On the one hand, it prompted some questions about the fairness of race drivers working in the sim at such a time, and giving their teams that extra edge just hours before the cars hit the track.
But it also provided the latest proof that even for those drivers who have long been sceptical about the value of simulators, like Hamilton, something had changed to get them embracing them so much.
For a long time, some of F1’s more seasoned stars had steered clear of getting too heavily involved in simulator programmes.
Kimi Raikkonen had long hated them and saw little value in churning out hours and hours in front of a computer screen.
And Hamilton himself, while doing what he could over the years, knew that sims could never offer the same benefits as real world testing.
“You can go and do a sim day, and the sim is not in the right place it’s supposed to be,” he said at one point last year. “The grip level’s not right, or the wind effect is not right, or the thermal deg is set wrong. So you can come away with bogus numbers.
“You have to be so careful with the data that you are receiving and the decisions that you’re making.”
But being aware of the limits is a different thing to being completely against it, and it was fascinating to see just how much more Hamilton threw himself at the simulator programme last year.
For where once he may have preferred to leave the sim work up to others, in 2021 he did as much as he could.
And while some of that reason was borne of necessity – for in as tight a title fight as he was in, every bit of work could help – there was another factor that could not be ignored.
It wasn’t that the likes of 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 those tools get better and better and they get to be a closer and closer match to reality, they become more and more useful to the drivers.
“They stop seeing them as a toy at the worst end of it, to something that’s a genuine 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 the tightness of the championship meant that both drivers pushed to spend more and more time in there.
“I think the commitment has always been there. It’s more a case of saying, now I’ve got something that’s useful to me, I can make use of, I’m going to really push it.”
Romain Grosjean, Haas F1 Team drives a lap of the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve on a simulator
Photo by: Andrew Hone / Motorsport Images
Indeed, as F1 sim tech has ramped up, and the value has increased for both drivers and engineers, the need to have ever better simulators has increased.
It’s certainly no coincidence that McLaren has put an improved sim at the top of its build list alongside a new windtunnel, while Ferrari has invested in an all-new facility at Maranello that should be on tap for this season.
And while its computer processing power is a step up, it was interesting to hear Charles Leclerc explain one other important factor: the driver experience.
“I think it should be an improvement on absolutely everything we feel, especially for the feeling of the driver,” he said at the end of last year.
“It’s very difficult to recreate those Gs that we go through in the real car. So, it will be mostly on that – on the feeling of the driver that would be an improvement.”
For Ferrari team boss Mattia Binotto, there is absolutely no doubt that if the drivers can be won over on the value of the sim, then having a top-notch facility was now essential for any team that wanted to win.
“We believe that having a good simulator is very important,” he explained last year when talking about why the team had gone for an upgrade.
“If you look at the tyre wear [Ferrari suffered] in France, and how you may manage, understand, and somehow try to react to those issues, if you’ve got a good simulator which is good in terms of response or correlation with the race track, the exercise will be certainly more accurate.
“That’s why for us it was important to make an upgrade. That’s why we believe the new one can put us in a good position for the future.”
And it seems there is a virtuous circle at play here: the better the sim, the more the drivers will be eager to work in it and the better the results…
Photo by: BMW AG