A week before the Monaco Grand Prix weekend, I was invited to try Strakka Racing’s simulator at their base in Silverstone. The team currently sit fourth in the Formula Renault 3.5 team championship with their drivers Will Stevens and Matias Laine placing fourth and eighteenth respectively in the individual standings. With testing for Monaco banned, work in the simulator is essential to a strong points-scoring weekend.
The team’s set-up in Silverstone is unusual as it incorporates both sports car and World Series by Renault facilities. The simulator itself is an old Formula 3000 single-seater (and for Le Mans, the drivers use a DOME LMP1) which provide a more realistic interpretation of the circuits for the drivers. To start and upkeep such a system is costly (the screens alone can cost thousands of pounds) but as Matias Laine, a former GP3 podium finisher, stated: “After racing for a year and coming to the simulator you know exactly what to do when you get to the circuit.” It seems investments like these are needed by teams who hope to make significant improvements year on year.
Strakka Racing also provide a performance package for young racers, with the simulator a key component to driver development. Created for and by drivers, Strakka Performance aims to improve the car and overall driver package in equal measure, offering a unique experience for the likes of Harry Tincknell, a former British Formula Three competitor. The extensive driver involvement seen at Strakka Performance ensures its authenticity and success each year.
Knowing how beneficial the simulators can be for improving a driver’s season, I wondered how difficult they would be to drive and in Silverstone, the home of British racing, I had my chance to discover just that. Monaco was my first circuit. I watched Matias with interest, admiring his finesse and natural ability. “It is easy” were his famous last words before I had my turn. Guided by a very patient Matias and a handful of Strakka Racing team members, I was advised about the steering wheels and its configuration.
For those unfamiliar with a Formula Renault 3.5 steering wheel, the paddles on the back (one on the left and one on the right) are used to control the gears. The arrangement of the control panel improves safety as it ensures that the drivers keep two hands on the steering wheel at all times. It sounds simple enough but such measures are particularly important on the narrow streets of Monte Carlo where one small mistake can prove to be very costly. The same system is used on the simulator wheel to further improve development in young drivers and prepare them for race conditions in advance. FR3.5 steering wheels, while not quite as complex as their Formula 1 counterparts, still feature DRS, a key component in modern F1 technology.
What struck me the most was the brake pedal and the force required to slow down for a corner. I have driven a fair few road cars in my time but that had done little to prepare me for this experience; the pressure required was much more than I was used to. These changes sound small but when combined with the gears, specific steering technique and barriers which feel too close for comfort, the difference feels much more noticeable.
Needless to say, I did not find the simulator as “easy” as Matias and rightly so. The twists and turns of Monaco were challenging and understanding what was required from me, as the driver, to improve the lap was perhaps the greatest challenge of all. That was where the telemetry came in. I could see my times, use of brakes and speed compared to those who had gone before me. For the first time, the small margins became more than simply numbers to me; I was starting to relate them to distance and driving style. More than anything, however, it became clear just how vital this tool has become for drivers like Matias.
Indeed, it was Matias himself who perhaps explained it best.
“The simulator is a big advantage; it is very good to come here so you know which gear to be in for each corner but the consistency comes from real life racing”.
From my perspective, it can be easy to judge a driver’s race and highlight where their weekend may have been flawed – I am not racing and am therefore less invested in the outcome. However, my understanding for the talent, control, bravery and commitment required from each racer is greater since driving the simulator. Although, I doubt I showed enough driving talent to warrant starting a campaign for sponsorship and funding, I know the experience with Strakka Racing has altered my perspective greatly.
*With thanks to Strakka Racing and Matias Laine. All photos are courtesy of the team itself. As originally published for RumbleStripNews in May 2014.