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Wow. Thursday was great and brutal all at the same time. Great because we had an amazing turnout, I got to meet so many people who’ve been names in the “To” field of my emails and see Felipe Massa and Fernando Alonso in the flesh. Brutal because well, it was bloody exhausting! After all those hours on my feet, I got home past midnight with just enough strength to manage a shower before collapsing in bed without even bothering to shut off the lights.

While the session with the Ferrari drivers was as expected, the height of our activity, there is so much behind-the-scenes logistics that happens before and after. And I was lucky enough this time to be able to sneak in a couple of laps around the track – virtually of course – behind the wheel in the Shell Professional Simulator Experience.

Full disclosure again: Shell is one of my clients, which is why the Singapore Grand Prix is always particularly action-packed for me.

Simulators are getting more and more important for driver training and practice, for a few simple reasons. One of them is race regulations limit the amount of practice a driver can get on the track. But more than that, street circuits like Singapore and Monaco are pretty much IMPOSSIBLE to get any practice on at all. In the absense of the real deal, the next best thing for a driver really, is to try to recreate the experience, virtually.

That’s what we got to use to test drive my own city’s track, and boy was it an experience indeed!

The SPSE was a crazy set up that included the chassis of the 2009 Ferrari, a McLaren steering wheel, a 180-degree panoramic screen and cameras all around. This things moves, shakes you about, and fights with you for control!

The race simulator we drove on was created specially by a company based in Modena, working exclusively with Ferrari. Here’s what I got from my 5 minutes on the track:

1. Visibility in an F1 car is absolutely terrible!
Already, I’m so short that I can hardly reach the pedals or see out the cockpit. The lovely guys operating the machinery had to fashion a special booster seat for me out of a bag filled with… dirty clothes?

Innovation at work – the special booster seat the guys made just for me so I could actually see AND reach the pedals.

You start out looking straight at a wall – the pit wall, and as you get onto the track, it quickly becomes obvious why drivers need time to get familiar with the circuit. A lot of the time, I found it difficult to correctly discern if corners were heading right or left as I was heading into them, making it super difficult to pick the right line. I was lucky to have Anthony as my instructor, and he taught me to watch the signs and distance markers going into the corners, so I did manage to figure it out in the end. These aren’t on every corner in real life though, and I’m sure that with the speeds and g-forces, it’s gonna be even more difficult to know where you’re going.

Anthony was my awesome driving instructor. He was super patient teaching me how to use the controls and giving me tips on how to get around the track. I probably couldn’t have gotten around without him telling me exactly what I needed to do. In fact, my laptime nearly doubled when I tried it without him (not to mention the 3 would-be fatal crashes)

2. The circuit and the roads do not look alike AT ALL.
Yes, the backdrop of the city is familiar, in fact, recreated with stunning attention to detail to resemble the real thing as far as possible (apparently to 5mm of accuracy).

All familiar landmarks on the circuit – the city skyline, the Esplanade, and the Singapore Flyer, created to be almost completely true to the view on a real flying lap.

I’ve driven the route countless times in my own car, even under the race lights, but put up the barriers and reverse the flow of traffic and I have no idea where I am on the track at all, except for the time I drive under the Bay Grandstand. I had the opportunity to do quite a few laps, but no matter how many times I went around, things really didn’t get much more predictable.

3. I have no future as a race car driver
Anton, the guy that builds these machines, is an absolute fountain of knowledge on stuff related to F1. He told us about how race telemetry is analyzed remotely due to current restrictions, about how each driver likes their car set up, how weight affects the speed and performance of the car and so much more. Did you know that every 10kg makes a 0.3 second difference PER LAP??? That’s huge! Only regulations make it such that weights have to be added to even things out – but of course, being able to add them at different points in the car makes a huge difference in handling. He also told us how important strength was in racing, which is probably why there aren’t many women at the pinnacle of the sport. I was told that I would need to work out more to have any hope. Then again, since most of the champions-to-be are already champions in the karting series and other race circuits when they are aged 10 or 11, I think I’ve missed the boat on that one. Looks like its gonna be a life as a PR professional for me.

I clocked a time of 2.36 minutes on my fastest lap around the Marina Bay Street Circuit. For a sense of where that is, Alonso rode the simulator a couple of hours before I did and clocked a 1.47. Marc Gene, who is driving in the support races for Ferrari this weekend, did a 1.55. I’m actually quite pleased with myself. The simulator also spat out really comprehensive race telemetry, which I had no idea how to read or decipher.

This is probably the only sort of race telemetry I’m ever going to get in my lifetime. Awesome, cool shit, though I had absolutely NO IDEA what I was looking at.

Anton told us that a lot of this telemetry from the drivers actually feeds straight back to engineers at Ferrari who analyze it remotely because of limitations that restrict the number of people you have doing that on track. Fascinating stuff, though I hope that my own stats would never somehow fall into their hands. It’d be terribly embarrassing!

At the end of it, he turned it on “self-drive” mode to kinda well, give me an idea of what I actually should/could be doing, and boy was it different! Think I’ll just stick to it as a really expensive video game for an overgrown child like me. I could ride that all day if only they didn’t have to tear it down and head out of town tonight. Had a great time guys, and I hope you come back next year!

The Edelman Singapore Shellettes with the lovely Anthony and Sam from Crunch in London, and Anton from All in Sports in Modena. Thanks for the massively fun time and being so patient with this squeeing, screaming child.

For another hilarious write-up on the experience of driving this simulator, check out Vernon’s piece in TopGear Philippines.

Here’s Alonso showing both of us how it should be done:

Alonso does the REAL flying lap