Felipe Massa teaches PH how to drive an F1 car

Beats a PS3...
Beats a PS3...
'Riggers, Felipe is faster than you.' Nobody said this to me as I tentatively accelerated past a virtual version of the Silverstone Wing in Shell's £300,000 F1 simulator; they didn't need too. You do not get a good lap time at the home of the British GP by careening across the grass and almost missing the entire corner of Becketts.

Riggers, Felipe is faster than you...
Riggers, Felipe is faster than you...
Officially, we visited the Science Museum in London to learn more about the relationship between Shell oils and lubricants and Formula One; in reality we were there to have a go on a pukka F1 simulator and to meet Felipe Massa.

And what a piece of kit a modern F1 simulator is. Shell's example doesn't have as much hydraulic ram trickery as ones belonging to F1 teams, but otherwise it's a serious piece of kit. A gamer's wet dream, in fact.

It uses the exact software as The Scuderia's sim, the body parts are hand-built by Ferrari itself, the control weights are set up to precisely mirror Massa's actual race car, and the steering wheel, as with all full-on F1 simulators, is made by McLaren Technologies (which no doubt sticks in the craw for some at Maranello). Everything else is high-end, too - the projectors alone cost £10,000.

Massa: another day at the office
Massa: another day at the office
For us pleb journos, most of the more detailed aspects of the simulation are switched off - we don't have KERS or DRS to play with, for example, and the tyre degradation function has been disabled. But otherwise this is the real deal. It's as close to being at Silverstone in a Ferrari as you're going to get (although perhaps not as wet as Friday's practice for the GP was...). How close? It's within 5mm of the real circuit and the topography is recorded by a truck that trundles around the track at 1mph - and costs around £30K in track time to cover a circuit like Silverstone.

And I'm lucky enough to have a go at a hot lap or two with Felipe Massa sitting beside me (not actually in the cockpit; that would be absurd). As track instruction goes, it surely doesn't get any cooler than having a real-life F1 driver give you tips.

I ask him how long he spends in F1 simulators - something that's a lot more important than it used to be with the restricted testing in F1 these days. "I've spent two days preparing for Silverstone on it," he tells me, "but I don't know how much time I spend on the simulator overall - though it's a lot!"

It's also a much more efficient way to learn a circuit. "You get a lot more track time, because when you're done with a session you can just switch it off and get out." In short, there's no need for installation laps, no need for warm-up and cool-down periods and no need to lug several articulated lorries to a distant racetrack.

The bit of F1 life we're not jealous of...
The bit of F1 life we're not jealous of...
It's also a thoroughly realistic development tool both for the driver and the car. We're not talking a PS3 attached to a big screen and bits of an F1 car; all the same telemetry used on the pit wall of a GP can be generated so that reams of data can be collected. I do wonder if it isn't a bit odd for a driver, though, not being able to feel the g-force of accelerating, cornering or braking.

"Yeah, it's a bit weird at first," says Massa, "Maybe for the first few laps you don't try as hard as you don't have all the same sensations, but you get used to it. Mind you a lot of drivers struggle with sims, particularly the older ones who haven't grown up with them."

I can see how it would be a bit weird, but my problems are entirely different. A full-on simulator like this really gives you an appreciation of just how alien an experience an F1 car must be compared to more lowly formulae. There's simply so much grip, so much acceleration and so much braking capability that you have to completely re-calibrate your ideas of what is possible.

"please get this gurning idiot out of my car"
"please get this gurning idiot out of my car"
So while I'm tentatively thinking about powering out of a corner, slowly blending the throttle in, Massa has calmly been saying "full power now" for a good couple of seconds. My final lap time shows definitively that I will not be joining an F1 grid anytime soon - where Massa clocked a 1m 34s time, more or less identical to Alonso's best lap from the 2011 race, I managed a 1m 49.6s. I think Massa's seat at Ferrari is safe for now...

P.H. O'meter

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