Wednesday 28 March 2012

Pure Tech Racing

It has been along time since I sat in a single seater. Technically it still is a long time because the single seater I sat in the other day wasn't really a single seater at all! Confused? I am. Shall I start again?

The year was 2012 and it was the dizzying height of British summer time. March. We have had a lovely March here. I even sat down the beach with my girlfriend last Sunday and enjoyed a Pimms.
But as the weekend ended and April began, the news was already talking about snow in Scotland. As sub-zero temperatures loomed, one Scottish man considered wearing a pair of trousers, then decided against it. Emergency services had begun stockpiling essentials like Scotch and deep-fried Mars bars in preparation for the cataclysmic winter which would sweep our nation. It will roll down the country, obliterating any hope we had of a nice summer.

So, anyway, it was March. And a friend of mine made the unfortunate error earlier in the year, of agreeing to marry some girl.
The chap in question is head honcho on a Formula Student team. Formula Student, for the uninitiated and those too lazy to Google, is a University challenge where groups of students learning motorsport technology can design, build and race cars. This happens at Universities all over the world, then they have a big race meeting at Silverstone, where the cars break down and the students all get drunk and watch Big Bang Theory.

For his surprise stag effort, we took the budding victim, err, I mean, groom to be, to Pure Tech Racing in Gatwick. The venue looks, from the outside, like a professional race shop. Inside is impressive too with a cafe and row of Grand Turismo cabinets for people to play whilst waiting for the real simulators. There were a couple of F1 cars. Oh, and the new Mini Cooper Cabriolet parked in the lobby.

The first thing they do is check your literacy by making you write your name clearly on a piece of paper. It was a shaky start but with teamwork, grit and determination, we were able to overcome this first hurdle.

The next thing they do is give you a drivers briefing.

The drivers briefing is brief and mostly for the drivers. It  contains the usual "red means stop, green means go, one way around, no bumping" you know the drill.

After that it is qualifying. The game room is massive and looks like the bridge of a starship. The games cabinets are laid out like a proper race car and do all proper race car things. They have four point harnesses and even in softy softy billy bunter mode, they can still pull 1.5g. In race mode, it is possible to have an accident in the game which moves the cabinet so violently that all the monitors smash.

Pure Tech Racing use their own track so that there is no advantage to race track veterans like your old and crusty scriber over here. I, of course, kept quiet about my racing history, just in case they had any other handicaps they could put on me. All I have ever wanted in life is an unfair advantage and it seems like whenever I get one, some git wants to take it away from me.

You start in the pit lane. There is no clutch in the simulator which makes it considerably easier to move than a real race car. It is still possible to stall the car though. Once you get on the track the car is as close to driving a real formula car as most people will get. It uses a sequential box with paddle shift which made me mindful of the old Baby Grand with the motorcycle box. I used to spend lots of time wondering what gear I was in when I was racing that...
After a few wonky gear changes, locked brakes and getting used to the steering wheel feedback, it was time to examine the track.

You get about 15 minutes for qualifying and the track isn't too taxing so you are not rushed into learning all this stuff. From the start line there is a chicane which, when you're on a flyer, you will use all the curb and go into it a lot faster than I ever managed in my time on the simulator. After a few pretty ragged attempts, I opted to go in slower and have an easier time of it. If you take too much curb here, you have one of those monitor-breaking accidents that I told you about earlier. You can actually die in the game. If you have a big enough wreck, you have to start the lap again from the pit lane. And, for added realism, the race instructor stabs you in the heart with a ski pole.
After the chicane, the track opens out into a very fast sequence of bends interrupted by a couple of hairpins. Like all racing, there is an art involved. The computer car has peculiarities as does the computer track. All of these must be mastered to be really fast. However it is easy enough for the total novice to have a pretty good stab at a decent lap time just by hitting the marks, learning the basic line and where to slow down.

After qualifying there was a very civilised coffee break where I could gloat about how fast I was and the instructor could explain to the other drivers why I was so much better than them. They give you a proper data logging read out with a speed trace of the tracks lap record and of your effort. It is all very proper and gives you ideas to work on for when you get back in the cabinet for the race.

The race itself is about 13 laps or fifteen minutes, whichever comes first. Our race started, as many simulator races do, with a monumental pile up in the chicane. It all started, as it often does, when Billy Big Balls decided to make a bid for the lead from the last row of the grid. Fortunately, my main competitor and I, had already gone by then. We raced as far as the next hairpin where he promptly drove off the track and into the boon docks and I never saw him again. I tried a few different lines with the car and a few different driving styles, which the car didn't really reward. That said though, we were on the billy bunter setting and I dare say, the more realistic the game gets, the harder you have to work. The car was built to be easier to drive. More importantly, fun to drive. And that it was, after the race everyone agreed that it was fantastic and we shall definitely be doing it again.

After the race there is official results, more data logging sheets and even a real podium. No spraying stuff at people though.

All in all it is a great evenings entertainment. Everyone should drive a formula racing car just for the experience. If you cant get to do that, then do this instead. In fact, even if you have driven a formula car, still do this. It is a very worthwhile driving experience.

I won by the way.

***All the crap you see written here is Kelvin's opinion and not that of his associates, race team or marketing partners.***

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