Porsche - Everything under control
Everything under control

What looks like a colossal video game—Porsche Motorsports’ driving simulator at the Weissach Research and Development Center—provides crucial knowledge about the 919 Hybrid. It’s the race before the race.

Tertre Rouge, an extended bend to the right, in fourth gear. Giving gas, accelerating out of it while the shift display lights up in green, yellow, then red. Brendon Hartley quickly flicks the shift toggle to fifth gear. At 199 mph on the Mulsanne straight, he heads for the first chicane. He brakes down to third gear. The crash barriers and the buildings lining the course fly past. He hears the engine screech. The cockpit jolts as he drives over the yellow-blue curbs. If he steps on the brake, he’ll be pressed into the safety belt. Yet he isn’t moving forward as much as an inch.

Hartley, a 24-year-old Porsche factory driver, is chasing the clock in Le Mans—without leaving Weissach. He’s sitting in Porsche Motorsports’ driving simulator. The cockpit, which currently corresponds to that of the RS Spyder but soon will give way to the 919 Hybrid, sits enthroned like a space capsule on six stilts five feet high. It’s framed by an enormous semicircular screen showing the virtual racetrack. “Brendon, is everything all right?” asks development engineer Kai Fritzsche, who’s sitting behind him in a control room with three computer screens, separated from the simulator by a glass wall. Fritzsche is watching diagrams reminiscent of an ECG, generated in real time by the software.

What might look like a dream come true for fans of computer games is actually the development team’s nerve center. The engineers use not only actual test-drives on racecourses but also Porsche Motorsports’ driving simulator as a test lab. Its main job is not to train the drivers, who use it to simulate real races, but rather to assist the engineers. Nowhere else can you test new components and different setup adjustments and strategies under constant and nearly real conditions throughout the year. Or drive the same day in Le Mans, Bahrain, and Monza. “For a real test-drive you need to get the new components and the team to the course, and you’re dependent on the weather,” says Fritzsche. “But you don’t have to worry about that here. We always create the conditions we need to let us try out new developments promptly, at low cost, to get a general idea. All we need is an engineer and a driver.”

Hartley is one of the drivers with the most experience. A native of New Zealand, he was a simulator development driver in Formula One. His victories in real races include the Eurocup 2.0 of the World Series by Renault in 2007. Last season he entered Le Mans and the European Le Mans Series in the LMP2 class (Le Mans prototypes). This season he is one of six factory drivers who will enter the LMP1 class of the World Endurance Championship with the Porsche 919 Hybrid. The legendary highlight of the WEC is the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

While Hartley drives through stretches of the course with sonorous names such as Mulsanne, Arnage, and the Porsche curves, the simulator’s stilts move back and forth on a large platform like the legs of a spider. These movements make drivers feel like they’re actually sitting in a 919 Hybrid. “The brakes really feel great,” says Hartley over the microphone to Fritzsche. After about 15 minutes he takes a break, removing his helmet to reveal a blond mane still perfectly in place. The simulator moves to the very edge to let him climb out. Because the platform under the stilts is extremely sensitive and the stilts slide over the steel like air cushions, even a small scratch would be disastrous.

Even experienced race-car drivers need a while to get used to the simulator, because it requires the human body to struggle with a phenomenon like the converse of seasickness. On a ship we feel uncomfortable when our eyes don’t detect movement but our body rolls from side to side. On a virtual racetrack, by contrast, we seem to be moving but our body isn’t budging. It’s like playing a trick on the brain. “All in all, I wouldn’t want to miss the experience,” says Hartley. “It’s very realistic. I can sense even tiny changes in the setup, such as whether the car is under- or over-steering. Especially with the new regulations on hybrid technology, every second in the simulator is valuable because we can also test strategies.”

In the control room, Fritzsche makes just a few clicks with the mouse to select a new setup via the software. He can create vehicle setups from a wealth of more than a thousand parameters. There’s no limit to the imagination here. “The most important adjustments to the setup have to do with strategy, aerodynamics, and balance. In theory we could even simulate a car with 5,000 horsepower, or one that weighs less than a third of an ounce.” The basic construct of this physical model is shared with Porsche’s standard-series development. The method is the same, although series production has different priorities than racing, where the aim is to work so close to reality that the virtual lap times correspond to those on the circuit.

Several computers stacked up in glass cabinets transmit the programming data to the simulator. The special feature of this model is that it stands on six stilts, which in turn are connected to three additional extensions. This construction gives the system nine degrees of freedom instead of just six. While drivers on a real racetrack feel 4.5 times the acceleration of gravity, the simulator still manages to let them feel a 3.5-fold increase—if only for brief periods of time. Another way to provide a realistic driving sensation is to make the visuals as authentic as possible. To achieve this, specially designed laser systems are used to measure the racecourses, which let drivers perceive details like bumps on the track.

It’s hard to imagine how realistic the simulator really is if you’ve never sat in the driver’s seat yourself. Click, click. The safety belts are fastened, and a few seconds later I’m in the pit lane of Le Mans. There are a bunch of knobs next to the steering wheel that I don’t even want to know about. My heart is pounding as I step on the gas and start driving. It doesn’t take long before I drive over the curbs in my quest for the ideal line and am suddenly jolted from head to toe. As I flick the toggle switch to shift down, I hear the engine shrieking in my earphones. Along the side of the course I catch a glimpse of the trailers where fans will spend the night.

After a few minutes I’m sympathizing with Hartley. My stomach feels queasy, and it’s hard to concentrate. I’m distracted for just an instant and lose control of the car. The crash barriers loom. I brace myself for a huge collision … but there’s nothing. Instead Fritzsche’s voice comes through the microphone: “Don’t worry, that can happen. You have to push the pause button, and then press reset.” A moment later I’m back on the course at the wheel of an undamaged car.

I have to smile, because the reset button for real racing cars has yet to be invented.

A Lap with Brendon Hartley:

1 Tertre Rouge
“I really like this part of the course. It’s a very fast curve that requires big commitment on the entry. Because of the long straight that follows, the drive out of the curve is very important for your lap time. You’ve got to hit the perfect apex and look out for the curbs because they could send you home early.”

2 Chicanes
“The two chicanes are similar; they’re just mirror images. You approach both at about 200 mph, then you drive through them in second gear. While not being raced on, this part of the circuit is public roads, and these two corners are actually made up of roundabouts. Both chicanes require you to carry brakes through the first apex and prepare the second apex for a good exit.”

3 Mulsanne
“The braking phase before the Mulsanne curve is essential; we shift down to second gear here. It’s quite hard to keep the car going straight because the braking phase has a kink in it; this makes the braking phase technical and difficult to get perfect. Passing traffic on braking can also be tricky because of the kink in the road.”

4 Indianapolis
“We take the right-hander in sixth gear with only a brush of the brake pedal. There is only a very short exit after the right, which means we can carry huge speed through the apex without worrying about the exit speed. A nice banked left-hander comes immediately after, which means you do need to keep the car tight on the exit of the fast right.”

5 Arnage
“This is the slowest part of the course, which we take in first gear. It always seems dirty here, so you have very little grip on the road. Your focus should be on getting out of the curve. You can often see smoke rising from the fans’ barbecues along the side of the track, but you can’t let yourself get distracted.”

6 Porsche curves
“This is my favorite part, because it’s so fast. We enter it in fifth gear. It’s not easy to pass cars on this long fast right curve. If you’re impatient here you’ll risk an accident. Without traffic this curve is really fun. Then you go through the two left curves at nearly top speed in sixth gear. It’s important to be precise and drive as close as possible to the curb without touching it, otherwise the car will be displaced. The last left curve is the most difficult section as it has off camber which tries to push the car away from the apex. This section requires big commitment and separates the boys from the men. You’re certainly wide awake after you’ve gone through the Porsche curves.”

7 Start and finish
“At night you see all the lights and the Ferris wheel. It’s like another world. You can feel this atmosphere in the car, too. You just have to be careful when driving into the pit lane, because it’s often narrow and dirty.”

By Charlotte Tiersen
Photos by Jürgen Tap