DRIVE BY WIRE

The secretive Simulator Room provides a stunning sensory recreation of what it’s like to drive a McLaren on track.

 

Of the many confidential areas within the McLaren Technology Centre (MTC), the Simulator Room is shrouded in a particularly high level of secrecy. Originally a facility solely for the use of our Formula 1™ drivers and engineers, the pioneering technology and techniques developed here have now become an invaluable tool in the development of McLaren road cars and, most recently, a unique element of the McLaren P1™ GTR Driver Programme.

To discover more about this fascinating ‘virtual’ world, we’ve been given privileged access to the Simulator Room and its secrets. Best of all, we’ve been invited to meet the team who run it, and to experience ‘the sim’ first-hand with a few pixel-perfect laps of the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya in a digital facsimile of the mighty McLaren P1™ GTR.

 

 

The Simulator Room is located below ground, along one of MTC’s arcing white corridors and behind an anonymous white door. Within this inner sanctum the main simulator area is subdivided by frosted glass walls, and dominated by an impressive control desk complete with large screens and an array of controls. The sim itself sits facing a huge wraparound screen on the other side of huge, clear glass panels. It’s like a giant aquarium.

As one of the McLaren Simulation Engineers, Adam Staton is a master of this otherworldly domain. Whether it’s loading the sim with all the data it needs to mimic the dynamic behaviour of a road or race McLaren, making new drivers comfortable in this strange and rather disorientating environment, or interpreting the streams of driving data they generate, Staton is in his element.

 

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‘A driving simulator’s job is really just tricking you into thinking you’re driving a very fast car around a racetrack’ 

 

Adam Staton

Simulation Engineer - McLaren Applied Technologies

 

A driving simulator’s job is really just tricking you into thinking you’re driving a very fast car around a racetrack,’ explains Adam with obvious enthusiasm. ‘It’s not possible to replicate the real g-forces associated with cornering, braking and accelerating, so instead we rely on sophisticated sensory cues to make you believe you’re moving.’

Apparently, once duped by those initial motion cues, your poor befuddled brain will take further visual cues from the wraparound screen and the accurate physical inputs you’re making with steering and braking, and then fill in the gaps. The results are uncanny and a little unsettling – as we’re about to discover. 

 

 

To drive the McLaren sim, you have to climb into the dismembered carbon fibre ‘tub’ of a McLaren Formula 1™ race car. Once you’ve slithered in and settled – bum down, feet up – behind the rectangular switch-studded ‘wheel’, your perspective positions you perfectly in the racetrack scene portrayed before you. The tub is mounted on rails and a spidery cradle of ‘legs’ that deliver the all-important motion cues. There are additional motion cue attachments that add to the physicality of the sim – but they remain confidential, so we can’t elaborate.

Once you’ve got over the initial novelty of being in a Formula 1™ chassis, the precisely synched physical, visual and aural cues are spellbinding. It’s the ultimate slight-of-hand magic trick; you know you’re not really trying to control a McLaren P1™ GTR on a knife-edge of mechanical and aerodynamic grip, but the perspiration beading on your forehead and the involuntary whimpers made when crashing (again) evidence its immersive qualities.

Simulation is one of the many areas where McLaren has used the impetus of Formula 1™ to become an innovator in world-leading specialist technologies with a use beyond motor racing. McLaren Applied Technologies (MAT) was formed to find business opportunities for this cutting-edge ‘wonderstuff’ in the wider world. Enter MAT’s Business Director Mike Phillips to chart where McLaren’s simulator technology came from and, more intriguingly, where it’s going: 

 

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‘We went our own way with the sim, because existing road car-specific technology was sorely lacking’ 

 

Mike Phillips

Business Director - McLaren Applied Technologies

 

‘In the early days McLaren Automotive was populated by a bunch of ex-racing folk,’ explains Phillips. ‘We all knew the benefits of using simulation in our Formula 1™ programme, so we were keen to use it for our road car development. We went our own way with the sim, because existing road car-specific technology was sorely lacking. The driver needs to believe in the simulation to give meaningful feedback, while engineers have to believe in the accuracy of data it delivers. As we’ve developed the sim’s tactility and verified its results against actual cars, trust in it has grown and grown.’

Realising that there wasn’t anything like it on the market presented MAT with a huge opportunity. According to Phillips, the key was finding the right technical partner to bring the technology to market. ‘After exploring our options, we settled on US-based global business MTS Systems Corporation. They are the world leaders in building rolling roads, shaker rigs and other vehicle test solutions that all big car manufacturers use. We are utilising MTS’ mechanical hardware expertise to develop one of the most sophisticated driving simulations available. MTS will help us develop it for the market, then manufacture and sell the finished equipment. We supply the design, technical support, and some of the vehicle modelling and human cueing we’ve perfected over the last 15 years or so. We’re about to build our first dedicated road car simulator here at MTC to serve as our demonstrator and research and development platform. Then we’ll start customer sales. With more manufacturers appreciating the possibilities that simulation opens up, these are exciting times for MTC and road car development as a whole.’

 

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