Will Gray

Gray Matter: How crucial is Schumi’s sim-sickness?

Will Gray

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Much has been made of Michael Schumacher's recently revealed 'sim-sickness' - but how and why does it affect the seven-times world champion and will it be a problem for him in 2011?

Increasingly complex simulators are being used by even the smallest of teams these days, with the ability to not only give drivers virtual testing time but also to bring through new car developments and manage car set-ups away from the racetrack.

Those used by the top teams involve a full real-life cockpit, complete with pedals and actual button-filled racing steering wheel, in which a driver will sit. This cockpit is secured to a platform which sits high above the ground on a set of electro-hydraulic or mechanical legs that can move left-right, up-down and forwards-back to simulate the forces experienced by a driver while he is in the car.

This movement is determined by a computer programme, which works in a similar way to a racing game, although in F1 simulators there is a greater number of more complex programme changes that can be used to make it resemble the real car as closely as possible. This motion works in tandem with a screen, often a full 180-degree or even 360-degree wraparound, which sits right in front of the cockpit and together they trick the occupier of the machine into a virtual reality world.

The problem comes when things get out of sync.

I had the chance to drive the Red Bull simulator before the start of last season and although I was not surprised that it was difficult to get used to driving a virtual F1 car, what was surprising was how nauseating it became after just 10 virtual laps of the Bahrain circuit.

Admittedly, it doesn't help when you are spinning or going off track on almost every lap, but the motion of the rig does get to you after a while. Nausea is accentuated, however, when the eyes see one thing and the body feels another and although Red Bull's machine was well set-up it could not cope with violent changes of direction (like crashing head-on at the end of the main straight at 180mph) and even small spins created a dizziness as the screen caught up with the angle at which the chassis I was sitting in had ended up.

In contrast, of course, Schumacher would no doubt be inch-perfect on his racing line when he is in the Mercedes simulator, but if - as they suggested recently - their technology is not up to speed then it is no wonder that Schumacher is experiencing his issues.

But does it really matter?

For experienced F1 drivers, simulators are an added bonus not an essential, even in these days without track testing. During my Red Bull simulator run, Mark Webber admitted: "I would probably do about four or five simulator runs per year, mostly pre-season, development stuff, getting our head around the new car. Once the season is underway we use the test drivers to chip away at things back here while we're in the field doing our stuff."

So after all the hype around Schumacher's 'issue', if Red Bull's schedule is similar to that of Mercedes, he is really only missing out on a handful of runs in the simulator because of his adversity to it. For a seven-times world champion, this is not the be-all and end-all.

As Webber explained, the simulator is more typically used not by the race drivers to specifically set the car up for their liking before each race but by the test drivers to get a baseline for each circuit and work on the in-season developments that race drivers no longer get involved with.

So while Schumacher may miss out on a few extra laps and perhaps the opportunity of learning a new circuit like the one in India this year, ultimately - as long as Mercedes' test drivers don't suffer from nauseas - he really isn't missing a trick at all.

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