When F1's young drivers hit the track in Jerez last week it was no coincidence that Red Bull driver Daniel Ricciardo ended up setting the fastest time - he'd already driven an F1 car there...virtually.
Ricciardo (pictured), the reigning British Formula Three champion and part of Red Bull's young driver programme, had never been on the Jerez track before he drove the Red Bull Racing F1 car out of the garage last Tuesday, but the wonders of modern technology ensured he was ready to make the most of his opportunity and help the team gain from the three-day test.
Before the outing, the young Australian and his fellow Red Bull young driver programme member Brendon Hartley, who tested in Jerez for Toro Rosso, had familiarised themselves with the track by driving around it in the world-leading Red Bull Racing simulator based at the team's headquarters in Milton Keynes.
In recent years, inexperienced drivers have turned to computer games to familiarise themselves with a new circuit before going out on track. Doing this gives them a general understanding of the circuit layout, the braking points and, as graphics on games have improved, the scenery they will be passing as they drive around the track.
There are, however, limits to the level of benefit this technique can provide because while games creators do all they can to simulate cars and car effects as closely as possible, they will never have access to the full details of how the real cars behave.
Games give an indication of how the track is likely to drive, but for a talented youngster they probably provide little more benefit than they would get from looking over a course map marked with gear change points and doing a couple of exploration laps at the start of the session.
Some teams have taken it a step further, using their own data to create games-style simulators with cars whose driveability are modelled to more closely reflect the true performance of the real car.
Red Bull, however, are one of several teams that now have full F1 chassis simulators, and theirs comes complete with full pitch-yaw-roll motion, braking pedal stiffness, power steering with aerodynamic loading effect, and all the things you would expect to experience in an F1 car out on track.
By driving a virtual Red Bull Racing machine around the Jerez track before the test, Ricciardo was able to learn how it would really feel to drive on the circuit, with the simulator programmed to have the same set-up and fuel weights as he would have when he took to the track for real.
Sure, it didn't really prepare him for the experience of having other cars on track - as demonstrated when Ricciardo and Hartley both spun and narrowly avoided each other on the opening day - but it certainly got him over the hurdle of that first outing experience.
Sure enough, Ricciardo was just 0.376 seconds off the lead pace on his first day when he ran on heavy fuel and completed 112 laps on his way to fourth place in the times. The next morning he was fastest of all and finished the day third, and on the final day he lapped more than 1.3s faster than his closest rival to claim fastest time of the test.
The computer age is definitely here.
- Daniel Ricciardo
- Red Bull