Punctuated by a blare of revs from the hybrid V6 motor behind me, I almost threw it into the barriers with my very first squeeze of the accelerator pedal. Miraculously, I catch the slide with a quarter-turn of opposite lock, quickly shift up a couple of gears and continue towards the fearsome uphill slalom of Eau Rouge, arguably the most famous corner of any Formula One circuit. I brake a little, negotiate the left-right-left and emerge unscathed onto the long Kemmel straight. The rate of acceleration, brutal just a few seconds earlier, subsides as speed builds and I have a moment to process what just happened.
I’m not actually in a Formula One car, and nor am I lapping the Belgian circuit of Spa-Francorchamps. Instead I’m sitting in a simulator called the DMG-1 Motorsport, in the office of Dynisma, a sim builder based outside Bristol in the west of England.
The DMG-1 was already heralded by journalists who sat here before me as the world’s greatest and most realistic driving simulator. It’s easy to see why. While I’ve not driven an actual F1 car, I have been fortunate enough to try out the Mercedes-AMG team’s driver-in-loop simulator – the same Lewis Hamilton uses to learn new circuits – and I’ve spent a few hours driving virtual Formula cars at Base Performance Simulators, the sim business run by Le Mans winner Darren Turner.
Both were mighty impressive, but where Dynisma says its technology stands apart is in that moment right at the start, where I caught the slide without really thinking about it. It was partly blind luck, of course, but what’s key here is the DMG-1’s latency, or rather lack of it.
Ash Warne, CEO and chief engineer at Dynisma, explains how other simulators have a latency of 30 to 40 milliseconds – that’s the time between the car receiving input from its virtual environment, like a loss of grip, and the driver experiencing that action. Since the reaction time of an elite athlete like a Formula One driver is around 100 milliseconds, a simulator delivering information to their eyes, hands and ears 40 seconds after the fact increases their reaction time by 40 percent.
Warne says, “What that means is it’s sort of impossible to catch [a slide] in a car that’s quite edgy, like a race car on slick tires…And because of that issue, [test drivers] can’t drive the car naturally, the way they would on a racetrack.”
To work around this latency, and prevent the driver from constantly failing to catch slides, other simulators “engineer understeer into the vehicle model, which is unrealistic and it’s not correlated to what [the race team] really run in real life,” Warne adds.
By contrast, Dynisma’s DMG-1 has a latency of between three and five milliseconds, its makers say. This helps drivers reach the natural limit of adhesion because the car is reacting more realistically, without the artificial understeer, and they can react instinctively to problems, like a sudden jolt of tail-sliding oversteer, because the information is fired to their senses quickly enough for them to do something about it.
“There’s nobody that’s close to that latency,” Warne tells me, adding how Dynisma’s superior technology is a blend of hardware and software. It’s also a step away from the flight simulation-derived technology used by other sims, and is instead an entirely fresh approach.
Despite its humble presence in the unit of Bristolian industrial estate, Dynisma already counts Ferrari as a customer, having delivered a simulator to the Italian F1 team in 2021. Given the precious-little real-world testing time available to F1 teams, owing to a reduction in costs intended to help level the playing field, simulators capable of operating day and night are more important than ever.
Back to Spa Francorchamps, and I’m behind the wheel of a generic, unnamed F1 car from the 2019 season. I’m sitting in a carbon fiber tub, complete with a realistic steering wheel festooned with buttons and switches, and a seating position akin to laying in a bath, feet raised well above hips. I’m surrounded by a massive projection of the virtual world and I’m wearing a helmet with a headset and microphone for speaking to an engineer. I mostly fill this communication channel by apologizing for crashing and the system needing to be reset.
The simulator is powered by 10 computers, five of which are responsible for the graphics, with one calculating the physics, one controlling the hardware, and others for ancillary systems. The computers communicate over high bandwidth field buses and exchange information 4,000 times a second.
The carbon tub is held aloft on a platform that can move in six directions to simulate longitudinal and lateral forces, plus heave, roll, pitch and yaw. It can rotate by more than 60 degrees per second, and up to 22 inches in either direction on the lateral and longitudinal axis. It can’t quite replicate the violent straight-line acceleration of a Formula One car, and nor can it serve up the 5Gs of braking force F1 drivers are subjected to. But it’s still the brutal sensory overload I secretly hoped it would be.
The sense of speed isn’t quite there, but the physicality is massive. I spend a good couple of hours in the sim, mostly lapping Spa in an F1 car, and by the end I’m exhausted. My hands are starting to blister, my left leg can no longer press the brake pedal hard enough and I’m in need of a break and a cool down.
While I enjoy a much-needed glass of water, the sim is loaded up with a generic street car. Dynisma won’t reveal exactly what it is, other than saying it’s a moderately powerful and rear-wheel-drive sedan. I climb back in and this time instead of a race track I’m greeted by a virtual proving ground, complete with numerous driving lanes for trying out different road surfaces.
I drive towards a lane filled with speed bumps that feel uncannily realistic. This demonstration might lack the drama of sending an F1 car through Eau Rouge flat-out, but the simulation is no less impressive. The speed bumps feel exactly as they do in the real world. So too the cobbled Belgian parvé I tried next, the car rumbling and shimmying below me just as I remember from the last time I visited Bruges.
This is where Dynisma’s second business case comes into view. As well as selling simulators to race teams, it offers them to car manufacturers who now spend more time than ever developing new vehicles digitally instead of in the real world. Development now tends to begin in simulations like these, where ride quality and suspension characteristics can be tuned before a single prototype vehicle leaves the factory. Although I’m still sitting in a carbon tub, Dynisma offers manufacturers its DMG-1 Automotive, a motion sim with the same technical abilities as the motorsport version, but with the ability to incorporate an entire car cabin, complete with roof, doors and full interior.
Capable of carrying a 1,650 lbs payload, Dynisma says how the simulator is “suitable for testing ride comfort and NVH [noise, vibration and harshness], as well as any other studies where a true feeling of being in a moving vehicle is required.”
I recently spoke with engineers from Volkswagen who said they use simulators similar to this, along with virtual and mixed reality headsets, to fine-tune interior ergonomics of future vehicles long before prototypes are assembled.
Before I leave, I’m treated to one final demonstration. I’m now back in an F1 car, but this time the circuit is Monaco and I’m wearing a mixed reality headset produced by a Finnish company called Varjo. Tiny screens inside the headset show a live view of my hands on the steering wheel, captured by a camera on the front of the headset. The rest of my view is taken up by the towering apartment blocks of Monte Carlo, rendered in high-resolution 3D and with a parallax effect that causes my view of them to shift slightly as I move my head, just as real-life objects do when you peer around them.
I know the Monaco circuit fairly well, but find the experience completely overwhelming. I crash repeatedly, with each shunt into the barriers necessitating a system reset that puts me back to the start line. Tired, both mentally and physically, I start to wonder if I’ll even complete a single lap before throwing in the towel.
Slowing to a crawl, I manage to stumble my way around the tight streets of the principality. It’s a thoroughly eye opening experience. An hour ago I felt pretty confident in my ability to pilot an F1 car around a high-speed circuit like Spa without crashing. But with a virtual reality headset turning the realism up to 11, I simply couldn’t cope. The speed of the car and narrowness of the circuit, combined with the claustrophobia induced by the 3D surroundings, were too much to handle.
Humbled, I call it a day and clamber back into the real world.
Driving an F1 simulator was always going to be a fun way to spend a couple of hours. But I’ve done that before and am familiar with how these systems work. What really impressed me was the altogether more mundane experience of driving a streetcar over cobbles and speed bumps. Technology like this has the potential to save masses of time and money when it comes to the research and development of new cars.
With technology like this, physical prototypes might not be built until the last few creases need ironing out, or simply as a means of confirming what thousands or even millions of simulated driving miles have already revealed. As electric platforms with few moving parts make cars simpler, it’ll be the interior, ride quality and driving dynamics that play a greater role in defining a car’s character than its means of propulsion. Far from a pumped-up video game, simulators tech will likely play a key role in developing how our future cars ride and feel, long before they hit the street.