Around Silverstone in an F1 car (virtually)

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The Independent Online

What's it like to take on Silverstone in a Formula One car? Now that in-season testing is banned on cost grounds, the only people who will find out are the likes of Mark Webber and Sebastian Vettel, but there is another way to get a taste for one of the world's most famous tracks. At Red Bull's headquarters in Milton Keynes there's a simulator which allows you to feel "every bump, nook and cranny", as team principal Christian Horner puts it – and I had a go yesterday afternoon.

At first, it's not actually that tough. The Renault engine, if anything, feels sluggish as you sit there in a full Formula One chassis, with a 180 degree wraparound view of the new Silverstone track. Then again, it always has been easy to drive off the pace. If you boot the throttle too much in the lower gears, you can spin as if you were on ice, but actually maintaining a semblance of control isn't difficult. The difficulty arises when you try to go quickly, and that's when you get a fresh appreciation of the talent levels of all 24 drivers on the grid.

In your semi-supine position what's really tricky is seeing all the kerbs, especially once you've threaded the needle through Copse in sixth gear, at around 150 mph. Inside the cockpit you don't feel the angles adopted by the "tub" in which you are seated as much as spectators do, but come the super-fast Becketts, Maggotts, Chapel curves, spotting the kerbs at such low level requires the concentration of a heart surgeon. Wow, what's it doing over there?

The harder you push, the easier it is to run on to the grass, but at least you complete your five laps without a spin. And you are, of course, hooked. Especially when Mark Webber jumps in and annihilates your lap time by an embarrassing margin.

It's not just for fun, though. This is how the test drivers are kept busy since they can't run on the real tracks any more between March and November. Instead they rack up thousands of virtual miles in the high-tech simulators.

This helps the team make changes during the season. "In Valencia recently, Mark [Webber] and Seb [Vettel] had the biggest difference in the set-up of their chassis that they've had for a long while," Horner revealed. "Mark went for a slightly stiffer set-up, whereas Seb preferred his car softer.

"Mark's set up was a little bit quicker, a bit harder to drive and a bit harder on tyres," Horner said. "That helped us formulate our set-up for qualifying on Saturday."

The computerised software and hardware which faithfully duplicates the effects of roll, pitch and yaw is the new means by which teams develop their cars, and even by which they quantify new drivers. You can't let test driver Daniel Ricciardo loose in a real car to check him out against the likes of Webber and Vettel? Chuck him in the simulator.