Test ban puts F1 drivers on virtual tracks
Lewis Hamilton will have driven every twist and turn of the new Abu Dhabi circuit long before the season-ending race makes its debut on the Formula One calendar in November.
Britain's world champion will not even have to leave McLaren's Woking headquarters to do it, either.
With actual testing banned from next week until the end of December as part of cost-cutting measures agreed by all teams, leading drivers will be lapping virtual racetracks more than ever this year.
"I think we'll be spending more time here in the simulator," said Hamilton's Finnish team mate Heikki Kovalainen when asked how he would fill the time that would have been spent testing.
"I'll probably have sore eyes after a few days from looking at the screen," he added.
The Williams team's Nico Rosberg observed wryly last month that driving a Formula One car on a real racetrack now constituted the smallest part of his job description.
"We have two little practice sessions on Friday, a very small one on Saturday, a couple of laps in qualifying and then the race. It's not really great," said the German.
Williams FW31 on the race track
If the race drivers are complaining, then pity the teams' official test drivers.
BMW-Sauber's Austrian reserve Christian Klien, a former racer with Jaguar and Red Bull, winced when asked what exactly he did as a test driver now that in-season testing was banned.
"I think it's getting paid and having holidays," he said. "This year I am in the kitchen and preparing the food for these two drivers," he joked, gesturing at team mates Nick Heidfeld and Robert Kubica.
Klien will have to attend every race in case one of the regulars cannot race. McLaren, who have already admitted that their car is too slow at present, will be keeping their men busy in other ways as well.
Apart from Hamilton and Kovalainen, the Mercedes-powered team can count on Spaniard Pedro de la Rosa and Britain's Gary Paffett as testers.
"I think one of the questions that would be on everybody's lips is, when you are not testing between the first and the last race how come we've got four drivers?," said team chairman Ron Dennis in January.
"But we are fully committed to exploring every possibility as regards how we develop the car and of course we need a reserve driver, that's Pedro, and we need a lot of capacity for our simulator.
"For that to work you really have to have drivers with all the same attributes that are expected of a driver when he actually tests the car on the circuit."
Williams demonstrate KERS system
McLaren's simulator is widely regarded as the most advanced in the sport, although they are cagey about the details.
What is known is that it is a full-size, hydraulically-operated chassis that can be fed highly complex data to replicate every circuit and all conceivable conditions. The track is followed on a wrap-around screen.
Hamilton used it extensively before and during his astonishing 2007 rookie season.
Former world champions Williams have something similar that can be seen on video-sharing website You Tube being tried out by former grand prix racer Mark Blundell.
Red Bull, with former McLaren designer Adrian Newey overseeing their technical side, are also believed to have invested heavily in the technology.
"Simulation is not new but I think we did really bring it to Formula One more aggressively than anyone has in the past and hopefully that will give us an advantage this season," said Dennis.
"It certainly was a shock to many of the teams when we realised how much money we could save by stopping testing. We think we are pretty fortunate to be strong in simulation at a time when its going to play such a crucial role."
McLaren's new team principal Martin Whitmarsh, who joined from British Aerospace in 1989, introduced the simulator project a decade ago.
"It has become one of the most valuable tools in our technology lineup," said Dennis.
The simulator also allows the team to try out new ideas.
During the 2007 McLaren-Ferrari spy scandal, an e-mail came to light in which De la Rosa asked former chief designer Mike Coughlan if he had details of the Ferrari's weight distribution so he could try it out in the simulator.
All Formula One teams are also heavily into other forms of simulation, particularly the use of computational fluid dynamics (CFD) - sometimes referred to as a "wind tunnel in a computer".
This allows designers to simulate how parts of the car deform under load and to measure airflow to increase grip and cornering speeds.
"Probably 95 plus percent of every development on the car in 2008 was the result of development and research and simulation that was conducted (at Woking)," said Dennis.
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