Case study: simulator preparation with Tom Rawlings ahead of Spa British GT debut

For any athlete, a first competitive event outside of your home country is a landmark occasion in your career progression. When it also takes place in a first season on the prestigious British GT grid, and at one of the most famous and challenging circuits in the world, it pays to make sure you are as prepared as possible.



Ahead of his debut race at Spa-Francorchamps this weekend in the Century Motorsport BMW M4 GT4, we headed to Base Performance Simulators near Banbury to ensure that when Tom arrives at the real circuit, he’ll already have familiarity with the venue and be able to hit the ground running in Friday practice.


While there is now a crowded market of in-house simulator companies to choose from when conducting this type of training, our choice of Base Performance was driven by their specific experience of working with endurance racing drivers, the company being owned by Le Mans stalwart and long-time Aston Martin factory driver Darren Turner. Furthermore, while BPS have an industry-leading full motion single seat simulator as part of their line up, more relevant to our current program was their bespoke GT simulator, manufactured from a genuine race chassis to aid in both realism and driver comfort.


With state of the art wraparound visuals, audio, and real-time telemetry data we were able to create a fully immersive experience with a specific structure to achieve much more than simply learning the track layout (which Tom had already been working on with his own sim rig at home).



Sim training principles


Let’s take a moment to go back to the beginning. From a point around the late 1990s when race circuits started to become more realistically recreated in video games, drivers have attempted to use them as a tool to aid in their pre-race preparation. Jacques Villeneuve famously said that he used the rudimentary games of the time as a simple method to learn new circuits during his time in Formula One. While the usefulness of this virtual practice has remained the same; the technology and realism have obviously moved on dramatically since then, as have the range of tools now available from more professional sim setups.


Professional grade facilities that were previously only available if you were an elite driver are now accessible in-house at venues like BPS alongside trained coaching staff. They are therefore a good alternative option if you don’t have the budget (or space) for a complex simulator setup at home, to be used in a targeted manner across the course of a season as part of an overall development or coaching plan.


There is a school of thought that while simulators are a useful tool for learning new circuits, there's no substitute for being in a real car, with factors like changing tyre wear, thermal dynamics, and mechanical processes being challenging to fully replicate in the virtual world.

Countering this however, the accuracy of laser scanned circuit architecture used in contemporary simulators, alongside realism of the cockpit surroundings in a custom-made GT sim rig mean that a host of benefits in addition to just familiarisation with track layouts are now available to drivers. Vehicle dynamics are increasingly becoming more like their real world counterparts as more data is collected, while multiple channels of telemetry replicate those captured in the real world. This allows engineers or coaches to work with drivers on detailed elements of their performance with direct real world application.



There is also a clear crossover with the sport psychology principles of mental rehearsal and imagery in the context of preparing for an event. Effective simulator training has parallels with the skill of imagery or mental rehearsal, in that the aim is to to train and prepare key cognitive processes that will be used on track. The fundamental rule is that this manner of rehearsal must be as immersive and rich in multi-sensory data as possible. Much like visualisation, practice in a virtual reality setting is most effective when engaging the visual, auditory, tactile, kinaesthetic and even olfactory senses in order to provide the most effective recall of that practice when the athlete arrives at the real life venue/event.


In practical terms, this might mean using headphones, getting seat position as realistic as possible, and using equipment that can provide some form of physical feedback. This is also true of software, which can sometimes be programmed to partly mirror your real cars steering wheel allowing for practice of familiar settings and operational processes in a low pressure environment. This highlights another benefit of the GT simulator we used at BPS being made from a real race car cockpit, further adding to the immersive effect that encourages effective mental rehearsal for an athlete.


Using your own race kit can also be a simple way to engage tactile feedback you’ll be familiar with from your own race vehicle, and even wearing a helmet can have benefits in restricting your vision in the same way as in the real life confines of a closed cockpit race car.



Aims and Session structure


Whether it’s your first time in a professional simulator or you’re a regular, the most important thing is to always go in with a plan, incorporating clear goals of what you want to get out of the session. In the world of triathlon/endurance coaching there is a concept called ‘junk miles’ which refers to athletes logging training time due to an obligation to hit some kind of target number for a week, month, or season. While at the time it seems like training aims are being met, in the long term these junk miles are counterproductive, as without being focused and part of an overall training plan (with regard to intensity, heart rate, race simulation etc.) they only increase training stress and risk of injury without much benefit.


It is easy to do the same in the virtual world, and logging ‘junk laps’ without a clear plan will make you learn the circuit you’re on, but little else. This is another benefit of in-house venues such as BPS, who if you are not already working alongside a driver coach with a season-long plan in place, will help you structure your sessions to make sure that you get the maximum benefit from their facility.


The main aim of our session was to replicate and rehearse key factors that Tom would experience at the race weekend around the Spa Francorchamps circuit. The British GT weekend features one hour practice sessions, and a short ten minute qualifying session for the GT4 participants. The race time at Spa is two hours with mandatory pit stops, meaning that race stint times will be approximately thirty minutes to one hour in duration. This was therefore the starting point of how we planned our time in the simulator.



We began with a thirty minute block structured to replicate the timed but unstructured nature of a free practice session. The aim was to firstly allow Tom to acclimatise to an unfamiliar cockpit setup, with a slow build and focus on delivering driving feedback during a short break which mirrored that which would usually occur in free practice at the circuit. Small details like ensuring that Tom used the same race gloves and boots that he would be wearing in his BMW race car ensured that the tactile element was captured, as well as allowing him to more easily adapt to the physical sensation of an unfamiliar pedal and steering wheel set-up in the BPS chassis.


In all sessions, Tom was instructed to go through his normal full tyre warm up procedure on the out lap, despite the fact that on this occasion we were not using any virtual tyre wear modelling. The reason for this was to aid in realism and immersion, but also establish tyre warm-up as a set pre-performance routine that will be carried through and imitate exactly how he would usually go out on track. Making the driver aware that sessions are time limited as they would be in real life is also another way of both ensuring realism and providing a slight pressured element; another factor very important in ensuring that sim sessions are applicable to the real world event the driver is training for.


Session two was another thirty minute session, this time structured to replicate focus over the course of a race stint. Now that Tom had been through his initial acclimatisation and was used to the unfamiliar cockpit set-up, he was able to go through his normal tyre warm process on the out lap again and then straight into a rhythm of consistent lap times, with his quickest from our previous practice session simulation as a visible benchmark lap delta.



We ended with two time-pressured qualifying sims (again with a full out lap tyre warm up drill) to rehearse the fact that in ten minute qualifying session around the 7km of Spa, there will likely only be time for an out lap and then a maximum of three timed laps. On the basis that any one of these could be lost due to a yellow flag or encountering traffic in the wrong place, Tom was given either two or three hot laps at my discretion to further increase the unknown pressured element of needing to get a lap on the board in such a short session. For example if a first push lap was lost due to exceeding track limits at Radillion, or the unexpected call of a ‘phantom’ yellow flag from the control room, the focus then shifted to preparing the tyres again for a second lap and ensuring there was enough time to get around the circuit for another attempt.


On the subject of track limits, this was a real focus point for us and another example in which sim sessions can be tailored to specific real world factors. With several instances of penalties being applied this year in domestic British GT rounds, and also Spa-Francorchamps being a known hot spot for track limit transgressions in recent years; we made sure that Tom was notified of any laps that would not have counted and was able to factor this in to how he approached the same corner on the next lap.


It was also extremely useful to research the changes to the circuit made for 2022, with several areas of tarmac run off now having been replaced with gravel traps in response to the ongoing issue of track limit infringement. Although all of these changes had not yet been modelled in the Assetto Corsa software, Robin from BPS was very thorough in taking us through recent real life video laps to highlight the changes. This will be supplemented by a track walk with the team ahead of Friday practice, verifying the new run offs and bringing together all of the preparation work already done in virtual form before travelling out to the venue.


Conclusion


Although any sim set up is a fantastic asset for staying prepared between races or when you can't get on track, professional in-house venues such as BPS allow a fully immersive experience, alongside trained coaching staff to allow you to get the most from your time training. With real life track time being at a premium due to costs and test day availability, simulators offer a fantastic tool to not only learn circuits and stay sharp between events, but also conduct more focused development work. The most important factor is to ensure that your time spend training virtually is as structured as your time on a real race circuit would be, and that realism and immersion make the experience as real world relevant as possible. You can find out more about the facilities at Base Performance Simulators and book a session by visiting their website here.


We’ll be heading to Spa this weekend with Tom and the team to document behind the scenes of his first international race weekend, so stay tuned here and on our social media channels for all the latest news.


British GT/Dom Gibbons Photography