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AUTOSPORT tries Toyota's $1m F1 simulator
Toyota's European motorsport division is still in business even if its no longer building F1 cars. So AUTOSPORT was invited to Cologne to try the F1 simulator the team used until 2009 - now available for hire. Resident racer Ben Anderson jumped in the cockpit for a training session

  By Ben Anderson
Ben Anderson tries out Toyota's F1 simulator

The Formula 1 dream is dead, but Toyota's F1 factory is still very much alive.

Since the Japanese manufacturer abandoned the pinnacle of the sport at the end of 2009, its F1 factory in Cologne, Germany, has downsized from over 700 employees to fewer than 200.

During its eight seasons in F1, Toyota built up an impressive array of engineering facilities – all in pursuit of the elusive first grand prix victory that never came.

Engine dynos, gearbox rigs, load-testing machines, a full-size wind tunnel, a centre of gravity rig, resonance rig... the list of manufacturer largesse goes on.

Now, this veritable engineer's wonderland is all for hire – keeping the pennies pouring in and Toyota's remaining staff in gainful employment tackling various innovative projects, automotive and otherwise.

The fastest limo in the world and an electric Radical-based sportscar powered by KERS technology have both come out of the embers of Toyota's extinguished F1 fire.

Toyota Motorsport
Toyota Motorsport

Moving further into the bowels of the Cologne base, one finds Toyota's un-raced TF110s – one resplendent in test-mule black carbonfibre, the other draped by a dustsheet having completed only a handful of laps around a makeshift test track.

Abortive deals with Stefan GP and HRT to take Toyota's last design into F1 on a customer basis fell through, so the TF110 will remain un-raced, for now...

Nestled deep inside the belly of the beast, beyond a display of the team's past F1 and World Rally cars (plus the gorgeous 1998 'GT-One' sportscar) sits Toyota's state of the art F1 simulator.

Toyota spent a seven-figure sum developing this tool over the last two seasons of its F1 adventure. It uses a cockpit from the 2007 TF107, hooked up to a six-degrees-of-freedom electronic motion platform, which gives the simulator the ability to move in all directions and create sensations of pitch, yaw and roll as the driver accelerates, brakes and corners.

The driver uses a genuine F1 steering wheel, complete with full range of working buttons and dials to adjust fuel maps, diff settings and the like. The simulator is hooked up to a full-blown F1 braking system to help better re-create the feeling of stopping the car through the left foot. It even artificially adds weight as you press the pedal, to simulate braking loads through your leg.

The visuals are beamed onto a 220-degree fixed screen that runs along a concave wall at the front of the cockpit. The system is fitted with the standard McLaren-designed F1 ECU, which also collects data for analysis by Toyota's engineers.

The simulator is run by ex-Renault and Force India engineer Mathieu Le Nail, who came to Toyota in December 2008 and became the company's senior vehicle simulation engineer after a spell on the F1 test team. He is among those who worked closely with ex-Toyota F1 driver Timo Glock to refine the simulator, which became so accurate that Toyota used it to evaluate developments on its real 2009 racer.

"When I arrived at Toyota I did a lot of work there with the guys to develop the simulator and that was quite a good experience," says Glock. "At the end, if you can use this tool to prepare yourself for a weekend, that's quite positive.

"I did a lot of work in it before and after nearly every grand prix – working on baseline set-up and improving the simulator itself. Especially with no testing, it's a good tool and a lot of fun.

"It's a pretty high standard simulator from my point [of view] – set-up work was possible, new parts from the windtunnel you just put it in the simulator, drove it and felt the difference.

"Sometimes, if you had really, really small updates it was quite difficult to feel it in the simulator and sometimes not 100 per cent matching to the real car, but bigger updates and the mechanical work was pretty spot-on."

Toyota's simulator may well be highly accurate, but what is it like to drive? Well, for a price starting at €4000 (with full engineering support) for a day, you can find out for yourself.

Toyota plans to hire this facility out to drivers and race teams – allowing them to develop their own vehicle models on a confidential basis. All Toyota requires is accurate real-life data on which to base the simulation.

A primitive GP2 programme is already underway, as is the facility for switching to a roofed cockpit (based on a Toyota Celica) to allow GT and touring car teams to make use of the system. In an effort to better promote this facility, AUTOSPORT has been invited to try Toyota's simulator first hand.

The car model we are using is the TF109 as it finished the 2009 season. The scene is the Circuit de Catalunya, near Barcelona. This is one of 14 F1 venues available - and the Marina Bay street track in Singapore is due to come online soon.

As simulators have taken off, circuits have become wise to the need to copy their layouts. Many now demand that you use the circuit's own endorsed track scanning company and thus charge large 'entry fees' (€50,000!) for the privilege. This is a lucrative market because any simulator is only really as good as its range of up-to-the-minute track layouts. Fortunately for us, this version of Barcelona is bang up to date.

I have limited experience of racing simulators, but have tried two at sub-F1 level that don't employ a motion platform. Motion platforms are expensive and many drivers become ill when they are used. Seven-time F1 world champion Michael Schumacher is reportedly one such driver.

Because of concerns I might also suffer from motion sickness, we begin by running this simulator with the motion platform switched off. This proves disastrous. I feel like I'm simply playing a very expensive computer game – and not playing it particularly well.

As soon as Le Nail turns the motion platform on, my experience is transformed. Suddenly I can absorb sensations through the seat when running over bumps and kerbs, I can feel the back of the car step out if I'm too greedy with the throttle, and I can feel the nose dive under braking. What's more, these sensations feel realistic, although there is a slight disconnect between the motion platform and the movement of the car on the track when it slides.

Toyota has worked hard with its drivers to overcome problems with accurately modelling the tyres (the chief difficulty for all simulators) and thus properly simulating brake-locking and wheelspin. Even though the visuals look like they've been taken from a pre-millennium Playstation game, such well-produced car behaviour traits are very good at making the driver feel like they are operating the real thing. There is still the occasional software glitch here and there (the system crashes during one of my runs) but with your mind suitably tricked, you can begin to focus on actually driving the thing – and looking for laptime.

I start the day six seconds shy of Toyota-contracted Sauber star Kamui Kobayashi's benchmark time (which Mathieu informs me is slightly faster than what's possible at Barcelona) and finish it 2.5s adrift. My best time (1m21.980) is just over a second adrift of Glock's Q1 time from the '09 Spanish GP and just under eight tenths adrift of Jarno Trulli's, but I have the advantage of driving the car with the rest of that season's developments on board. Improvement comes mainly through increased familiarisation and working on braking technique. My best lap though, comes courtesy of a late-in-the-day low-fuel glory run.

The most impressive aspect of this final effort is not my 1.4s improvement in laptime, but the fact this gain tallies exactly with calculations of how much time I should find with 40kg of fuel removed from the car – illustrating further just how accurate Toyota's model is.

It's hard not to be impressed by such technology, and from an engineer's point of view a simulator with a full range of set-up parameters and data sensors is undoubtedly a vital development tool in an age of limited track time. But from the driver's perspective, this simulator still suffers from a degree of the same issue that affects all simulators – a lack of 'feel' and thus realism.

"I would say it is pretty close to it – the big part that you miss is the G-force," says Glock. "You could get it quite close to the real car in driving, but you can never simulate 5G in the simulator, or 3.5, or 4."

This is something that reportedly alienated Glock's former Toyota team-mate Trulli from simulator work – he couldn't feel exactly the same sensations as he would in a real car, so he dismissed the experience.

"Jarno was not the biggest fan of the simulator," explains Glock. "He just didn't feel what was going on, but I had fun – I enjoyed it.

"Jarno needs the G-force to feel what the car is doing, whereas for some reason the platform gave me the feedback and I did understand how the simulator works."

Having driven it, I think I can relate to Trulli's problem. The success of a simulator depends entirely on how many accurate sensations, or 'cues', it can recreate to make the driver believe they are in a real car. Realistic visuals, accurate motion, believable controls, all help better create the likelihood that a driver will feel like they are in a proper car and thus gain the most from the experience.

For drivers like me, who have never driven a real F1 car, this is a great opportunity to explore some, but not all, of what an F1 driver goes through – what it's like to sit in the cockpit and use the controls, the issues they have with braking and how they manage wheelspin from an F1 engine's tremendous torque.

For drivers that have already got lots of genuine F1 seat time under their belt – like Trulli – this is only ever going to be a sub-standard experience. It doesn't look real, the sim can't replicate constantly changing real-life atmospheric and track conditions, you can't sense the car's movement across the surface through its contact patches and you can't experience the forces of acceleration, deceleration and cornering. This means it is much harder to find the limit in a simulator – and much easier to crash – but that doesn't mean it can't be a useful experience.

"It is definitely a useful tool for learning a track; it was a big help [to me] before Abu Dhabi," says Kobayashi, who completed 1300km of running on the new Middle Eastern circuit before his F1 debut in 2009, and 5750km of total Toyota simulator running before he drove a proper F1 car. "It was good experience for me to have a couple of tests on a new track. It's not a real car but it is close."

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Ben Anderson is AUTOSPORT's Grand Prix Editor and one of our track testers. He holds an undergraduate degree in journalism studies from the University of Sheffield and joined the magazine in March of 2008, after eight months working in local newspaper journalism for award-winning weekly the Surrey Mirror.

He has raced in karts and cars since the age of 11 and this year will compete in Formula Ford 1600 around his reporting commitments for AUTOSPORT.
Contact Ben Anderson
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