The Ultimate Driving Computer Simulator?
We all get older but many of us never truly grow up. Whatever our age, we still hanker for the thrill of getting a new toy – something new to play with and show off to our friends. Buying a new car is a good example; no one needs a performance car after all, but it’s sure nice to have. Imagine, then, if you could bottle up the essence of numerous performance cars from all manner of manufacturers, along with some of the world’s most renowned motor racing circuits and put it in your living room?
Sounds fanciful, but the guys at RAID Simulators, working in partnership with 3XS Systems, have created something that is about as close to driving real cars round real tracks as you can get without actually doing it. They have achieved it through the use of an electro mechanically enabled D-Box motion actuated spaceframe, surrounded by high-definition LED displays driven by state-of-the art software. On top of this, a direct drive force feedback steering system and hydraulic pedals add to the realism.
We visited RAID at their base in Oxfordshire to see what the fuss is all about.
Greeted by enthusiastic business owners, Neil Smith and Ben Zenon, we were shown around the simulator hardware and given a brief overview of the software that runs it. It’s impressive to behold and really looks the part. The spaceframe looks like an Aerial Atom and indeed that’s where the inspiration for it came from. A Sparco race seat really adds to the drama, as does a pedal box that looks like something straight out of a racing car.
Neil and Ben were quick to get us in the hot seat, keen to demonstrate the capabilities of the simulator. We kicked off with a Radical SR8 single seater around Brands Hatch GP circuit to get warmed up.
Most of us will have played an arcade or console-based simulator at some point but nothing prepares you for the experience in the RAID simulator. It’s physical; those 1.5-inch hydraulic actuators shake, vibrate, dip under braking and throw you around. The force feedback steering is capable of delivering shoulder-troubling resistance, and you can ‘feel’ the car underneath you. Pedals are weighted nicely, with brakes akin to a non-servo assisted setup in that they need a firm left foot to get them going. Similarly, off the line the car is very ‘green’ and needs a few laps to get everything up to temperature and working. It’s impressive.
Pretty soon we were driving a RUF track car (911 GT3 RS in other words) around Oulton Park through the iRacing online software and ‘impressed’ soon turned to ‘astounded’. Anyone who’s driven a 911 will know its unique characteristics – the way it reacts to bumps and through corners. Well this machine recreates that with real honesty. The atypical front-end bobble, the transition between under and oversteer – even the howl from the 3.8-litre engine and whine from the gearbox is true to life. This really is as close as you can get to driving one without actually doing so. We were able to test the virtual reality headset with the simulator and that too was quite remarkable, enabling you to look around through 360-degrees. In fact, with the VR headset on, you feel like you can reach down and physically toggle switches on the car.
We tried a number of cars back-to-back and the differences were stark. For example, the RUF had relatively light steering and wasn’t upset by mid-corner gear changes, where as a Mazda MX5 racing car needed down-changes to be done in a straight line else it’d upset the car’s balance causing a spin. The front wheel drive VW Jetta TDI Cup car had the feel of a very planted car which needed careful throttle adjustments to bring the rear around, and as is the case with tuned TDI machines, a very narrow power band.
Almost everything about the RAID Simulator is adjustable – from the ferocity of the hydraulics to the weight of the steering and the feel of the pedals. You can even buy a reproduction F1 wheel with all of the controls that the drivers have to contend with in real life. The setup itself is modular, too, so you can build a simulator to your specific requirements or budget. For example, you could simply buy the chassis, a small monitor and a headset, removing the need for large screens. Alternatively you could go all out and specify larger screens and 3-inch D-box controlled actuators for more drama; with this system it’s up to you.
Cost wise, the setup we tried came in at £27,500 plus VAT. Now that sounds like a lot of money, but you have to recalibrate your brain with things like this. The sheer level of technology involved is one thing, but moreover, you need to think about it like this: This amount of money buys you a very capable track car, but it doesn’t pay to run it, insure it or repair it. If you bin it on this simulator, you simply hit reset and get going again. Put into context, other leading simulators come in at around £75,000 or more. Neil and Ben can of course supply these more expensive high end systems to UK and European buyers, and they are similarly impressive.
In a piece about racing simulators in the Financial Times’s “How to spend it” supplement Johnathan Margolis wrote, “I actually think this is the greatest consumer gadget I’ve found in my 20 years of doing this… It’s the best thing you are ever going to have.”
If you can afford it, we’d tend to agree.
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