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Simulating a Stimulating Formula One Race

Singapore is hosting the first ever Formula One street race to be held in the dark. That’s right, a whole bunch of snazzy cars will be racing in and around the city limits of this island state come this weekend.

Tickets for the F1 extravaganza aren’t cheap. You can get a three-day pass for the whole race for S$168 (US$120), but that only entitles you to walk around. To sit, you’d have to cough up S$248 for the cheapest grandstand seats. A seat at the Paddock costs S$7,500 (US$5,330) -- but that comes with an open bar stocked with champagne, fine wines and a gourmet smorgasbord.

If you’re balking at the idea of paying so much cash to sit through so much noise (the sound of the F1 race car is louder than the noise you hear from a jet plane at take-off 35 meters from you), then perhaps an alternative would be the simulated experience.

Yes, that’s right, F1 race simulations, and not of the virtual either I might add. An honest-to-goodness life size replica of an F1 car, right down to the space-challenged cockpit (driver’s seat -- I'm a petite 5 foot 2 and it was a snug fit in that cockpit. I can't imagine how those tall F1 drivers do it!), seat belt, steering wheel and pedals.

BallRacing Developments (BRD) is the first company to take these types of controls and fit them into actual racecars to create authentic racing simulators

The simulator is so realistic that Formula One teams and motorsport companies are using them to train and familiarize their drivers for races across the world, including the Singapore night race.

The team behind this simulator technology – the Ball Brothers, Timothy and Nik.

Tim, the creative director of BRD, was once an aspiring race driver. “I couldn't get the finances together to actually go racing at that time. I had a computer and I was driving with a simulation piece of software -- it was a gaming piece of software, using a joystick. I came up with the idea, rather than using a joystick, maybe I could create a steering wheel”, Tim said.

And build one he did. The first control system Tim Ball produced was made from the cannibalized parts of the joystick, with the crudest of materials – a couple of wire coat hangers, paper mache molded into a steering wheel, a wooden blocks for pedals.

He's come a long way from that prototype. Rather BRD has. In addition to producing peripherals such as steering wheels and pedals for motorsport video games, they custom design and build racing simulators.

So how do the simulators work?

The key is in the combination of the software and hardware. It’s easy enough to build a mock F1 car. The challenge comes after you climb into the cockpit and throw the car into gear.

“We are using motion now in a much different way from the way anyone else has done it. That is proving to be a big success. It's all those things combined really, that actually give you the right simulation, something that can confuse the brain into thinking that yes, I'm really behind F1 wheel here, I'm really driving here,” says Tim Ball.

It’s up to the software to confuse your brain. First, the track parameters are taken into consideration. In the case of Singapore’s F1 street race, the Ball brothers made a detail profile of the track.

“We were able to do this in a couple of ways”, says Nik Ball, managing director of BRD. GPS transponders were used to track the actual road surface and take measurements of key features.

Graphic artists then took the data and with additional video photography, they built a 3D model. This 3D model was incorporated into the racing software and is effectively what you drive when you climb into the simulator.

"The most fun part is the actual racing head to head with somebody else," Tim adds. "… literally being able to go down the track wheel to wheel, being able to feel -- if you accidentally touch them, you can actually feel the whole simulator move and jolt around."

What happens next? Well, if you’re not an experienced race F1 driver like me, you’ll probably crash. And truth be told, crashing the simulator is a lot more fun than the racing itself. In fact, I crashed on purpose several times. When else could I possibly hurtle down a road at 250 miles an hour, straight into a wall and walk away in one piece? Definitely more fun than watching a race.

Ok, let’s not tell Bernie Ecclestone I said that.

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