When I got the call on my mobile phone I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. “How would you like to come and drive Ferrari’s Formula One car?” I looked around the Shell Track Lab, eyeing my colleagues suspiciously to see who was also on the phone, playing a practical joke.

They were all busy analysing Shell V-Power race fuel samples, and checking metal deposit readings from the Shell oils that had just been taken from the cars of Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa.

After walking to where I’d been summoned, at the other end of the pits down the hill at Spa, by Eau Rouge, all became clear. It wasn’t the actual car of Alonso or Massa that I’d be driving, but a virtual one. And there was me wondering whether I’d get my own set of Ferrari race overalls embossed with my name and everything.

More Than Just a Game

Still, it was the next best thing: Shell’s Formula One simulator. And it wasn’t to be sniffed at, as if it were some oversized version of a PlayStation game; the simulator is the same one Scuderia Ferrari uses, and you’ll find one at the homes of Fernando and Felipe, too. Given how little on-track testing time is permitted under FIA regulations, it is a vital tool in the development of a team’s performance.

For example, Ferrari’s engineers can make alterations to a car’s engine mapping, gear ratios or aerodynamic set-up, and it is all then sent down the wire to Alonso’s simulator, which he then drives and his data is wired back to the engineers, allowing them to analyse the difference in the car’s performance around a chosen virtual circuit.

The tracks are laser-scanned and mapped to within five millimetre accuracy. Giant wraparound screens and astonishing sound effects make it very realistic when you’re seated in the Ferrari cockpit. Real-life drivers get seats moulded to their body, but the Shell simulator has to make do with a seat that accommodates all shapes and sizes.

No Margin For Error

However, it is still a hydraulic set-up, which moves around to enhance the realism through corners, under braking and during acceleration, and the seatbelts tighten, too. Even without moving from the spot, I can tell you it’s a tiring experience. The steering wheel is mindboggling, and an important part of driver training. The drivers have to be so familiar with the button, knobs and procedures to making alterations to brake bias or fuel mapping that they could do it with their eyes closed.

Shell takes the simulator to certain Grand Prix, for guests and fans to sample. It’s a big hit. I managed one lap without a spin - apparently quite a feat. But as I said, the simulator is not used only for fun purposes. The different fuel or lubricant blends we develop and trial or use through a Formula One season can be factored into Ferrari’s software, and the drivers can put the different mixes through their paces virtually. This allows Ferrari and Shell to analyse where in the rev range or fuel economy improvements are being found. Every insight counts.

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