Once upon a time, race strategies and set-ups were entrusted to the wisdom and intuition of technicians, along with the results of track testing. Today, thanks to highly sophisticated simulators, even the finest details of a race can be prepared in advance. To ensure that drivers are ready to go when they arrive on the track, even when conditions are totally unexpected. As in the case of the upcoming 24 Hours of Le Mans
The drivers who will tackle the 24 Hours of Le Mans race, due to be held this weekend, will have to rely more than ever for their performance on work done on the simulator. The shifting of the traditional race weekend from June to September as a result of the pandemic has led to major changes in race strategies.
"The date change will have a major impact”, explains Giuliano Salvi, Track Operations & Technical Manager of GT Competitions. “Because there will be at least 3 hours and 40 minutes' more darkness, as well as cooler temperatures, and this means that tyres will have to be kept always within the right operating range during the different phases of the race.
Thanks to the work done on the simulator, we try to finalise a set-up that enables us to achieve this goal. In short, this period has served to confirm - if confirmation was needed - the fundamental importance of the simulator, because it allows us to test and to compare different set-ups or tyres in different temperatures and weather conditions, without the need to go out onto the track."
Increasingly complex software and ever-more sophisticated hardware are rapidly narrowing the gap between reality and the virtual world, to the benefit of the work of race preparation, so that minor details or refinements are all that remain to be done on the track.
It is not for nothing that car manufacturers are investing considerable financial, human and technical resources in the development of increasingly hi-tech systems. Ferrari is no exception, and in order to prepare for the FIA WEC races or for great endurance classics such as the Spa 24 Hours or the Daytona 24 Hours, it relies upon the simulator. "It's a real free practice zero”, explains Ferdinando Cannizzo, Head of GT Racing Car Design and Development. “In which race engineers, those working on the vehicle itself, engineers, and drivers, prepare for the race.
Using the results of the previous year as a starting point, we finalise a set-up that we believe could be a winner.” Data collection and platform development are crucial. “The work on the simulator is in continuous development”, explains Mauro Barbieri, of Vehicle performance, simulation and track engineering at Competizioni GT.
"Both with regard to the various models that make up the car, such as the tyres, the engine, the aerodynamics, the gearbox, and with regard to the input and sensations that are transmitted to the driver through the movements of the platform or the resistance of the pedals or the steering wheel. Everything is focused on achieving maximum realism, because the more information the driver receives through his body, the more precise the feedback will be that he provides the engineers.”
Although tests out on the track are the preferred scenario for drivers, the hours spent on the simulator are now widely accepted, and their value recognised. “The simulators enable us drivers to compare different set-ups together with the track engineers who support us throughout all the sessions”, explains Alessandro Pier Guidi, FIA WEC 2017 World Champion and winner of last year's 24 Hours of Le Mans.
"We work back-to-back between the various set-ups to work out which represents the best base to use once out on the track, in order to reduce the time required to refine the set-up. The comparisons are potentially endless, and this enables us to define with greater precision the set-ups and other parameters of the car.”
The option to try out various complex scenarios will be extremely useful for the 24 Hours of Le Mans, as Giuliano Salvi explains: “We are also trying out situations that are likely to occur more frequently than they might in June, such as the phases of Full Course Yellow (in which, due to an accident, overtaking and exceeding 80km/h are forbidden anywhere on the track) during the night.
"Because of the low temperatures, it will be more difficult for the tyres to return to their operating range, so we are developing all possible strategies to help them return more quickly to their ideal temperature.”