Exclusive look at McLaren's space-age road-car simulator

These are the first images of McLaren's state-of-the-art simulator that could be used to develop the next car you buy.

That's because the sports and racing car legend's simulator will be used by car manufacturers to develop and test vehicles of the future.

This is Money and MailOnline's Rob Hull was granted an exclusive first peek at the new road-car simulator - a more advanced edition of the Formula 1 version currently used by Fernando Alonso, Stoffel Vandoorne and other drivers to hone their racing skills.

He visited McLaren's motoring headquarters to find out why there's a growing demand for vehicle simulation, in what other scenarios it can be incorporated and - to his own detriment - what it's like to use one?

Exclusive: These are the first images of McLaren's new 'MTS Vehicle Dynamics Simulator' that will be used by the brand and other manufacturers to develop their cars of the future

If anybody knows the answer to questions like these it's McLaren - it's been using simulators as part of its Formula 1 programme since 1997.

But it wasn't until a decade later, when the FIA introduced on-track testing restrictions in 2008 and an in-season testing ban the following year to reduce costs for teams, that the Woking-based firm ramped-up development of simulation technology.

So why is simulation so valuable? Primarily because it can be adapted and repurposed for a multitude of different needs and requirements, not just F1.

In fact, when the race simulator wasn't being thrashed around virtual circuits by drivers on multi-million-pound contracts it was used by engineers of the first new-generation McLaren Automotive product, the MP4-12C, that arrived in 2011 - and the same has happened with every road-going model it has produced since.

Even the latest release, the 720S, has market-leading innovative technologies, including advanced active damping to new transmission controls, which have all been moulded and tweaked in the simulator.

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The new simulator will help manufacturers test components quicker and with less costs than they currently incur 

McLaren has been using the F1 simulator to develop all the modern-era cars in its range, from the MP4-12C in 2011 (left) to the latest 720S (right)

This is Money and MailOnline's Rob Hull lowers himself into the F1 simulator (left). Within seconds of getting on track, Rob admitted he'd forgotten what most of the buttons on the steering wheel did

The all-new road simulator wasn't finished when we visited McLaren in May, so instead we were given access to the F1 simulator - something that hadn't been granted to members of the world's press before now.

To showcase how it has been used to fine-tune the company's road cars, we were given 15 minutes behind the wheel of a 'virtual' £2 million P1 GTR - the track-only model exclusively purchased by those with extraordinarily deep pockets - at the Catalunya circuit in Barcelona, Spain.

The first challenge was getting in. Once I'd stepped over the unimaginably expensive sliding mechanisms controlling the movement of the F1 chassis I then had to lower myself into the snug cockpit. Shouldn't be a problem for someone of a modest 5ft7, I though. Wrong. The simulator engineer even had to adjust the pedals due to my shorter-than-F1-driver dimensions.

Malcolm Miller, Associate Simulation Engineer at McLaren Applied Technologies, prepares to adjust the pedals so Rob could reach the accelerator and brake

In the time he worked on shifting the accelerator and brake closer to the soles of my feet, he explained the different switches and functions on the steering wheel. There seemed to be more buttons than a NASA control room, and I rapidly forgot what each one did within seconds of hitting the track.

Throughout the session I recalled a conversation with engineer Adam Staton earlier that day when he told me that everything would feel like a simulator at first, but the immersive nature of the setup would soon trick my brain into thinking I was in a real car.

While some of the movement felt realistic, at no point did I feel duped into believing I was driving the real thing. Most of the time I was totally aware that I was at the controls of an oversized computer game - maybe it was my own inability to comprehend being given the keys to a £2 million supercar and told to drive it as raggedly as possible.

That's not to say that the feedback and responses didn't feel realistic, though. I could feel pronounced understeer and rear grip loss, though only at the point of no return resulting in a number of far-from-graceful pirouettes.

Rob said he struggled to overcome the sensation that he was driving an oversized computer game, though the movements of the simulator were enough to make him feel ill after just 15 minutes at the wheel

However, with more time at the wheel, I can see how beneficial it would be to help qualified drivers identify where they can make up time with small tweaks - it's just that my limited imagination and talent wouldn't allow for it.

That didn't mean I was slow, though - I was just four seconds a lap behind one of the instructors who trains P1 GTR owners. But surely that's not much of an achievement when the fear factor of torpedoing a multi-million-pound vehicle into a barrier is removed from the situation - in a real-world scenario, I would have been way off the pace.

But for those competing in F1, the difference is minimal, the engineers told me. In fact, it's difficult to separate a lap time they set on a Sunday in front of 100,000 fans from the one they produce on the Monday morning with just two members of McLaren staff looking over their shoulder. 

After a quarter of an hour or so of being slung from side to side while trying to clip apexes on a panoramic screen, all while suffering overly warm temperatures, the experience had taken a toll on my body. So much so that it made me feel extremely sick - a sensation that didn't pass for a number of days. 

I'm pretty sure Fernando Alonso doesn't have the same problem.

McLaren drivers have been using the simulator more extensively in the last decade since the FIA introduced strict testing limits to reduce costs for teams. All the while Rob is driving, engineer Malcolm Miller is offering instruction and checking the data

As well as seeing the development benefits for itself, McLaren has also been utilising simulation as a commercial tool, outsourcing it to other manufacturers and automotive companies to conduct their own vehicle tests.

Hence the arrival of a bespoke simulator - called the MTS Vehicle Dynamics Simulator (VDS) - designed to make this an even more profitable venture by offering a package that better replicates the movements of vehicles with five seats and big boots, not just 1,000bhp F1 machines.

Each simulator will be built to order for clients, from design to the installation phase. Price is strictly on application, though prepare to be willing to hand over a seven-figure sum if you want one.

Patrick Lane-Nott, market development manager at MTS Systems Corporation - the US firm in partnership with McLaren for the project - told us: 'The road simulator has been created in response to what the market is requesting.

'Automotive companies are now using simulation techniques to accelerate their development programmes.

'Traditionally they’d create lots of prototypes and new cars, taking them to test tracks and environmental testing facilities, all at huge costs.

'But now it’s possible to do a lot of the conceptual work in a virtual world with simulation - that means not having to manufacture parts and potentially lose money if they don't work and you have to go back to the drawing board. 

'Manufacturers have realised this is definitely the way forward - it’s not only cheaper but you can also do many more tests in the same amount of time.'

McLaren Applied Technologies' Caroline Hargrove said one benefit for customers is that the new simulator is compact enough to fit in a room rather than being so big that you would have to store it in a hanger or large facility

McLaren engineers told us it took 18 months to develop and build the road simulator, which is an evolution of the technology used by the Formula 1 team

He's not wrong about the latter - McLaren's simulator can transport you from a sun-soaked Barcelona to a rain-drenched SIlverstone in a matter of seconds.

McLaren Applied Tecnologies is currently look for engineers to work on the simulation project.

'We can tune upwards of 2,500 parameters on the fly,' simulation engineer, Adam Staton explained. 'We can change a car, all the parameters and all the variables in just four and a half seconds.

'We can change the characteristics of the vehicle and the environment it's driving in, from the visuals you see on the screen right down to the grip levels on the tarmac.'

In order to do this, McLaren needs a lot of processing power. However, the enormity of the gaming industry has driven advancements in this department. 

As a result, the biggest challenge McLaren faces is taking the same technology powering the most realistic racing games and adding accuracy to what you see on the screen as well as the physics that determine how the car moves.

We spoke to Caroline Hargrove, technical director and the brains behind the new road-based simulator, to find out how it differs from the current state-of-the-art Formula 1 simulator that she also had a hand in creating... 

Caroline Hargrove, technical director at McLaren Applied Technologies

'The F1 simulator is more about focusing on the lateral movement and the centre of rotation to understand how to get the car it in and out of corners as fast as possible.

'In a normal car, there's much more pitch on braking and acceleration and certainly a lot of roll [leaning] in corners, so we had to build these movements into it. As a result, it looks like the F1 simulator on steroids with bigger linkages and moving parts.'

CH: 'Because this is very much a consumer facing product, we can add any chassis a client requests. 

'We have a team who will look after making the moving chassis look like the customer's car, which means the steering wheel and controls layout will be the same as their existing model or prototype.'

'If clients are building something more high-end like a P1 then they can use the race track models we already have, while the rest of the time they can use a virtual proving ground.

'These places are static, so for us to replicate them in a virtual world is not difficult.'

'And with the arrival of autonomous vehicles, the way we use our cars will be very different - ultimately, they will become more of an entertainment scene while the car drives itself. 

'Simulation can help us to understand how an autonomous driving mode will make you feel as a passenger. FOr instance, when we’re driving we’re very concentrated so we very rarely feel sick, but when you’re reading in a car you can quickly feel very unwell - so how do you prevent this from happening? Simulation will be key to helping us get to the solutions of these problems for our passengers.'

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June 26, 2017

Sources:` Daily Mail

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