Formula E: How the virtual world breeds real-life success

Story highlights

  • Simulators play crucial role in Formula E
  • Machines cost upwards of $1 million
  • Simulators help with energy strategy in race

(CNN)Razor-sharp reflexes, stamina and guts have always been essential qualities in racing champions -- but these days it also pays to be a dab hand at computer games.

State-of-the-art race simulators have become an indispensable tool in modern motorsport offering drivers valuable insights into a circuit's corners, straights and even its camber ahead of race weekends.
The worth of these virtual worlds is multiplied in Formula E where almost all races take place on temporary city center tracks like Buenos Aires' Puerto Madero Street Circuit -- host to round three of the 2016-17 world championship on February 18.
    Staging Formula E 'like death by a thousand cuts'
    Staging Formula E 'like death by a thousand cuts'

      JUST WATCHED

      Staging Formula E 'like death by a thousand cuts'

    MUST WATCH

    Staging Formula E 'like death by a thousand cuts' 00:53
    "Testing is very limited in Formula E," Lucas di Grassi told CNN's Supercharged show. "How do you prepare for something that you haven't been to for a year ... or a track that is completely new on the calendar like Hong Kong?
    "You can't just take a car and drive up and down the roads at 200 kph!"
    Di Grassi, a driver for the German team ABT Schaeffler Audi Sport, uses a simulator at AVL, an automotive technology company based in Graz, Austria.
    "We try to give the driver the feeling of the car -- the steering and acceleration forces -- as much as possible to get the right feedback and the right predictions for the track," explains Gerhard Schagerl, AVL's manager of race engineering.
    "It's not only the hardware, it's the software, the graphics, the sound, the physics -- all these highly developed (mathematical) models.
    "This is not off-the-shelf technology," adds Schagerl, who estimates the AVL simulator's worth at €1 million ($1.1 million).
    "You really need to develop this for every new racing class and for very specific customers. A lot of engineering goes into it."
    What does it take to become a pro gamer?
    What does it take to become a pro gamer?

      JUST WATCHED

      What does it take to become a pro gamer?

    MUST WATCH

    What does it take to become a pro gamer? 02:37
    Each ePrix track is scanned with remote sensing technology called LIDAR which uses laser pulses to precisely map the surrounding terrain.
    "It's no expense spared," DS Virgin Racing's Sam Bird told CNN at last month's Vegas eRace. "It needs to be as close to reality as possible otherwise we don't get the energy figures that we need."
    Bird's DS Virgin Racing teammate Jose Maria Lopez learning the Buenos Aires ePrix track.
    Bird highlights an important function of the simulator -- in Formula E, the emphasis is not only on track learning but managing the car's battery power during the course of an ePrix.
    "In Formula E specifically, the battery, the electric motor and power electronics are modeled in a computer program to help drivers prepare for a race," Schagerl explains.
    For electric racers like Bird and Di Grassi the simulators are indispensable bits of kit, enabling them to push the limits safety before heading out onto the real track where there is little margin for error.
    "I would say we can get almost 95% of the work done," Di Grassi says. "It's a very sophisticated video game which has a big influence on how we perform.
    "On the sim, you normally over drive to find the limit because if you crash into the wall you can start again.
    "On the circuit you under drive because if you crash your session is over."