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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 analyzing Shell V-Power Premium Gasoline race fuel samples, and checking metal deposit readings from the Shell lubricants that had just been taken from the cars of Formula 1 drivers Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa.

It all became clear as I arrived at the other end of the pits. It wasn’t the actual car of Alonso or Massa that I’d be driving, but a virtual one. And there I was wondering whether I’d get my own set of Ferrari race overalls complete with embossed name. 

More Than Just a Game

Still, it was the next best thing: the Shell Formula One simulator. And it wasn’t to be sniffed at, as if it were some oversized 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. 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 analyze the difference in the car’s performance around a chosen virtual circuit.

The tracks are laser-scanned and mapped to within five-millimeter 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 molded to their body, but the Shell simulator has to make do with a seat that accommodates all shapes and sizes. 

Shell Formula One Driving Simulator
Fernando Alonso in Shell Formula One Driving Simulator

However, it is still a hydraulic set-up, which moves around to enhance the realism through corners, under braking and during acceleration. Even the seatbelts tighten.

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 very familiar with the button, knobs, procedures and fuel mapping so much so that they could do it with their eyes closed.

Shell takes the simulator to certain Grand Prix events, for guests and fans to sample. It was a big hit at the 2012 Formula 1 United States Grand Prix in Austin, Texas. I managed one lap without going into a single 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, so the drivers can put the different mixes through their paces virtually. This allows Ferrari and Shell to make improvements. Every insight counts.