Ever since the map of the Circuit of the Americas came out, I've been wondering: What's it like to drive on that thing? When am I gonna get my chance to go through those winding corners and crazy elevation changes? When, Lord? When? When's gonna be my time?
That time finally came for me earlier this week when I got a chance to drive on the track that will herald Formula One's glorious return to the U.S. Well, kind of.
As part of a promotional event with Shell and Ferrari, I did a hot lap in the Shell Professional Simulator Experience, which is a silly name for a racing simulator that's actually really badass. They say it's about as close to driving on an actual track in an actual F1 car as you can get without doing it for real.
This is what the Ferrari drivers train on, built into the actual chassis of a Ferrari 2009 F1 car. It has a replica Ferrari F1 steering wheel complete with switches, paddles for shifting and the feel of resistance, and a genuine pedal set.
It projects an engine noise around you as you drive and it pitches, rolls and yaws as you race around a virtual course projected onto a panoramic screen that's six-and-a-half feet tall. The Shell folks never told me how much it costs, but needless to say, it's more expensive than your grandmother's Corolla.
There are only three of them in the entire world. One of them is in Fernando Alonso's house. Suddenly your Xbox doesn't feel too special anymore, does it?
Shell and Ferrari let some journalists take a crack at the simulator earlier this week. It isn't easy to drive, but fortunately we had a good teacher: Ferrari driver Felipe Massa.
After answering a few questions about how excited he is for F1 to return to the U.S. (isn't everyone?), Massa talked about how crucial simulators like these are for drivers who don't get a lot of practice time on the actual track. That's especially true for a brand-new one like COTA, which he had a lot of praise for.
"You have all different types of corners, but it's very technical as well," Massa said. "It's not an easy track to learn, but it will be a very nice track to drive."
But while the simulators help you learn the corners, it's obviously not as intense as the real thing, he said.
"I think we had (the cars) braking around four g's," Massa said. "It's quite a bigger impact."
After Massa did a lap in around virtual COTA in the simulator, it was our turn to try it. I went second because you should never volunteer for these kinds of things in a room full of spectators unless you really know what you're doing. The buff mag writer who went first made a valiant effort before crashing violently halfway through.
Then it was my turn. Like getting into an actual F1 car, climbing into the simulator is like submerging yourself into the world's tightest and most uncomfortable bathtub. The sides of the "car" squeezed my shoulders as I slid in, stretching my legs out until I could feel both pedals.
Again, like an actual F1 car, you drive with both feet, your left foot on the brake. This isn't nearly as unintuitive as you may think, although the brake pedal has no travel at all. Massa told me I basically had to stand on it with all my weight.
The graphics aren't as realistic as, say, your latest generation of racing games, but they don't need to be. The simulator needs to present a scientifically accurate version of the track for the drivers to learn on, and that's what it does.
I clicked the right paddle to put myself in first gear and I was off, exiting the pit into the long straightaway before the elevated hairpin turn 1. I wish I could give you a lovingly-crafted, detailed analysis of every corner on that track, but frankly I was too preoccupied with getting my line right and making sure I was in the proper gear.
You know how people like to say that the Circuit of the Americas is "a very technical course"? That's code for it's really fucking hard. You probably can't tell this from an aerial map, but there are few areas where you can really open it up before the course throws another corner your way. The elevation changes make some of them blind as well. You really have to know what you're doing out here — I foresee more than a few crashed BRZs once they open this thing for HPDEs and stuff.
As for the simulator, it feels best for cornering. You don't really get the full sensation of moving forward, even though the huge screen is so engrossing, but you do get a good sense of what it's like to enter a turn. I went in as slowly as I could, simply because I wasn't used to the mechanics of the car and because it's so prone to oversteering.
My biggest problem was that I kept looking up at the top of the big screen to see my tach and what gear I was in, trying to make sure I was slow enough to go around most tight corners in second gear, but that took my eyes off the road. I should have paid attention to the lights on the steering wheel instead, which act as a kind of rev counter.
I did a little bit better when I got the hang of things. All the while, Massa told me when to brake, where to hit the apex, when to shift. He was a gracious coach and seemed to be enjoying himself.
"Good, good," Massa told me when I nailed my entry into turn 19. I suppose I got too cocky after that, because I gave it too much gas on the exit and spun out. "Not so good," he said.
I came fast out of turn 20, toward the huge straightaway, and I gunned it hard. I was in a 700-horsepower racing car, or at least a virtual one. I might as well go for it, right? Except I did something wrong — maybe my wheels weren't straight enough — and I spun out badly near the paddock, the finish line in sight. Game over, man.
I stepped out and shook the hand of my new BFF Felipe Massa. And for the next five minutes, I kid you not, I was dizzy as hell. I wish I had thought to write down my lap time, but I was too busy trying to walk straight. I guess this was closer to the real deal than I give it credit for.
Do I feel like an F1 driver? Sure. Just not a very good one.