I was lucky enough to be given a behind the scenes look at the Ferrari Driver Academy in the heart of Italy’s Emilia Romagna region. In the third of a series of posts about my trip, I discovered the Academy’s all too lifelike simulator and found myself wired to a chair in the Mind Room…
As I pulled out of the garage and accelerated along the Silverstone pit lane, I began to regret eating so much pasta for lunch. I was strapped into a Formula 1 car, and putting my foot down, I could feel the vibrations through the tyres. Turning into the first corner, my nerves gave way to a rush of excitement. I kept my right foot down and was pinned back in my seat before braking hard and turning into the next bend. A few corners later, I downshifted and spun the car wildly out of control, crashing into the safety barrier. Luckily, this car came with a reset button; the barrier disappeared, and my car was suddenly back on the track, without a scratch.
I was at AllinSports – the race simulator company that gives Ferrari exclusive access to its incredible state-of-the-art facilities. Housed in an unassuming anonymous building on the road between Modena and Maranello, AllinSports takes racing simulation to a level far beyond amusement arcades or console games. Costing a cool €500,000 the main simulator room houses a giant curved screen, three projectors and a Formula 1 carbon fibre car chassis mounted on a raised moving platform.
I was there to watch Lello train for the upcoming GP2 race at Silverstone, and he was to spend an hour or so driving around an empty circuit, familiarising, getting a feel for the car, tuning the setup, and mentally preparing for the race. We were joined by his Ferrari Driver Academy engineer, Francesco Pon, who would monitor his progress from a laptop outside the simulator room. AllinSports technical lead Anton Stipinovich (ex McLaren, Red Bull and Ferrari F1 teams) sat alongside, watching the vast amounts of data from the car flow across the screens in front of him.
Lello and the other Academy drivers typically drive a couple of sessions a week in the simulator, racing around 80 laps per session. Francesco watches on, monitoring the feedback, and making small adjustments. As Lello spins, Francesco dives in to see what happened. Back at the screens Anton adjusts the ride height and brake balance, and Lello fires the car away, now happy with the setup. Watching him hurtle around the track became almost mesmerising – his innate natural driving ability clear for everyone to see.
Then it was my turn. Clambering onto the platform and sliding into the cockpit, I was immediately struck by how confined the space was. I was strapped in; the belts tight across my chest. Anton and Francesco gave me some much needed words of wisdom, warned me that the motion and screen make some people feel sick, and before long I was off, pulling gingerly out of the garage. The level of detail was amazing – the tracks are laser scanned and licensed, costing an eye-watering €40,000 each. The sickness warning was right, and after only a few corners I was feeling terrible. The spin out was enough, and not wanting to ruin the rather expensive simulator, I bowed out. Thankfully I wasn’t alone; even the great Michael Schumacher couldn’t drive the simulator without feeling sick. It was another chance-of-a-lifetime experience though, and despite the waves of nausea, I was thrilled to have been able to sit in that amazing simulator.
For the Ferrari Driver Academy guys, training isn’t all about putting in time behind the wheel or hours in the gym – they have to be mentally sharp – and spend a great deal of time in the ominous sounding Mind Room.
I headed to the Mind Room Lab with Lello and Antonio for one of their weekly sessions – a training facility in Modena that puts athletes through a mental workout like no other. Director Dr Sorato and his small team talked me through the setup as Lello and Antonio took their seats in the Mind Room Chairs: participants are monitored by electrodes on two fingers, one on the back of the neck and a strap across the chest. A series of exercise scenarios are played out, and the participant must alter their breathing, heart rate and anxiety levels accordingly. Then, after a few exercises, the drivers’ bio- and neuro feedback levels are recorded, and they’re asked to tell the staff what they think those numbers are. Guessing your heart and breathing rate, as well as tension levels to pinpoint accuracy is a skill that takes plenty of practice, and Lello and Antonio were amazingly accurate.
Sat in the Mind Room Chair and wired to the feedback monitors, I was already feeling the pressure – the room wasn’t air conditioned, and on a hot sultry day in Modena was stiflingly hot, somewhat like the heat the drivers would feel when racing. Staring at the laptop in front of me I was put through the exercises – controlling my breathing, heart rate and muscular tension to ensure a line on the screen stayed as low as possible, or staying calm as a cacophony of noise rang out to test my concentration levels.
Guessing my own signals at the first attempt, I was wildly off the mark, but by the end of the 20 minute exercise I was able to guess at least a couple to within a few points. While I was being subjected to the chair Lello was testing his focus and recall skills by donning 3D glasses and watching a series of tennis balls bounce around inside a cube. The balls would stop in mid air and he would have to call out where those four balls were. I had trouble keeping track of one, and his ability to follow four left me astounded.
Another rudimentary test involved practicing race starts using a console game steering wheel with paddle-shift gears connected to a TV. The drivers would practice their starts, measuring their reaction times to the lights going out on the start line gantry. They’d practice many times in multiple starting positions on the grid, and Dr Sorato was quick to point out that a delay of even of 20 milliseconds when pulling away can mean a seven metre disadvantage in the opening straight.
Another day down, and another day closer to the race weekend for Lello and his GP2 Series hopes, I was now full of admiration for the skill and determination it takes to be a racing driver, and for the small army of people behind-the-scenes, helping the young drivers realise their true potential.
Look out for the next article where continue behind the scenes at Ferrari’s Driver Academy, following Lello on his way to becoming a pro. This trip was made possible by iAmbassador and co-sponsored by the Emilia Romagna Tourist Board. Check out my experience on Twitter with #insideFDA and #inEmiliaRomagna.
All words and images by Graham Padmore.