Until COVID-19 turned up and ruined things, Formula E’s sixth season was going pretty well for Jaguar Racing and driver Mitch Evans. Because the series started its season in November, there were already five races in the books by the time the real-world action had to be suspended. When it’s safe to start up again, Evans will do so from second place in the championship, in part thanks to a win in Mexico in mid-February. More recently, he’s been stuck at home, like many of the rest of us. And the last few weeks have involved learning a whole new set of skills as Formula E has temporarily decamped to the world of rFactor 2 to keep fans entertained until the real cars are safe to dust off again.
Unlike some of his contemporaries, the switch to esports wasn’t something Evans has been training for this whole time. “I’ve not being a huge gamer before, so this is new territory, and it’s taken me a long time to get used to it,” Evans told me. In fact, he didn’t even have a gaming rig at home until Formula E supplied all its drivers with identical Playseat rigs, gaming PCs, and Fanatec wheels and pedals.
That’s meant quite the learning curve. “There’s a lot of guys out there that are really quite experienced in that field, and honestly, they are extremely fast on it. So a lot of it is obviously trying to work out how the game works and the physics around it to try and get around certain things which wouldn’t really correlate into reality,” he explained.
Not that he’s not enjoying the experience. But for those thinking that a racing driver’s experience in a very expensive “driver in the loop” simulator would translate to success at a consumer-grade platform like iRacing or rFactor 2, think again.
“Our sim at the factory is run by multiple people; it’s quite high-maintenance but also very, very bespoke for the Jaguar racing car. It’s actually very close to a real race car in terms of the way it operates” he told Ars. “For the Jaguar racing sim, the ECUs and the way that the sim is operating is literally identical to the race car. So the steering wheel setup, every switch change, does the same thing compared to reality. The behavior of the car is meant to be the same as reality—obviously, there are going to be some differences, but we try to get every little piece as close as possible,” he explained.
“It’s quite fascinating how similar the Jaguar Racing sim is compared to the real car,” Evans said. “They basically crunch our whole powertrain into numbers and convert that into code to put into the sim. So the same ECU, it’s got the same inverter, the same electric motor, all the dimensions of our electric motor, so honestly, it’s crazy how close it is. And our tire model, we’ve spent days and days and days on it to try and get it close. And to be honest, once we correlate reality to the sim world, it’s within a few tenths [of a second per lap].”
Computer games are harder than real life
Some might find this surprising, but Evans says that his team’s DIL simulator is actually much more forgiving than games like iRacing. “I find you’ve got to be extremely precise [in the game]—we all know in reality you have to be precise as well, but I feel like that level is a little bit too unrealistic. And it comes down to—you need better pedals, better steering force feedback to feel those limits of the front tire washing out, the front brake locking up,” he elaborated.
Another big difference is the amount of technical work required. When he visits the team’s factory in the week or two before a Formula E race, it’s as one part of a larger team. “The way that we deal [simulator] sessions is like a real test day. So for me, I go in and jump in the seat, we’ve got a run plan and everything,” Evans said. That means Jaguar Racing’s motorsport engineers are there to do all the back-end stuff. “So, I’m not really hands-on as much from a technical operating point of view, since I’m not good with technology at all,” he said.
Not that there’s much fettling allowed in Formula E’s Race at Home challenge. Like most of the esports series set up in recent weeks, it features locked-down car setups as a way to equalize performance.
“We can’t tweak anything apart from like brake bias, which is quite limiting. And to be honest, the car is quite far away [from the real car in terms of how it handles], so there’s not much I could help with. It’s down to me to create the magic, which at the moment is not really happening,” he admitted.
Hopefully for Evans (and the rest of the series), normal service can resume again soon.
Listing image by Formula E