Simulation with stimulation
Tearing down the straight at over 300km/h in a green Formula One car, the blue racer in front wobbles, swerves off-course and ends up on the grass, where it loses valuable seconds. The driver - it could be Sebastian Vettel - gets back on track, but I put the pedal to the metal and overtake, seesawing the wheel trying to keep the car under control.
Approaching the bend, I try to follow the black tyre marks on the asphalt, as instructed, but make the fatal mistake of taking my eye off the track to check my speed. I cringe as I smash violently into the barrier, and curse as I see Vettel zoom past and around the corner.
Fortunately there's no injury, even though I'm not wearing a seat belt or helmet, because although the blood is pumping, the race is taking place on simulators at Sideways Driving Club in Central (and 'Vettel' is just another journalist).
The club, ironically tucked away on quiet Chancery Lane, has 13 networked simulators that comprise a replica F1 car cockpit with two pedals - accelerator and brake - and a steering wheel fitted with paddle-shift gears and rows of buttons. Operated by sophisticated software, the cars have different liveries that match those on the screen in front, so you know whom you've hit and who is trying to run you off the track.
But these big boy toys are not just glorified Xboxes, Sideways director Nick Swanson says. They are produced by Hyper Stimulator Worldwide of Australia with input from supercar drivers.
'There are no gimmicks or in-trend add-ons,' Swanson says. 'These simulators are the real deal that the drivers prefer to practise on. Twenty-four V8 supercar drivers own these simulators, as do F1 drivers [Brazilian] Rubens Barrichello and Mark Webber from Australia [who once owned simulator No 1 at Sideways]. Professional racing drivers use them for concentration, learning the tracks and trying different set-ups.
'The steering and pedals are 'real feel'. The brake needs a full 7kg load on it to operate well, and springs stiffen the steering. The seat is exactly the same as an F1 seat, so you are seated lower than your ankles.'
The screens in front indicate who is in which car, and data such as speed and revs, lap times and placement once a race is finished. Compared with the high definition on today's computer games, the quality seems a bit dated. But Swanson says the club will soon be upgrading the software. Headphones feed you the muffled noise as you plough through the grass, the thud as you hit the barrier and, of course, the scream of exhaust pipes. The only thing missing is the G-force.
The simulators can be set for different skill levels, so novices who just want to race their friends for fun can do so with the settings on fully automatic. The less frivolous can try out the paddle-shift gears, while the pros can go the whole hog and activate the buttons on the wheel.
Swanson says the software offers more than 150 different tracks from around the world, including all current F1 tracks and some no longer in use, and even fantasy tracks such as one that features enthusiasts' favourite sections of various F1 tracks.
There are also about 50 different cars of various models to choose from, he says, and you can really feel the difference. Before the F1 race, we tried the Porsche 977 GT, which held the track admirably, and the BMW E90, which was a bit too skittish until the tyres warmed up.
Sideways was founded as a hobby in 2004 by businessman Carsten Widderich, and taken over by Swanson and fellow enthusiast Simon Tapp earlier this year. Membership is free and it's first come, first served when you want to use the simulators. Prices start at HK$200 for 30 minutes at off-peak times. Swanson says it is popular for birthday parties, corporate get-togethers and friends out for fun.
Notable guests have included current F1 drivers Renault's Nick Heidfeld, Mercedes-Benz's Nico Rosberg and Red Bull's Jaime Alguersuari, and Matthew Marsh, the locally based 2004 Porsche Carrera Cup Asia champion. Swanson says Marsh practised for the Sebring 12-hour race in Florida in one of Sideways' simulators before he had seen the real track.
'In the simulators, he was clocking two-minute, eight-second laps,' Swanson says. 'In practice at Sebring, Matthew was straight into laps of two minutes, nine seconds. In Matthew's words: 'If you drive the simulator the same way you drive the real car, it responds exactly the same way.''
Sideways has about 1,800 members, Swanson says. Not surprisingly, the typical member is a professional male, aged 30 to 50, with a passion for speed and racing. But that doesn't mean the club is exclusively for men.
'When we get big groups in here, the atmosphere is electric. The experience is so intense, people naturally get carried away, and you see a real competitive edge coming over them. Naturally most guys think they are the best, but we frequently find it's the women who walk away with the No 1 spot.'
The club also has a licensed bar, so not only can you hurtle recklessly around the track trying to kill your friends, you can also legally drink and drive before taking a cab home.
Sideways Driving Club is at 1-2 Chancery Lane, Central. www.sideways-driving-club.com