Race simulator could boost Hong Kong motorsports
For adrenaline junkies in search of the ultimate white-knuckle ride, this racing car simulator takes some beating
It's unnerving driving Marchy Lee Ying-kin's Audi R8 LMS around the Shanghai Formula One circuit with the series' reigning champion looking over your shoulder from behind the simulator.
It's a bad start, hitting a wall before even leaving the pits and careering off the track at the first bend. But Lee is here at the new Racing Simulation centre in Wong Chuk Hang to offer assistance.
This helps, with instructions to slam down hard on the brake and slow the car down to 100km/h and second gear ahead of the corner. Then it's all the way up to sixth gear and 260km/h on the straight, and a pretty successful beginner's lap.
Lee gives the simulator the thumbs up, but is non-committal on my attempts in the Audi, which bears the livery of Lee's own R8 LMS car - black with red dragons. "I think this is the most high-level simulator you can find. Nothing really comes close to this one," he says.
Racing Simulation is the brainchild of businessman Stephen Luk Wing-tak, who says that with the lack of a racing track in Hong Kong, the venture is aimed at helping promising young drivers, seasoned experts and enthusiastic amateur racers alike hone their skills. The venue also has a gym, showers and a reception room-cum-shop selling racing gear.
Luk says Racing Simulation has already piqued a lot of interest since it opened its doors a month ago. The professional-grade simulator was developed by Cranfield Motorsport Simulation, which is linked to Britain's Cranfield University, and made its name developing pilot training systems.
The simulator is shaped like a Formula One car's cockpit. It is fitted with a sensor that feeds data to a computer, logging details such as speed, throttle, brake action, steering and G-force.
"When people use the simulator, we give them a printout and video so they can see and understand the patten of their driving. This data is very accurate and is used to help drivers measure and improve performance," Luk says.
The "driver" sits in the cockpit facing a large, 180-degree screen to provide a full peripheral view of the surroundings. Almost all major international racing circuits and cars are programmed into the software, and the simulator has Formula One buttons on the steering wheel that are disabled when it is programmed for a GT car.
The multimillion-dollar set-up is housed in a locked room secured by fingerprint recognition technology.
Luk believes Racing Simulation could play a pivotal role in nurturing future local racing car drivers. "It's useful because in every sport you need to practise; you need to exercise. In the past you could only go to the racetrack.
"Even in Europe, the trend is that everyone is going for simulation to save time and save costs," Luk says. "It's also more environmentally friendly."
What makes the simulator unique, Lee says, is the "air seat", which reacts to the track - pushing into the back in response to a hard brake and into the sides on a bend.
"It's the seat that gives you the feel of the car. Most people think it's the steering, but it's not. That's why the seat is so expensive in a racing car. Like this Audi - the seat is worth about €20,000 (HK$205,800).
"In the old days, we saw simulators that moved around a lot, but it's unnecessary because the car doesn't move like that."
Lee, who is an ambassador of Racing Simulation - as is FIA World Touring Car champion Darryl O'Young - says he is already using the simulator a lot.
He wears full racer's garb, including suit, gloves and helmet. He even turns off the air conditioner, to make the experience authentic.
Lee says he likes simulation practise in a GP2 car, because it is more sensitive and faster on the bends, and makes his regular GT car seem easier to pilot. He has already seen improvements in his form as a result. He has almost matched lap times on the track and the simulator, he says.
"This is very accurate. It's great that this place brings motorsport closer to people."
Luk stresses that the venue is for serious enthusiasts, and it doesn't come cheap. There are various packages available at Racing Simulation, including the "experience course" for learners, which costs HK$4,800 for the first hour-long session and HK$3,500 an hour thereafter.
Racing competition licence holders pay the same, but the introductory session costs just HK$2,600. Other packages start from HK$30,000 for 10 hours.
Nevertheless, for drivers keen to race fast cars, it's a bargain compared to what they would pay to race on a real track, where costs include the car, track rental, manpower and tyres.
"The experience programme is for people who like motorsport, but find many things are stopping them [getting involved]," Lee says.
"My friends say to me, 'Hey can I rent a car? How much is it?' The rental cost is about HK$20,000, and they think that is OK for one time. But if they crash, they have to pay. They ask, 'If I don't make a mistake but someone hits me, will they cover my cost?' No, they won't. So these kinds of things stop people getting into motorsport.
"But if they come here and take a course for 10 hours or 20 hours, and they're fit enough, and think they can handle the car by themselves, then that may be the time to go to Zhuhai to try out the track there."
Lee expresses disappointment with the Hong Kong government for its lack of support for motorsports, and points to the success of the Singapore Grand Prix.
"I think that Hong Kong has a very big advantage, compared to Singapore, for example. We have a bigger airport and a lot of hotels. We are a more international city at the moment. We also have the new cruise terminal, and there's plenty of space for a circuit there.
"The problem is the government doesn't see the advantage of motorsport. It just sees shopping centres, bringing in mainlanders; selling things. That's why I think the simulator is the way to go for motorsport right now," he adds.
Luk says technicians from Cranfield will be visiting Hong Kong shortly to upgrade the simulator, so it will react when users veer off the track. But it's unlikely a second, similar simulator will be added.
Lee says he would like the centre to acquire a go-karting simulator for youngsters aged between six and 12.
"I have a daughter who's five. If she wants to go to karting, which she has never tried, I have to be sure she knows how to brake. She can go fast, that's not a problem, but you have to know how to brake. So if she comes to use the simulator and does OK, we may take her to try a real kart.
"This could be the next step towards nurturing the next generation of drivers."
Racing Simulation, 9/F The Factory, 1 Yip Fat Street, Wong Chuk Hang, tel: 25532552