I got to drive the 2017 Mercedes F1 car (sort of)

by Curtis Moldrich

Back in February, Mercedes-AMG invited me to the launch of the Mercedes-AMG F1 W08 EQ+ – its fastest, most advanced F1 challenger to date. Last year’s cars were fast, but new regulations for 2017 have increased the downforce and mechanical grip of this year’s cars, making them three to five seconds faster per lap than in 2016.

Every car on the grid is an incredible machine, but the Mercedes W08 is clearly one of the best. Despite tough competition, Mercedes leads the constructor’s championship with 475 points to Ferrari’s 373, making the W08 the car to be driving right now. And last week I got to drive one.

Well, I didn’t really. Instead, Mercedes-AMG invited me to its headquarters in Brackley and let me have a go of the actual simulator used by both Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas – as well as their previous drivers such as Nico Rosberg and Michael Schumacher.

And instead of loading an old car on to the sim, the Mercedes team let me drive a virtual version of this year’s W08 car at the Barcelona circuit. What follows is one of the most ridiculous things I’ve ever done.m67485

The simulator

Before I explain what it’s like to drive in the W08, it’s worth explaining exactly what its “Driver in the Loop” simulator actually is: instead of the pedals or steering wheel you might have bought for your PS4 from Amazon, Mercedes’ simulator takes up two floors of a building.

On the top level, you’ll find a mission-control-esque room, covered with screens full of telemetry and other data. It’s where the simulator operators sit – and where Hamilton and Bottas’ engineers will be when they’re running through programs in the simulator downstairs.

One level below, you’ll find the simulator itself, and it’s like nothing else I’ve been in – apart from Ansible Motion’s simulator. It’s basically a room with huge, curved screens on three sides, and what Mercedes calls a sled in the middle. Developed and designed in-house by Mercedes, and costing well over £1 million, the sled can move in pretty much every axis – although movement is turned off for us – and it resembles the front and cockpit of an F1 car.

There’s no wheels or sidepods, but it does have speakers behind the driver’s head and a small pouch for your smartphone – the latter installed since Lewis Hamilton joined the team. This addition does makes sense, though, because the simulator operator told me that drivers can spend between four and six hours a session in the simulator. That’s quite a long time without to go without checking Instagram, so I don’t blame him.qualcomm_116

Despite its odd appearance, the simulator has exactly the same dimensions as the real car inside. What’s more, it also uses the same FIA-approved ECU as the real car, and that means you use a real, £50,000 Formula 1 steering wheel when you’re driving it.

As for the software? The Mercedes team uses a rFactor Pro, a professional racing sim program, but everything plugged into it – such as the car data and the tyre-behaviour modelling – is written by Mercedes engineers themselves to be as realistic as possible.

Starting the Mercedes-AMG W08 F1 car

After watching a few other journalists, it was time for my turn in the simulator, and the first hurdle was actually getting into the thing. Formula 1 drivers sit in a far more reclined position than in your average road car, so F1 cars are a pain to get into.

You have to essentially fall into the car while kicking your legs forward and, when you finally do get in, it’s like lying in a bathtub with your feet next to the taps – with a telesales headset on. It’s not as graceful as they make it look on TV.  

Once you’re finally installed, the simulator takes a few minutes to boot up, and you find yourself floating above the track. After you firmly press the brake – which has about a centimetre of travel – you softly land on the asphalt, and then you have to select first gear.m67655

To do that, you need press the neutral button, hold the clutch paddle at the bottom left, and then select first gear on the right-hand side of the wheel. Once the revs are high enough, or the LEDs are just over halfway across the steering wheel, you gently ease out the clutch. After that you only need to use the paddles, unless something goes dramatically wrong.

Driving the Mercedes-AMG W08 F1 car

The very first thing I notice is about the Mercedes is the sheer acceleration and torque of its hybrid powertrain. After gently accelerating out of Barcelona’s last chicane, I put my foot down and the car seems to take off. The green, red and blue LED lights on the steering wheel constantly zip to the right, telling me to change up a gear – and it really feels as though there’s no end to the car’s power.

Within seconds, the car eats up the lengthy Barcelona straight, and as I approach the first corner at a rapid speed, I’m thinking about braking – hard. As you’d expect from any sane individual, I step on the brakes at around 100 yards before the corner, but I find myself stopped around 60 yards short of the apex. The stopping power of the Mercedes is just as as extreme as its acceleration, and I make a mental note to brake at the 50yd marker – 50 yards later – on my next lap.qualcomm_117

After tiptoeing around the first few corners, I start to build up speed; braking later, carrying more speed through corners, and generally pushing my luck. It’s pretty uncomfortable: a 2017 F1 car has so much grip that you always feel like you’re breaking the laws of physics. On more than a few occasions, I swoop into a corner at a ridiculous speed, and have to consciously tell myself that the car can take it – even though all my previous, real-life driving experience is telling me the reverse.

Getting faster in an F1 car is certainly down to control – such as how to modulate brake pressure – but it’s clear that much of it is also down to confidence and faith in your car. This is particularly noticeable in faster corners. At higher speeds, downforce plays an increased role in keeping the car on the track, so the faster you go, the more grip you have. The result? Go faster and you’ll stay on the track – go slower and you might not.

It’s an easy theory to explain, but in reality it’s quite stressful to keep your speed up when you’re sure that you can’t. But getting it right is exhilarating and it makes me get on the throttle sooner and harder – and that’s when I have my first near-crash moment in the car.

YouTube video

Halfway through T3, one of the fastest corners on the track, the back of the car steps out, and I’m forced to turn into the slide and ease off the accelerator. It’s a scary moment, but I stay on the track, which is a victory in itself.

After that minor setback, my time in the simulator is a mixture of learning when to brake, when to accelerate, what gear to be in – and then getting used to the actual feel of the brake and accelerator.

Braking remains tricky, however, and I never really get the hang of it. The travel is so small and the speeds are so high, even when you do brake at the right time, you’re always in danger of locking up – or worse, flying off the track.qualcomm_118Regardless, every lap, I’m braking later, squeezing the throttle a little harder through long sweeping bends, and reluctantly relying on the downforce to slingshot me round. I still have quite a few mid-corner moments that I end up being able to correct, a lock ups, and a few wobbles where I’m a little too heavy on the acceleration out of corners – but on the whole it’s not that bad. I’m still pretty happy I managed to save a 2017 car quite a few times around Barcelona.

What it’s like to drive a Mercedes-AMG W08 F1 car

Just when things seem to be hooking up for me, when I’m braking in the right places, taking the rough racing lines, and when I loosely have the gears down for each corner, it’s time to stop. I’m told by the simulator operator that I got faster as the session went on, setting my fastest time on my last lap.

As for my best time? That was a 1:28.766, far better than the 1:38.347 I did originally, and still around three seconds faster than the next journalist. Of course, that’s ages away from the 1:20.511 Lewis Hamilton did to qualify on pole for this year’s Spanish Grand Prix, but I’ll take it. Even though Mercedes added 5% extra grip to the car I drove, I had 20kg of fuel on board – more than you’d use for a qualifying lap. And that’s my main excuse.

Laptime Sector 1 Speed trap 1 (kph) Sector 2 Speed trap 2 (kph) Sector 3
Speed trap 3 (kph)
1:33.540 27.883 255 35.317 269 35.147 262
1.38.465 24.737 262 34.888 271 33.915 266
1:36.277 24.906 259 34.428 218 39.131 264
1:33.910 25.526 258 35.024 263 35.727 264
1:30.910 25.883 282 33.524 235 34.264 266
1:31.951 24.129 274 33.065 247 33.716 266
1:28.755 24.471 277 33.219 255 34.261 271

So, what’s an F1 car like to drive? It’s a lot like a normal car really, but the performance is so extraordinary that it’s honestly like playing an F1 game. And a lot seems to come down to believing in the car rather than in your senses. The car can brake later, turn faster and carry more speed than you’re probably prepared to – and part of being fast is trusting it.

Knowing when to brake and what to do around the track is also paramount, and being at one with the brakes, accelerator and the car in general is probably the third part of the equation.

I felt like I could go a few seconds faster by the end of my session by working on those three areas, but it’s the four or five seconds after those that separate normal people from F1 drivers. As for the last few tenths after that? They separate the champions from the rest of the grid. 

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