On Friday 20th November I took park in a 24 hour car race for Children in Need 2009. But this was a race with a twist – my 24 hours wasn’t spent in a real race car, it was all done in a simulator.
The event was held down in Southampton at the Race Centre Driver’s Challenge, and when I first walked in, I was hit by how dark the room was. Around the edge of the room there were ten driving simulator pods each with steering wheel, earphones, pedals, racing seat and huge 2.4m projector screens.
I was racing for Team Autosport. After being nominated for the McLaren Autosport Awards, I have recently been through a series of tests and interviews where I will get the chance to win a Test day in a F1 McLaren and sponsorship towards my racing in 2010. The results will be due in early December at the Autosport Awards in London; motorsport’s biggest awards event.
My team was made up by Tiff Needell, and a presenter from the BBC News team, who took part in just the first hour of racing, then it was down to myself, James Calado, Harry Tincknell and my cousin Riki Christodoulou as we raced against teams from the likes of McLaren, Virgin and Porsche. With over ten drivers per team so it wasn’t going to be easy… especially during the night.
The race began at 1pm on Friday, and we were racing 2006 Audi R8 Le Mans cars around Mazda Laguna Seca for 24 hours, the track where I won my last race and the American Star Mazda Championship.
Tiff Needell and the BBC presenter were first to get behind the wheel, and at this early stage we were racing in 9th place. Then in the following order, James, Harry, myself and Riki took to the wheel, each doing one hour stints. We soon were up to 5th position and things were looking good. The simulator proved to be extremely hard and it was very easy to over-drive the simulator as you don’t get much of a sensation for speed, G forces or feeling throughout the car, but the Logitech technology steering wheel and pedals gave you force feedback especially thought the steering wheel, providing a resistance during turning and movement over different track surfaces, kerbs ect, this helped with reactions and understanding how the car was responding.
The software we used was ‘R Factor’, a popular simulator software in America and in the racing world. It’s amazing how realistic all the technology was. On the screen we could see the current fuel load, tyre temperatures, tyre wear, damage, engine and oil temperatures, data logging, GPS, G-forces, lap times, sector times… it’s also possible to do setup changes, but in our case each of the cars were setup identically for the race.
As we approached midnight, each of us were doing half hour stints as this was the maximum amount of time that fuel would last between pit stops and also to keep us fresh and alert. We got into 4th position only two laps behind Team Virgin who were in 3rd, and with the simulator screens being so dark (the sky adjusted to the real time of day) it left pretty much a pitch black view with only a small area lit up to see where you were going. By this stage plenty of people were getting tired and starting to make lots of mistakes, but this is where we started to perform. Just by keeping it on the track we progressed well as the biggest loss of time was going off-track and getting into a spin. Everyone’s lap times were a lot slower during this time and you felt like you were using quite a bit of guess work for the corners.
We all had brought our sleeping bags and there were body’s scattered across the floor of the race centre with people trying to get some rest between driving stints. It’s quite strange trying to sleep during a race. Even though it was only on a simulator, your adrenaline is going and of course you want to watch every lap just so you don’t miss anything. I think the most amount of sleep any of us got from my team was about three hours, but thankfully the Race Centre had facilities for food to keep everyone going even during the night. At one stage I woke up to some one getting a bit over-excited and shouting some rather entertaining words after a particularly big crash or spin. Even though it was all for charity and all a lot of fun, it didn’t stop people letting the competition get serious at times. No one wanted to drop their guard.
By morning we’d move up again, and were now in 3rd with a five lap gap to 4th place. Things were looking good. We had completed 18 hours and now had only six to go. As we carried on with our 30 minutes stints, the screens were starting to brighten up with the emergence of day light, and everyone was completing quick track times again.
By the last hour we remained comfortable in 3rd, everything seemed under control, until everyone encountered a technical fault, and the simulators stopped for a few minutes. When we got back underway again, everyone began with a standing start, and it became like a sprint race compare to what we had been doing the past 23 hours. We took it in turns to do 15 minutes each, and with a significant gap to 4th position we knew we weren’t under threat.
At 1pm on Saturday we completed the final lap and it seemed pretty emotional. After 24 hours of solid racing it was all over, we finished on the podium collecting a trophy for 3rd place, completing 972 laps within 30 laps of the winner. Team Autosport also managed to collect the fastest lap time as well, with a 1.11.549.
I have to say congratulations to all the teams and all who competed in the event, everyone did a great job. Between all the teams we managed to raise over £7,000 for Children in Need through the participation, auction and event sponsorship.