How VR is changing Formula 1 for the teams, drivers and fans

Virtual cockpits for everyone
How VR is changing Formula 1

Having moved from health to high rises via almost everything in between, virtual reality is now making its way into one of the most technologically advanced arenas around: Formula 1.

With the flag set to drop on the new F1 season this weekend, we sat down with some of the sport's key figures to see how VR is changing the landscape for the teams, drivers and fans alike.

VR in F1: The teams

When it comes to tech, F1's never been shy on adopting, and even pioneering, the latest advancements. Its car tech regularly filters down to production vehicles – just look at more energy efficient motors and kinetic energy recovery systems – and safety advancements laid out in F1 have been saving consumers' lives for years. It's not just on the track that the sport is pushing things forward either.

With in-season testing now banned by the sport's regulatory body, teams have moved to technically advanced simulators. This involve a car chassis being sat on top of a computer controlled hydraulic rig that's placed in front of a wall of high definition displays. The movements are true to life, with intricate changes to the car's set-up able to be tested without burning any fuel.

Things are changing though. Those screens are on the way out, and VR headsets are on the way in. At least that's according to the most successful F1 team of recent times, the three-time-reigning drivers' and constructors' F1 champions, Mercedes.

"VR is starting to come in," team principal Toto Wolff explained, speaking exclusively with Wareable. "We're building a brand new simulator and VR is a hot topic. The better you can actually simulate what is happening on track, the quicker it is going to make you, and VR is going to definitely be the way forward."

Explaining how the team implements VR into its extensive driver training set-up, he added: "The driver sits in the simulator, has the glasses on and drives the car. Rather than staring at the screens, he has the glasses on."

How VR is changing Formula 1 for the teams, drivers and fans

VR in F1: The drivers

This isn't just a gimmick for a sport that's rolling in cash and filled with tech-loving engineers. According to the drivers themselves, it has notable benefits come race weekend.

"It's like having a big screen, all the way around, like three-dimensional," said reigning F1 World Champion Nico Rosberg. "To practise, the more realistic, the better. We had a simulator that was virtual reality and we used a lot of that to prepare for the actual driving. It's very, very important, it's critical, because we're not allowed to test."

While current drivers are enthusiastic about the potential of VR to enhance the F1 experience and help to shave off those precious fractions of a second come qualifying, some former drivers are less sold on the tech's use. "I would ban the entire lot because I don't think it brings anything to the fans at all," former Grand Prix racer and current Sky Sports F1 commentator Martin Brundle said of VR.

"It costs tens if not hundreds of millions of pounds, and I would rather see that come off the ticket prices," he said, speaking with Wareable. "They won't even let me in with a camera to these places, so the fans can't go and see it. You can't go and watch a simulator at work, you can't understand nine teraflops of data or whatever it is. I just don't think it brings anything to Formula 1."

VR in F1: The tech

There's a reason why teams such as Mercedes aren't flinging open their doors to Sky's camera crews when it comes to their work in VR – competitive advantage. Not all teams have started sampling the benefits of VR as a training tool, and those that have are understandably keen to keep their breakthroughs private, just like the intricacies of their engines or the finer points of their aero packages.

What we have learned, however, is that given the speciality of the software and the needed for zero lag and high frame rates, the F1 teams are having to go it alone, with no HTC Vive or Oculus Rift headsets in sight. Sadly that means this isn't a VR experience you'll be able to download from the Oculus store to buddy up with your gaming wheel and pedals any time soon.

How VR is changing Formula 1 for the teams, drivers and fans

"We are trying to build our proprietary technology, but there's obviously a limitation to our capabilities in that very specific area," Wolff explained. Fortunately for Mercedes, one of their main sponsorship partners is a VR expert, with Qualcomm providing chipsets that power many current VR headsets and enable a variety of smartphone-hosted VR experiences. Although he wouldn't be drawn on the type of headsets the team uses, he did add: "We are purchasing some of the technology and putting our own on top of it. In many of the driver simulation tools we're doing that."

At present, the team's use of VR tech is limited to the drivers, with other areas of the team unable to find practical uses as yet. "We haven't done pit crew training with VR yet, because if you do it with VR, you lack the car where you can put the tyres on, you'd just throw it into the room," joked Wolff.

While the money and technical advancements lie on the engineering side, VR's use in Formula 1 isn't limited just to the teams, though. It's about to bring fans much closer to the high-octane sport.

VR in F1: The fan experience

In a sport where fine margins are often the difference between success and failure, and fractions of a second separate much of the grid in qualifying, VR is a tool that can help tip the balance in one team's favour. More than that though, it can bring the fans both in the stands and sat at home much closer to the action.

"I can understand why the teams are doing it," Sky Sports F1's technical expert, Ted Kravitz, told us. "If it's simulating things and helping teams develop with little testing, then they can spend their money how they want. But I think really that VR is better for the fan experience."

Kravitz's comments were echoed by renowned F1 engineer Pat Symonds, a man with more than 40 years' F1 experience who has headed up Williams, Renault, Benetton and Virgin Formula 1 teams. "One of the things we can do quite well in motorsport is immersion," he told us. "That immersion is what we can give fans. You're almost in the cockpit of the car, you're understanding what's going on, and technology can help you a lot with that. In motorsport we have the right platform to do it."

How VR is changing Formula 1 for the teams, drivers and fans

While F1 teams are cagey about the intricacies of their VR usage, the fan experience is open to everyone, and already available through everything from a basic Google Cardboard headset to more advanced VR set-ups. "We've seen VR more in the fan experience," Kravitz explained. "Last year I did, as part of winter testing, some VR stuff with Sky's VR Studio. It essentially involved me going around the paddock holding a gyroscope with a VR 360 camera on the end of it. That was last year, and the technology has already moved on a lot since then."

It's not just Sky that's dabbled in consumer-facing VR. A number of teams including Williams and Red Bull have already strapped 360-degree cameras to their cars to offer simple 360-degree VR experiences.

And this is just the start of things. More F1 VR experiences will drop this season, with the rapidly advancing tech set to be used more and more as cameras become more compact and headsets more prevalent. "What I can't wait for is when the streaming technology is up and running, and the rendering technology is there to handle all the VR cameras, which I think is close," Kravitz explained. "You can then put those cameras on the roll loops of the cars and stream in real time to anyone who's got a VR headset.

"So you could be sat on the top of Kimi's car as he's racing Vettel and look around to see there he is and he's coming up behind me. If you're talking VR, that's the thing I'm really looking forward to."

If you can't wait to be in the F1 driver's seat – virtually, anyway – a Williams F1 experience can be downloaded from the Sky VR Studio app now.

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