The weird world of lockdown has blurred the lines that bound reality for many of us, but piloting a virtual race car while sitting next to a real works driver adds an extra level of discombobulation.
I’m sitting in an office in England in the grandly named Aston Martin AMR-C01—a carbon-fiber bathtub filled with high-end gaming hardware with a price that starts around $80,000—driving a Vantage GT3 around a beautifully rendered version of the Nürburgring Nordschleife. All the while getting tips on cornering lines and braking points from somebody who has done it in real life.
My guide, Darren Turner, is doubly qualified for the role. He is a veteran racer who has scored a trio of podium finishes in the real life Nürburgring’s 24-hour race, as well as three class wins at Le Mans during his time as an Aston works driver. But he also has more experience on simulators than almost anybody else. “I was at McLaren in 1998 when Martin Whitmarsh said we were going to do a sim,” he says, “there was offline simulation before, but no driver in the loop stuff. I think we were the first.”
More recently, Turner launched a company to build high-end simulators, mostly used for driver training. His new venture, Curv, is collaborating with Aston Martin on this officially sanctioned junior version.
The very idea of spending enough to buy a Cayman or a Corvette and several year’s worth of track days on something a couple of rungs above an Xbox or PlayStation might seem preposterous, certainly for those without the financial means to scratch any itch. But Turner says that demand for the limited run of 150 AMR-C01s has been strong. Deliveries have already begun and Curv has several months of orders banked. One of the units being finished when I visited the company’s factory near Banbury—on the edge of England’s Motorsport Valley—was about to be shipped to a buyer in Peru.
Up close, the AMR-C01 is a beautiful thing. The tub, made from carbon fiber by a motorsport supplier, can be bought in an Aston racing-inspired color or matched to anything a buyer might choose, from their actual Aston to the softest furnishings in the den. Getting in means stepping over the sides like in a real single-seater, and the sliding down to a knee-high seating position inspired by the Aston Valkyrie. The steering wheel and 47-inch curved monitor are fixed in place, but both the carbon bucket seat and motorized pedal box have plentiful adjustment; Aston’s 6-foot-4 creative director Marek Reichman fits, as can a typical 10-year-old child.
It is as beautifully finished as it should be for the price, even in areas where it probably doesn’t need to be. The pedals are milled from aluminum billets, as are their mountings that normally hide hidden beneath a carbon cover. Adjustable rubber rings allow the weight and travel of the brake pedal to be adjusted for preference, and the throttle’s movement and resistance can also be altered. The carbon-faced yoke steering wheel doesn’t come from a real car; it has been specifically designed for the rig and features gearchange and clutch paddles. The steering connects to a motor feedback unit capable of applying up to 7 lb-ft of torque. But, unlike some high-end racing rigs, there are no movement actuators to replicate the effect of g-loadings. “That wasn’t really the experience we were going for,” Turner says, “this is something that will look nice in the corner of a room, not dominate it.”
The AMR-C01’s brainpower is hidden in a panel accessed by popping out the pretend front grille; a PC running a high-end Intel i7 CPU and NVIDIA GTX 2080 graphics card sits behind a pair of cooling fans. This runs Assetto Corsa, a popular simulation software package that Curv has plentiful experience of working with. Buyers will also be able to opt to install other packages include rFactor 2 and iRacer. “It depends on what they want to race, or who they want to race against,” Turner says.
My experience as a virtual driver is limited; I admit to Turner that I’m happier playing with a control pad than a steering wheel. But I did get the chance to experience the Red Bull Racing F1 simulator a couple of years ago when it was co-opted to help with development of the Aston Valkyrie, something my body completely failed to accept as analogous to a real car. The AMR-C01 is much less serious than that, but also much more fun.
My choice here was limited to Astons for obvious reasons, but buyers will be able to load any Assetto Corsa model they own. I start with a relatively tame Vantage GT3 but Turner gives me free choice of track and I go straight for the top with the Nürburgring Nordschleife on the grounds I’ve experienced it in both real and virtual worlds.
On my first attempt to leave the pitlane I misjudge the clutch paddle engagement and collide, embarrassingly, with the wall. We reset and several thousand dollars’ worth of damage disappears with a press of a button. Once I get onto the track the experience immediately feels more natural than the hair trigger Red Bull simulator, giving a convincing impression of steering feedback and pedal loadings. My confidence builds quickly and is only diminishes slightly when a grossly optimistic entry speed into Adenauer Forst leads to another huge smash, after which I begin to listen to Turner’s advice on braking points more closely.
I also get a briefer run in a virtual Valkyrie on the shorter Nürburgring GP circuit. The sim gives a thrillingly convincing impression of the massive aerodynamic downforce the real Valkyrie will doubtless generate on faster corners. A significant number of AMR-C01 buyers will be able to compare the software-delivered experience to that of their real cars.
“One of the sims has been delivered to an owner who has a real Vulcan that has been upgraded to the AMR Pro package,” Turner says, “we’ve been able to change the car’s dynamic model to match his particular Vulcan because we use Assetto Corsa all the time. That’s the level of detail we can go into.”
The popularity of both online racing and more serious e-motorsports has been increasing for years, but the pandemic has dramatically accelerated it. The good news is that you don’t need to spend anything close to this much to be competitive; when I covered a virtual GT3 race in 2016 some of the world’s quickest drivers reckoned they spent under $2000 on their gear. But for those with bigger budgets determined to compete in style, the AMR-C01 is both a ridiculous indulgence and a beguiling proposition.
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