How Honda’s Multi-Million-Dollar Racing Sim Helps It Win in IndyCar

Testing a real car on a real track is an expensive, ever-diminishing privilege. That’s where ultra-realistic racing sims come in.

byJerry Perez| PUBLISHED Sep 2, 2022 12:04 PM
How Honda’s Multi-Million-Dollar Racing Sim Helps It Win in IndyCar
Jerry Perez
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They say that if you want to become a millionaire in racing, then you've got to start as a billionaire. It's true; any form of motorsport is expensive. Some of the expenses are obvious, like engines, tires, and fuel. Others aren't, such as R&D, parts manufacturing, travel expenses, and marketing. For these very reasons, racing teams nowadays must uncover new ways to help keep costs low and productivity high. Whether you're in IndyCar, Formula 1, or a small junior series, testing a real car on a real track is an expensive, ever-diminishing privilege due to ever-tightening budget caps. That's where ultra-realistic racing simulators come into the picture.

A professional-grade racing simulator's job is to mirror every aspect of a real-world racing car in the virtual world. From tire wear to fuel loads and even weather variables, a top-notch simulator like the one I visited at Honda Performance Development's headquarters in Indianapolis, Indiana is designed to be the next best thing. After a day spent talking with the people who operate and maintain it, I'd say it delivers on its intended purpose.

To prove how crucial a machine like this truly is, I'll raise you a real-world scenario: Imagine you're a racing team principal and you've got to develop your cars and drivers throughout the season. However, you have to do so on a shoestring budget. (And let me tell ya, even the world's richest teams claim to be on a shoestring budget.) Before advanced simulators, this meant tasking your parts department with machining a new component, asking your mechanics to install this new component, and then getting the engineers to fine-tune it for track duty. Lastly, you'd have to pay for private time at a race track and get your test driver to buckle in and do some laps.

If the new part achieves its objective, whether it's making the car faster or more reliable, then you can toot your own horn, high-five your team, and go home happy knowing you've taken a step toward beating your opponents. But if the whole thing's a bust, you've wasted a butt-load of time, money, and other precious resources.

The same applies to the drivers. Maybe the next race on the schedule is a track where your star driver performed poorly last year, or maybe it's a brand-new track. Either way, prior to simulators you'd have to get very creative to get a few laps at a track already on the calendar—or perhaps you just couldn't do it at all.

Nowadays, a simulator allows drivers to endlessly lap a known circuit or even preview a new one. The former would make life easy and save some resources, while the latter actually offers a priceless opportunity.

For these reasons and the ever-constant threat of industrial espionage, racing teams are typically pretty hush-hush about the stuff that goes into their simulators. While many specifics remained strictly confidential, David Salters, president of Honda Performance Development, opened up about a few little-known details of Honda's "multi-million-dollar" machine.

The Simulator

HPD's machine is similar to a professional airplane simulator in terms of size and complexity. The difference between the two is that while airline pilots have upright plane seats, a racing driver slips into a fake cockpit that's modeled after an Indy car's. The driver sits exactly as they would in their race car, and their field of vision is filled with a wrap-around screen that's fed by three HD projectors. The fake cockpit also features two side mirrors, which although useless, provide a sense of reality for the driver.

Drivers must wear racing shoes in order to work the pedals correctly within the narrow nosecone of the car. Likewise, the realistic steering wheel demands racing gloves for optimal grip, and its feedback motor is so strong that a virtual crash could legitimately injure a driver's wrists if they don't let go of it—just like in a real car.

The whole thing sits in a large room that's mostly kept dark and well-ventilated, mostly to make sure the driver can focus on the task at hand but also to keep all the hardware, pneumatic actuators, servers, and other components running cool during operation. The engineer station sits directly behind the driver in a separate room, though the simulator room is visible through large windows that link the two.

The simulator is used by all active Honda IndyCar drivers throughout the season, meaning that it is maintained around the clock by several hardware and software professionals. It's also been tested by two-time F1 champion Fernando Alonso, back when he raced at the Indy 500 in 2017 and 2019.

It's Expensive

Much like with any expensive toy, there is the price of entry and then there's the price of upkeep. The biggest expense with a simulator of this caliber isn't just buying or building the thing, but maintaining it. According to Salters, that tab is nearly as much as the purchase price... but yearly.

"There are companies out there that sell the simulators and they're about $3 million to $4 million, but then things aren't as customized as ours," Salters told me as the simulator was being prepped for a test run. "We made a lot of this one ourselves, so while we didn't spend tens of millions, it was close."

"It's probably in the millions as well," said Salters in regards to the simulator's yearly operating costs. "By the time you factor in the engineers and buildings and maintenance, software licenses, and then each track is laser scanned to make a perfect virtual model of it. There are costs related to all this."

It's Also Cost-Effective

Despite its enormous up-front cost and stratospheric maintenance costs, a simulator is the most cost-effective way of developing a race car.

"When I say millions of dollars, that's one thing, but can you imagine if you went and tested the [real] car all the time? It would be way more. The sim is much more economic," said Salters. "You have to have these tools and you need to develop them. All the teams get a number of days and we make a rotation. They get X number of days per season and then we try and tweak that depending on the number of cars, drivers, all that sort of stuff."

Dallara, the chassis provider of IndyCar, also has its own high-end simulator at its facility in Indianapolis. While the two companies focus on different virtual testing objectives throughout the season, Honda's setup focuses mostly on "correlating and validating the physics of a car, track, and weather variables," further increasing its cost-effectiveness.

It Helps the Entire Team

Racing drivers are a selfish bunch. Surely they play a key role in the efficacy of Honda's simulator, but the ultimate purpose is to further the development of—you guessed it—Honda products. This means the rig is just as crucial to engineers as it is to the athletes behind the wheel.

Teams can actually create new components via software and then test them virtually on the simulator without having to physically build the part and attach it to the car. This gives crews a level of testing freedom that'd be simply impossible in the real world.

"Ultimately, the goal is to give the teams and HPD the value to translate sim work into performance at the racetrack, so to go win races," said Salters. "You have to imagine team engineers from our teams sitting here putting all the data together—that's shared between the teams and HPD."

"After we go to a race, the drivers and teams will come back in [to the sim]," he added. "We'll do some post-correlation sessions. Was it as we expected? If it was, great. If it wasn't, why? That's what makes the difference. We check what went on, we'll look at the telemetry. We'll have an investigation. [Teams] will keep that cycle, it repeats. You'll test it before you go there, you'll test there during the race, then you test it after the race."

Indy 500 and Daytona 24 winner Simon Pagenaud shared some feedback, helping me further understand the role the simulator plays during the racing season.

"For the driver, naturally it’s very helpful for driving techniques, and it’s also important for the engineers to determine a baseline setup on gears and chassis," Pagenaud told me. "The sim is super beneficial, especially for tracks that we haven’t been to. But even for tracks we [already] go to, so we can test new development items on the engine or chassis."

It Runs on Extremely Advanced Software

Software makes the world go round, and HPD's simulator isn't an exception. Honda employs software and hardware engineers that specialize in simulator work. They make sure that the data fed from the real cars is properly correlated to the virtual world because, at the end of the day, that's job number one for a simulator.

"It's all the work that goes into getting the tire models right and the physics right and correlating that," said Salters. "It's like any simulation, you have to correlate it to reality. A simulation is always wrong because you can't capture all the physics, but you try and capture as much as possible, and then you have to correlate it and validate it all the time. Also, remember a track evolves as the race goes on. Every lap it's evolving, rubber's going down [improving grip]. We try and capture that as much as possible in our software."

Other factors such as cloud cover and tailwinds can also be correlated. When practicing for flat-out Indy 500 qualifying, the grip level of Turn 1 can vary so much that it'll affect where the driver can turn in. It can make a big difference for a team chasing hundredths if not thousands of a second per lap among 33 drivers. Being able to recreate this in the virtual world is extremely important.

When asked about the biggest disconnect between the real cockpit and the virtual one, Pagenaud said it mostly came down to the tires.

"Well, lately I have been using VR to get more of the spatial awareness and full immersion, but the biggest disconnect is the tires," noted Pagenaud. "In the sim world, it is extremely difficult to simulate proper tire behavior. There are always tricks to use a sim tire to its optimum but it won’t hold true in real life. It is difficult to get the sensation of a stone cold tire that you get in real life and also it is very hard for the driver to feel the tire slipping (front lock up or rear wheelspin) in a sim vs. real life."

What This Means for the Future of Racing

The technological landscape is changing in the racing world—it's been changing for a long time. Simulators aren't toys or even luxuries for professional racing teams and drivers anymore; they're a necessity. Like Salters said, "you have to have these tools and you need to develop them." Ever-tightening budget caps across all forms of racing aim to make the sport more affordable to all involved, with testing becoming collateral damage. Teams simply aren't allowed to test as much as they used to decades ago.

"Data mining is a big deal for us nowadays," Andretti Autosport Chief Operating Officer Rob Edwards told me. "A large percentage of new hires this year and last year are involved with data mining and developing techniques that help us understand what the car is telling us. These Indy cars have lots of data channels that generate lots of useful information while on the track, and we need to be more efficient in interpreting it."

"Predictive software is starting to play a big role," added Edwards. "Software-predicted pit strategies and other aspects of racing can be handled by clever software nowadays."

And ultimately, that's the common goal shared by the simulator, engineers, and drivers: communicating with the car. Not just to listen to what it's saying, but to be able to talk back to it and tell it to be better, faster, and more efficient. The team that can do that the best will be the team to win the most races.

Email the author at jerry@thedrive.com