Like so many "grown ups," I have become obsessed with computer-generated driving simulators. There are no speed guns or traffic jams in my Playstation games and I can drive as fast and irresponsibly as I like in some of the world's finest supercars. My plastic steering wheel, mounted on a handy ironing board, offers blessed relief from the misery of modern motoring, even if my friends think I'm a bit sad.
And just as the public enthusiasm for such consoles has grown, so the computer programmers have responded with ever more sophisticated simulations. Gone are the days when you'd spend hours chasing a white dot around a black screen. The cars now have realistic handling and you drive on a facsimile of a proper racetrack. During his first season in Formula One, Jacques Villeneuve even claimed to have learnt the circuits on a Playstation.
Unsurprisingly, several teams are now looking at ways of using simulators to boost their driver's performance. Jaguar Racing is leading the way with the development of a bespoke Formula One simulator called the Human Performance Module. It could easily be described as the ultimate Playstation and I was offered an exclusive test drive alongside the team's number-one driver, Mark Webber.
The Module has been developed to allow new drivers to familiarize themselves with the cockpit of the Formula One car before they take to the circuit. For Jaguar this offers one huge advantage - cost. Track time is monumentally expensive and the team is seriously strapped for cash.
"F1 cars need complex control sequences to run some systems and drivers can easily get them wrong," said Chris Hammond, Jaguar's Head of vehicle science. "In the past we've discovered this on the track, but it's an expensive place to make mistakes." Hammond won't say how much the simulator has cost, but the bill must have contained at least six figures.
Webber clambered on board to demonstrate. "People think that driving a Formula One car has become easier because we have semi-automatic gearboxes and traction control," said the man who has become one of F1's hottest properties, "but there's a lot more going on in the cockpit today than there was 10 years ago. If the track conditions change, you need to make adjustments and some drivers lose time when they're changing settings or speaking on the radio.
"You need to have a huge amount of mental capacity in reserve to drive an F1 car quickly and if you're familiar with the cockpit, it frees up your mind to concentrate on other stuff. That's where the simulator becomes really useful."
The carbon-fiber tub, steering rack, brake and accelerator pedals are all exact replicas of those fitted to the grand prix car. It's even possible to wire up the driver's helmet so that they can get used to the sound and feel of the car-to-pit radio system and, moments before we start, a steering wheel arrives that has been borrowed from this year's race car. "It's important that the simulator is as realistic as possible," said Hammond, "but be careful with that wheel."
The whole system is linked up to a PC-based computer game and the track is displayed on a Plasma screen in front of the driver. Webber exited the pits and after a couple of laps, Daniel Bryars, a Jaguar designer, began to issue instructions. The accuracy and speed of his response were logged and the observers noted the effect on his driving.
And then it's my turn. I lower myself into the tub to discover a reclined, feet-up driving position--it feels like I'm sat on a swing. Bryars talks me through the buttons and rotary knobs that control everything from the traction control to the radio. I can count at least 15 different controls on the steering wheel alone and there are several more near my left knee. Suddenly I find myself longing for the comfort of my ironing board--I can't even remember which way the circuit goes.
My first couple of laps would best be described as exploratory. Crouching beside my right-shoulder, Webber does his best to tell me when to brake and accelerate. The steering feels outrageously heavy and my arms start to ache after the first lap. "To be honest," said the driver, "that's about half as heavy as it is in the real car and, of course, you're not having to deal with the g-force." He demonstrates the effect of g-force by grabbing hold of my head through a quick left-hander--"push against my hand," he said, as I career off the circuit.
A couple of laps later, Bryars starts to issue instructions. "Traction control to setting three," he said as I grab the TC knob. "Engine mapping setting three." This is hopeless. I'm fumbling like a nervous adolescent and spending more time in the Armco than on the racetrack. "There'd be a hefty repair bill for this test," said Hammond with a grin. Then, to add an extra dose of reality, the brakes fail and the test has to be aborted.
I scramble out and try to make some sense of it all. "All our new drivers spend time in the simulator," said Bryars. "Christian [Klien, Jaguar's new race driver] has spent about a day in it. Some drivers find it relatively straight forward, but others really struggle. It forms an important part of our driver testing procedure--we've banned people from using it at lunchtime." I don't need to ask which category I would fall into.
But what about the future--can we expect to see the development of even more complex, aircraft-style simulators? "We plan to refine and develop it," said Bryars. "It would be technically possible to build a g-force simulator but it would be hugely expensive and the benefits would be quite small when compared with the existing system."
Webber agreed: "You can't really replicate the sensation of g-force and speed. Nothing compares with the physical exertion of actually driving the car." Not even if you mount a steering wheel to an ironing board? "I've got a Playstation," he continued with a laugh, "and I enjoy all the military games. Some of the rallying games are quite good but they haven't done a good job with the racing games. They're just not realistic enough--they're too easy."