You may think your Forza Horizon setup is pretty slick, but it's got nothing on the 3D simulator housed at the Ford Performance technical center in Concord, North Carolina. Surrounded by a 26-foot wraparound screen and powered by 25 computers, the simulator consists of a lifelike racing car cockpit "buck" that sits on a platform with six degrees of freedom to rock, tilt and jolt drivers. The aim? Let both racing drivers and car engineers evaluate cars and technical changes without the expense of building and tweaking physical prototypes.
The Ford Performance facility opened in 2014 and sits literally down the street from NASCAR's research and development office; the entire area is littered with race teams and suppliers. The team was tasked with evaluating car-simulator technology from around the world and setting one up for use by racing teams.
The simulator is an impressive machine. Various "bucks" are mounted to the motion platform, each designed to recreate the interior of various cars as faithfully as possible, whether it's a Ford GT endurance racer or a NASCAR Sprint Cup car. Engineers feed in data from engine dynamometers, "kinematics and compliance" machines that measurement suspension motion and a variety of other sources.
"The model is exactly every measurement of a specific car," says Dan Tiley, Ford's performance vehicle dynamics simulation engineer. "To be as exact as possible is what makes this as good a tool as it is."
I watch as NASCAR professional David Ragan turns virtual laps at the new Charlotte Track. He sets a couple of laps on the simulator, then stops and relays feedback to engineers, who in turn tweak some variables in their car-setup model for a few minutes, before sending him back onto the virtual track. Those setup tweaks will, eventually, be relayed to engineers for prepping Ragan's real-life car for the upcoming race weekend.
With NASCAR limiting the amount of on-track testing teams can perform, this type of virtual experience is invaluable. "It gives drivers the chance to get on tracks they've never been on before," Tiley says. "We'll run three or four tracks in a few-hour session."
And, of course, all that is done without the expense of shipping cars and parts around the country — or of rebuilding a car if the driver taps the wall.
Wearing 3D glasses and having the realistic recreation of the car's interior helps with making the simulator feel real, but there are still limits to how much feeling the simulator can produce.
"It's as physical as it would be in a real car, but we don't make it 130 degrees in there," Tiley jokes. Also missing: sustained cornering forces: "That's the one thing we can't simulate is the G-forces." To help cue drivers' minds about braking forces, though, special motors tug on the seatbelts to simulate that feeling of being pushed against the belts.
Not just for racing cars
A second simulator in the building is almost identical to the race rig, albeit with a two-dimensional display rather than the 3D one. The goal here is to get a sense of how pre-production cars might behave on tracks. While Ford engineers' clever models can establish how a car might perform objectively, getting subjective data is much tougher. That requires actually driving a prototype car — or doing so virtually on the simulator.
"I can tell you how fast the car will be on any track we go to," says Eric Zinkosky, Ford's Technical Specialist for Vehicle Dynamics and Simulation Tools. "The one thing I don't have in my model is the feel-meter." That's where the sim comes in.
The simulator is loaded up with about 55 real-life circuits that were carefully 3D-scanned; locations include all of Ford's global proving grounds and countless well-known race tracks. As with the racing version, engineers feed in all the data they have on a car. On my visit, the "buck" is set up to resemble the interior of a Mustang GT350, but in about 45 minutes technicians can swap the parts to look more like a Focus. Either way, the system can simulate the steering weight and feel, sound and body motions of a physical car.
I strap in and give it a go to see how realistic it feels. With a three-point belt, functional gauge cluster — you even get the three-note warning chime of a real-life Ford when the simulator starts up — and tiny screens in the car's mirrors, the sensation of driving is immersive. The wraparound display allows me to look through the window around bends, just like I would in real life. And if I flub a downshift (there's a real clutch pedal and six-speed shifter), there's a shift shock just like in a real car.
Zinkosky loads up Ford's ride-and-handling loop at the company's Dearborn, Michigan proving grounds. I actually rode shotgun around this track earlier in the summer — albeit in the ferocious FP350S customer racing car — and all the visual cues are familiar. Signs, trees, other areas of the proving grounds, even a clock tower from the adjacent Henry Ford Museum are all visible in the distance.
My first lap takes some serious adjustment because the sensation of driving is in what people refer to as the uncanny valley — almost real but not quite. The car pitches, yaws and tilts as I steer around the course, rising and falling over virtual whoops and crests on the track, but there are no big G-forces and no 3D graphics. Judging braking distances is especially tough with fewer visual and physical cues. By lap two, I've got it down and start to feel smoother and more comfortable lapping the virtual GT350 around the test track. It's easy to see how well driving this could substitute for hitting the track.
It's worth noting that Ford can test things other than sports cars in this simulator: Mark Rushbrook, Ford's performance global director, says that the same technologies could be used to develop something like an Edge crossover.
Saving time and money
Running the simulator is without question an expensive proposition, but — without specifying exact numbers — Zinkosky points out it's far cheaper than shipping cars and people to tracks around the world.
"A trip to the Nürburgring for us is $200,000," he says, yet his team has virtually tested the forthcoming Mustang GT500 on a simulated version of the infamous German track. In fact, he says that engineers and test drivers have virtually tried out five different aerodynamic kits of the GT500, a far quicker and cheaper process than building and swapping out five sets of wings, splitters and so on.
Perhaps the most important question is whether the simulator is a good substitute for reality: do on-screen laps match those on-track? "Our lap times at Virginia International Raceway, where we go quite often, are quite comparable" to those on the simulator, Zinkosky says.
An invaluable resource
Saving development time and money is one of the North Carolina facility's major objectives. It goes beyond just simulators, though. In a scale-model shop, technicians use 3D-printed materials to create scaled-down vehicles that are tested in a nearby wind tunnel. (During my visit, the facility was also putting Sébastien Ogier's Ford Fiesta rally car through aero testing.)
The scale-model aero tests are so accurate, says Ford Performance Aerodynamics Supervisor Tommy Joseph, that they can preclude the need to build real prototypes. The best example is the 2019 Ford Mustang NHRA Funny Car. The drag racer will go directly from the drawing board and model shop to real races — no prototype will be tested. (I saw the wind-tunnel mock-up but we can't show it to you at this time). That's a Ford-first and a testament to the team's confidence in its abilities.
"It will never be a prototype," confirms Motorsports Engineering Supervisor Todd Soderquist, "Eliminating that whole loop of cost and time."