Dr. Kathryn Richards from Mercedes AMG Petronas and Dare To Be Different on women in (sim)racing

At Virtual Racing School, we’re convinced that anyone who has the determination and access to training tools can be a successful racer, whether that’s on the track or in the simulator, whether they’re male or female. While men have dominated road racing since its inception, we think that simracing could and should be the big equaliser. Simracing has extremely low entry costs, and literally anyone can enter the competition from anywhere of the world. Yet why are there still effectively no women competing in simracing?

This is why we contacted Dr. Kathryn Richards, who’s a senior wind tunnel technician at the Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 team, as well as ambassador for Dare To Be Different, which is a non-profit organisation, spearheaded by Susie Wolff, to help to inspire, connect, showcase and develop women who either currently work in, or want to work in motorsports.

Kathryn Richards at the Mercedes AMG Petronas at Brackley, England — © Mercedes AMG Petronas Formula One Team

Kathryn, why are we seeing so few women in racing? What’s the barrier?

I think it’s primarily a cultural barrier. The prevailing preconception was, and still is, that motorsport is something for boys. However since the formation of the D2BD community, I’ve realised just how many young girls there are out there, trying to get involved in many forms of motorracing and engineering. I just think that when these youngsters get older, that’s where the problems arise. Are there the opportunities? And are they overlooked in place of their male counterparts?

As it stands, I certainly see somewhat of a chance, and more success for female engineers then female drivers, but hopefully one day this will change.

 

Perceptions and prejudices are very difficult things to change. How do you do that?

We break perceptions down quietly, and without people really knowing about it. D2BD is a perfect platform to do this. We just need to help and encourage the younger generation to follow their dreams, and where possible provide the opportunities for them to realise them. In this way, more girls will start to filter through into all aspects of motorsport and engineering. The key is the reassure young girls that it’s OK to get into motorsport, and that actually the boys really don’t mind us being here.

 

Apart from perceptions and prejudices, are there things that need change for women to succeed? 

To be honest I don’t think there is. I believe in equal opportunities both ways. If you’re good enough and earn the right to be there, you will succeed.

 

F1 drivers are now using simulators at their factories. Do you think simulators can be a form of training at home? 

Obviously there is no substitute for reality, but practise helps. In Formula One, our simulator is an essential tool for preparing both driver and engineers for all the eventualities of a race. You see the same in other industries, for instance airline pilots and astronauts also use simulations as a vital part of their training.

While I’ve never myself used a simulator, I can only imagine that they’re good for training the reflexes, hand-to-eye co-ordination, as well as learning the track. If simulators give young girls the edge in racing, then so be it. I think as individual we should all do whatever we can do to improve ourselves and get ahead.

Dare To Be Different with Susie Wolff and a Williams FW36 at Knockhill, Scotland — © Dare To Be Different

You can read more about Dare To Be Different and their activities on their website, www.daretobedifferent.org.

Frederik, Jeremy and David on ‘offline’ racing at the SimRacing Expo

Last month, the world of simracing gathered at the SimRacing Expo at the Nürburgring, with some of the top of them competing in the 2017 ADAC SimRacing Trophy. With ten rigs from the organisation, forty gamers battled it out locally, with an audience at the venue, as well as viewers online. VRS coaches Jeremy Bouteloup and David Williams came second and third in the final, with Frederik Rasmussen of CoRe SimRacing taking the victory. We catch up with all three of them here.

Competitors ahead of the huge audience — © SimRacing Expo

Do you feel a different kind of tension when you’re racing in front of an audience and not in your own home? 
David: “You certainly feel the atmosphere, which is very audible while driving, even though we have headphones on. There were moments during the final when Jeremy was fending off Frederik where I could barely hear the car, such was the noise level of the crowd and the live commentary through the speakers above the stage. In addition you have cameras moving in and out of the rigs, sometimes in your face, which can be very distracting! I have to say though, the excitement is something you don’t get at home, which you can feed off to fuel your focus.”

Jeremy: “It’s definitely different. While at home it’s only you and your rig, on stage it really feels like you’re in an arena. You generally hear the crowd, the commentators, and that can be quite distracting if you’re not used to it. You really need to focus on what you’re doing because when you start thinking about who’s watching you, or see the cameraman trying to get good shots of you, then that really can lead to on track mistakes. But it’s a great experience if you’re performing well, because everything you feel is amplified as you can share it with the crowd!”

Frederik: “It was definitely different to race with everyone watching, but after a few laps I forgot about it and was able to focus on the driving only. Yet when a camera man comes over and films you it can be very distracting, making it hard to concentrate.”

Do you miss your own rig and the software you have installed at home? Or you just quickly learn cope with it?
Frederik: “I didn’t miss my rig, because it was the same for everyone. But I must say it was quite hard to have only a short time to get used to a brake pedal that’s twenty times harder than what I have at home, and the seat was moving a bit!”

David: “The software is exactly the same as at home, but the settings (no changes allowed) and hardware are very different. Fortunately I’ve got decent experience with unfamiliar rigs and so adapting wasn’t too much of an issue, however it’s always difficult and seemingly minor differences can throw people off what they’re comfortable with and what they have muscle memory with. This year, each rig had slightly different wheel and pedals, which made things even trickier, because after each heat you’re in a different one. Yet the format was great and forced everyone to adapt.”

Jeremy: “It depends on the rig that you have at the event. It’ll never be the same so you always need to adapt, but with experience you’re able to adapt quickly and perform decently with equipment you’re not familiar with. Depending on the event, that’s sometimes the key to a good performance because you have limited seat time to get accustomed to the rig you have to use.”

Rigs for the competitors
— © SimRacing Expo

How does it work with setups? Do you quickly make the changes you memorised? 
Jeremy: “In these events you generally have limited setup options available, as the difference is only supposed to be made on driving. For this competition, only the brake bias was available but that was a key one since the Porsche doesn’t have ABS. So setting this, I went on the safe side because I didn’t feel as confident with the equipment as at home.”

David: “As Jeremy said, the SimRacing Trophy event only allowed adjustments to the brake bias. If the setup was open, I’d probably bring a photo of the garage screen or a USB stick to copy settings across.”

You have your headphones on, but do you hear anything from the audience behind you or the commentators? Do you ever look to your left or right to see what other competitors are doing?
Jeremy: “Despite having headphones, you definitely hear what’s going on around you! You can hear the crowd applauding when there’s a nice overtake, the commentators shouting a drivers name, and so on. You can have a sideways look at other competitors, but there’s not really a point in doing so as you need to focus on your own race. Obviously, this is much harder to do in this type of environment because you have a lot more distractions than at home.”

David: “As Jeremy said, the noise levels are so loud at the event that it’s still difficult to hear the sim clearly at times, and cues such as tyre noise which we rely on at home can become very difficult to sense. Technically you can see the rigs immediately to the sides of you, but the best strategy really is to try and block out external distractions as much as you can.”

Frederik: “I could hear audience and commentators well, but I don’t really ‘listen’ to it. And yeah I tried to look to the persons next to me sometimes, but you couldn’t really see very clearly, heh.”

How’s the whole event? Does simracing need more local events?
Frederik: “The whole event was just epic, I wish there would be a lot more of these events to meet people and race with them.”

Jeremy: “The whole event is definitely a nice showcase for simracing. It’s great for the drivers, for the teams involved, and for the public. It’s a unique experience to see online racing being on-site and it makes it much more engaging for everyone. From a drivers’ perspective, it can be really stressful but also enjoyable to perform in front of a crowd. There aren’t so many events like this one and simracing being a rather small e-sport, it definitely helps bring more attention around it. It’s also a great opportunity to meet people you are racing with or against all year long and put faces to name.”

David: “I really love live events like this year’s SimExpo. It’s an awesome chance to put faces to the names you find yourself racing against online, not to mention friends and teammates you’ve gotten to know so well, and whom you get the chance to share drinks with in the evening (and early morning!). The atmosphere and passion you feel in person watching the races in my opinion surpasses even real racing, given how accessible the drivers are to spectators, and I really see this as being the best chance for simracing as an e-sport to grow. I’d love to see major online championships conclude with similar in-person live finals, as it warrants the kind of buzz and excitement such high level competition deserves.”

David, Frederik, Jeremy — © SimRacing Expo

 

The 2018 SimRacing Expo is again held at the Nürburgring boulevard, at 15 and 16 September 2018.

4.2: Surviving the first corner

“You can’t win a race in the first corner, but you can lose it in the first corner” is one of the oldest racing adages (another being ‘To finish First, you first have to finish’). And it’s one of the most valuable (and least adhered) lessons, as merely surviving the first lap can ensure a points finish, especially in the lower splits of road racing. But does first-corner-survival come down to mere luck, or is there some skill or strategy involved? We catch up with some of the VRS coaches.

Martti Pietilä:
“The most important thing about starting a race (and the first corner) is also one of the most fundamental concepts of racing overall: look where you want to go. When driving alone, this is quite natural, and most of the time we just need to think about how far we look, at either the apex or the exit. However, at a start there’s so much going on around us, we tend to forget this very basic requirement, and start to look at the cars around us. Especially if there’s a crash in front of us, we get so fixated on that and continue to plow in to the mess, even though there was plenty of time to avoid. The key here is to be aware of whats happening around you, not just looking at the cars around.

Lastly, if possible, I try to stay away from the middle of the track, so that an ‘escape’ plan is available if things go wrong!”

Jeremy Bouteloup:
“The best way is to think of all possible scenarios during the approach of the first turn, different racing lines and how you’ll have to position the car. This will help anticipating what will happen and will allow you to react in due time. A second thing is; don’t do anything unpredictable because that will increase the chances to be hit. Other than that, there’s no magic for this and with experience, you’ll learn when and how to react, and it’ll come naturally.”

Olli Pahkala:
“Keep up situational awareness, stay sharp and smart and try to avoid any sudden movements in a steady flow of cars.”

Martin Krönke:
“Heh, the easiest thing is just to qualify on pole. Less issues then! But still you can’t really prevent people running into the back of you. Perhaps if you notice in time that someone is going to overshoot the corner, you may prevent contact by not turning in. But if someone is messing up real bad, chances are you can’t do much at all. So really, if you’re in the pack, just expect the worst and be ready to react. Be prepared to brake and not run into the carnage. If the worst case doesn’t happen, good. If it happens, at least be prepared for it.”

David Williams:
“Regardless of where you start, your initial focus should always be on having a clean, disciplined launch. If you’re on the front row, try not to be distracted by drivers behind you. Be prepared to defend into turn 1 if necessary, and try and visualise the line you wish to carry through the corner before you get there. However, if you find yourself starting in the middle of the pack, it’s important to realise that you must give yourself the opportunity to react to, or take advantage of situations which will change and develop quickly. Be willing to brake much earlier than normal if closely following another car, as it’s likely they’ll be reacting to cars ahead and the pack will be backed up. Avoid erratic or aggressive inputs which may catch other drivers unaware, potentially causing a collision with you. At the same time however, be ready and aware of opportunities which may present themselves to you, and remember how much later you can brake if you choose a line with no cars immediately ahead.

One more thing, I consciously balance risk versus reward on tracks where it’s hard to overtake, or for sprint races compared to endurance races. But it’s also important to be aware that the rest of the grid are more likely to take extra risks as well, and to make allowance for mistakes from others to be made and ultimately capitalise on.”

Managing a simracing team: Javier Álvarez, team principal of Positive SimRacing

Javier Álvarez Benedí from Valladolid in Spain is the principal of the Positive SimRacing team, both spiritually as well as functionally; making the team grow with a business-like determination and can-do mentality. And it’s in this role that Javier is hugely influential in tutoring new sim racing talent.

What do you do during the day as your full time job?
In the government of the Castile and León region of Spain, I work a lot with people and teams as a strategist on long term plans and future innovations. And I’ve also been a scientific writer for over fifteen years.

How did you get started with Positive SimRacing?
In 2009 I was competing as a driver in Spanish sim racing championships, in sims like rFactor and games like F1 Challenge. Back than many Spanish drivers didn’t speak English, and didn’t have an international orientation, but I could see that sim racing would become an international eSport.

So, in 2012, I started to look for international championships, and joined Formula Sim Racing (FSR), in rFactor. There I found it was very difficult to start a team in that environment, because there was not enough drivers’ market. Basically, three teams dominated the grid and each had about ten drivers, which made very difficult the growth of new teams. But we had a different vision and philosophy: we saw the sim racing as something to be carried out beyond the sim racers, involving the general public and sponsors. Then, I met Jackson Wendt, and we started Positive SimRacing (PSR), maybe against the odds. Around this same time, the Royal Federation of Automobile of Spain hosted a sim racing competition, and we thought ‘let’s use this ‘, so we recruited some drivers from the top ten of that competition.

The first two years were a big challenge, because we weren’t such a strongly bonded team, more a group of drivers. For other teams it was really easy to steal our best drivers. Yet some people stayed and from this we grew into a team, more structured and moving up the ladder.

In 2014 we moved to iRacing, because there was more potential to grow and the competition was bigger. But because only three or four drivers joined the switch, we basically had to start the team from scratch again.

How does a team bond?
Some drivers, particularly young ones, may be very ambitious and don’t want plans spanning multiple years. They want to grow fast and become frustrated if they think they don’t have a good car setup. For them, it doesn’t matter if their driving style still needs work. With people who need results quickly like that, it’s nearly impossible to build a long term project.

But then, there are drivers that think long term and stick to the team. They have what you could call a philosophy, and we build a shared vision for the team. We’re very people focused. For instance, we don’t like to ‘steal’ drivers from other teams, we develop our own drivers. And that’s also why I think the PSR Driver Development Programme (DDP) with VRS is going so well. We invested lots of time in selecting the right people, and collaborating with drivers already in the team. The personal touch is what makes this strategy work.

How can philosophies differ among teams?
Maybe identity is a better word. There are teams who are elite and they only have to call a certain guy and he’ll join. Their main goal is to be at the limit and to win races. Although we won the SkipBarber 2K World Cup and took wins and podiums in other big events, we’re not at that level yet. We want to get there of course, but we need to develop the drivers and that takes time. This is our vision and we want to generate added value this way.

For this, we work together as a team. For instance, if a driver is in P4 and his teammate takes in P1, that’s like a win for both. We don’t have scenarios like Hamilton versus Rosberg in 2015-2016, or Hamilton versus Alonso in 2007. Everybody is committed to the success of the team. The identity and the sense of belonging to a project are essential parts of a team spirit, and I believe this is our niche.

Teams like Coanda don’t have a team manager role. Is this a different philosophy and
do you think one philosophy is better than the other?
I think it’s different, because Coanda may not have anyone in an official team manager role, however, drivers certainly assume leadership. It may not always be one and the same person, but they must have leadership within the team. They may have few but elite drivers, and they seem to aim to be an elite team with only a few elite drivers. A very good model, if you can make it work.

Coanda is perhaps the reference in modern sim racing, and beyond their sportive success and impressive results, their collaboration with VRS in improving the driver development constitutes a huge added value, which should be recognised by all the community.

Could you say you’re like a learning institution? To use an F1 comparison, like the
Sauber team?
Yes, that’s part of our philosophy, and it applies even to non-driving-related learning. I try to pair up Spanish drivers with English speaking drivers, so they learn English. And we focus on driving analysis and collaborations, like with VRS now. We think this is our added value to the drivers and the sim racing community.

How is the VRS DDP programme going?
We had over fifty applications for the DDP, but it was hard to select eight people. So we did extensive interviews and analysed profiles, and it looks like we’ve did a great job. Despite everybody having real life commitments and not always having 100% attendance in the practices or races, we’ve finished with two teams in top ten of the Blancpain Endurance Series.

Now we also have a junior programme with less intensity, and they’re improving at an incredible rate. They’re ready to join the main programme or be reserves (some of them are as fast as the top guys). So yes, I think the programme has gone well, in terms of results, as well as in terms of team building and driver development.

How do you manage that, how time consuming is it?
The management ‘overhead’ is significant. We had to spend a lot of work on this new structure, organising coaching and testing sessions, monitoring every driver individually, with individual meetings. This is huge! Can you imagine eight drivers and another eight drivers in the junior programme. Lots of work involved. But now we’ve appointed drivers as the ‘captain’ for each team, and this works quite well.

What prepares you for managing a simracing team? I mean, there’s plenty of tutorials
on racecraft, but nothing on managing a simracing team.
It’s not just life experience that helps, but also training. I mean, not just to practice and experience, but also through courses. I did this kind of training with my real life. I think my experience from work also helps, working with people with very different backgrounds helped me a lot.

Do you talk to other team managers?
Not really, with a few exceptions. And, until my knowledge, there is no team manager association. There was one in FSR, a team owner association, which is the only example that I know. However, team associations demand a clear common vision and managers working for the benefit of the group, which is very ambitious, if even realistic. So I don’t miss it. However, nowadays we have good contacts with managers of several teams, such as Blue Flag Racing and others. These contacts are usually very beneficial for the course of the competitions.

As the team principal. What do your tasks involve?
Team management is very demanding on time. For example, this morning I was scared to open Facebook, but maybe there are between fifteen and twenty messages. Some weeks I have to devote twenty or thirty hours. It’s like a second job. So we’ve decided we need to make it more sustainable, and that the team mustn’t depend on one person. If I can’t make it then the team shouldn’t stop. Two years ago we segmented the team into small and strongly bonded sections, and so for instance the Skip Barber team is six driver and one manager. I work with the managers, mostly all the time.

They can also work independently. In my dream, I would only decide on the strategy, budget and time. But often you’ve to talk and ask people what they want, and have the opinion of everybody. It’s always a balance between leadership and a full democracy.

What are difficult decisions you have to make sometimes?
To decide to let a driver join when he asks to join the team. When we were small, we always let everybody join. Now we’re careful, not to upset the balance. It’s difficult to really analyse someone and to anticipate, because when you say no to a driver you may have lost a good opportunity for the future. But then, if you decide to add a driver and he’s not a good addition to the team, he can upset the balance. So that’s one of the most difficult decisions.

Maintaining that balance can be difficult in another way too. In 2012 we had just started, but our philosophy changed a bit, so some of our core drivers sometimes feel a bit out of the team, and they don’t want to analyse their performance every week. But they still want to be part of the family, not all the new things, so we had to make that compatible with the evolution of the team. We had a lot of discussions to find a solution, so now we’ve started the ‘Positive Drivers Club’.

So what does it mean to you, when one of your drivers succeeds?
Several levels of happiness. First your project is succeeding and you get rewarded for all the work and patience, and also because you see your friends, people that you’ve helped and who’ve helped you, you see them succeeding. Maybe that’s the best feeling in life, when someone achieves something. When it has been a difficult journey, there’s also more happiness.

This applies to simracing, but maybe also to all of life?
For sure! Sim Racing is not only competition. It’s a sport that fosters personal and brain development, and there are scientific journals and that publish the benefits of gaming and development. Also concentration. I can do a race two hours without a mistake. But then I can’t sleep afterwards because my brain can’t sleep. And beyond that, as you say, it’s like everything in life. We put time, money, energy, to achieve something. Achieving something, at the end of the day, is the meaning of life.

What’s your goal looking forward?
For myself, I’d like my role to be less important so I can step back from day-to-day to focus on growing the budget and sponsors. It’s a matter of maturing the team. Now we’re working with the segmentation and managers, and I think in the next few years we can consolidate this.

As a team, we want to be in the iRacing World Championship Grand Prix Series, the Blancpain Endurance World Championship and the Skip Barber 2K Cup. Then we enter the top twenty, go to top fifteen. Maybe those are the last steps for the team, in terms of maturity.

You don’t aim to win those championships?
I think that’s too far. We want to be realistic. We would like that, but it’s too far. We don’t think this will happen within the next three years. For 2018 to 2020, the top 15 is a more realistic target, and later we will go for the top 10. Also, we are not obsessed with that.

Youngster Laurin Heinrich about racing in karts, German F4 and iRacing

One of VRS’ youngest ‘students’ is 15 year old Laurin Heinrich from Germany, who also races professionally in the most competitive Formula 4 championship of the world, the ADAC Formula 4. Since he’s also an avid simracer and VRS user, we sit down with him for some ‘brennende fragen’.

Can you tell a bit about yourself?
I’m from Bavaria in Germany. I still go to school and have to stay there for two more years until I take my A level exams. Currently I’m racing my first year in the most competitive Formula 4 championship, the ADAC Formula 4. I’m also a simracer, and in the past I’ve competed in the iRacing Blancpain GT Series and other high level championships.

Why and what do you love about racing?
When I was a little kid, I often visited events like the DTM with my dad, and I always looked up to the race drivers in the paddock and thought “I want to be one of them.” Back then those guys were the coolest persons for me, and I’m extremely proud and thankful that I’m part of that. Racing is something special, there are so many things which you can’t find in any other sports. I mean, the speed, the sound, the smell, the adrenaline you get while you get strapped in the car. But I also love the things which surround the action on track like the paddock and the fans.

What’s the motorsport scene in Germany like?
There are many other exciting championships in Germany for example the DTM or the ADAC GT Masters. But on the other hand I think it’s a shame that there’s no German Grand Prix because the connection between Germany and motorsport is so tight. The first automobile was built in Germany and car manufactures like Porsche, Audi, BMW and Mercedes always play a big role in championships. It’s ironic that drivers like Vettel, Hülkenberg or Wehrlein or teams like Mercedes don’t get the chance to race at home.

Karting has always been an essential element en route to single-seaters and perhaps Formula One. Do you think that in the near future simracing will be an essential element for youngsters too?
In my opinion karting teaches you the basics and the fundamental things of racing, which you’ll need in your future career. As for simracing, I don’t think it will become an essential element for real racers, it already is! Most real world drivers use simracing to get ready for their next race or test. You can save so much time if you learn a new track already at home, so at the track you can start sooner with building a setup or improving your laptimes. With the laserscanning technology in simulators like iRacing you immediately feel confident when driving your first laps on a track, which you haven’t been to yet. Preparation is everything!

What are things real life racing, especially karting, can teach you, that simracing can’t?
I know some simracers who are fast in the virtual world, but when it comes to real life racing they just don’t feel alright. An important experience you’ll get to know in karting is the racing with others. In simracing nothing — except of a disappointed team — will happen if you crash in a fight with an opponent. The ability of judging what is possible and what isn’t is also a whole other world than in simracing. So I think what karting does is separating the wheat from the chaff.

What have you learned from the VRS telemetry?
The area where I improved most was my braking graph, which is also very relevant in cars which don’t have an anti-lock system like the Porsche GT3 Cup, or my F4 car! The comparison with other drivers also taught me a lot. Sometimes you just don’t know where you lose time compared to other drivers, but with this function you see where and when you lose ground. Another advantage of the Virtual Racing School software is that some of the top-class drivers share their setups and telemetry there, the datapacks, so that people who want to improve have a reliable source of information. Of course we also use telemetry in real life and there are no differences to programs like VRS, apart that VRS is way more user-friendly.

What do you think is the most important skill for a good racing driver?
I think the difference between a good and great racing driver is that the great racing driver knows exactly what is happening around him. Racecraft is an important factor to achieve good results and win races. Another mandatory skill is — as simple as it sounds — using your brain. The string between success and failure is extremely thin so every little mistake can ruin races, championships or even careers. Personally I think that my racecraft is quite decent and I’m using my brain, but my biggest weakness is that in extreme situations I have difficulties to control my emotions. But I’m sure that this will fade out when I gain more experience.

What are your hopes for the future in real life racing? And sim racing?
My aim is to become a professional racing driver and I’m working hard everyday in order to make my dream come true. At the simracing side of things I’m hoping for some more good results in championships like the Blancpain GT or the NEO Endurance Championship. I’m also looking forward to the iRacing special events like the 24 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps!