© Virtually Live

How virtual reality could enhance the way we watch motorsports

1 Comment

Formula 1 is currently faced with a crucial juncture, carefully balancing the past and the future. While new hybrid technology has now been used for over two seasons now, there remains a call to return to the ‘good old days’ of fire-breathing, ear-splitting V12 engines and fearsome cars.

The push for modernity in F1 is one that the sport’s bosses – including 85-year-old CEO Bernie Ecclestone – consider carefully. Great progress has been made in recent years thanks to the live timing app that gives viewers enormous amounts of data and information, while F1’s official website and Twitter account have become invaluable outlets to anyone who follows the sport.

The big question is ‘what next?’ What will be the next big technology that changes the way in which we consume both F1 and motorsports as a whole?

It may well be virtual reality.

F1 board member Sir Martin Sorrell recently spoke at length about the developments being made with virtual reality (VR) and how they could be utilised in the future.

“Virtual reality for Formula 1 could be fantastic – driving the car!” Sorrell told the official F1 website.

“In the Ridley Scott film ‘The Martian’ you can do that. I have lifted off in the space craft from the surface of Mars, walked in space and looked down into deep space and got terrified, with the headphones and the goggles.

“The technology is already incredible and will improve massively in the next few years. Think about what you could do.”

While it remains a consideration for F1, VR is already making a splash in motorsport courtesy of F1’s electric-powered cousin: Formula E.

Back in April, I had the opportunity to try out VR for the very first time in Paris over the ePrix weekend that saw Formula E race in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower. As a self-confessed geek with an interest in video games, where VR tech is already widely used, I was curious to see how it would be implemented when enhancing my experience watching a race, as well as being used to go along with a real-time, real-life event such as Formula E.

One of the key figures involved in bringing VR to Formula E is no stranger to motorsport. Oliver Weingarten worked as the secretary general of the Formula One Teams’ Association (FOTA) from 2011 until its closure in 2014, and also held a similar role with a similar organisation for Formula E during its first season. Now, he is the sports rights and partnership advisor at Virtually Live.

“Virtually Live is a virtual reality start up company based in San Francisco with offices around the world,” Weingarten explains.

“We’ve been live testing with Formula E to create an experience for fans unable to attend the race, to still be able to experience what it would have been like if they had attended. And that is by giving them an immersive and social virtual reality experience.

“The testing that you’ve seen here in Paris and in Long Beach, where we have modelled the circuits and the cars and ingested the live data direct from Formula E, has enabled us to provide this experience.

“You can choose any position around the track, you can choose any driver’s car, you can sit in the car, you can stand alongside the car.

“Additionally within our modelled VIP experience replicating  the Emotion club, you can have a social experience. So if your friends are located all across the world and you want to have an appointment to view and watch at the same time, you can spend time together to socialise and watch the race in a virtual environment.”

It certainly sounds impressive, but what about when we put it to the test?

The demo I tried out used the HTC Vive VR device (although both its competitors, the Oculus Rift and the PlayStation VR, will be supported by Virtually Live). It works by putting on a large headset and holding a lightweight controller in one hand. With these in place, I was now in the new Formula E virtual reality.

At first, my eyes adjusted as they do coming out of the dark into bright light – but I quickly found my bearings. As I moved around and turned my head, the virtual world moved with it. I was standing in the middle of a Formula E hospitality unit with a variety of screens on the walls: one had race footage (this demo was built around the Long Beach ePrix), others had a track map and live timing. Using the pointer, I was bringing them up in front of my eyes, offering up to date information. By clicking on the track map, I could then choose which driver I wanted to ride on-board as the race was taking place.

It was at this point that the demo really blew my mind.

Using the trigger, I clicked to ride on board Jerome d’Ambrosio’s car, modelled digitally using the live data provided by Formula E to get his car position, speed, movement etc. “Formula E provides us with the circuit drawings etc., and we ingest the GPS data live so that we can plot the cars going around the track on a live basis and enable the VR experience,” Weingarten explains.

FE_laserpointer_stats

Suddenly, I find myself hovering above d’Ambrosio’s car, in a similar position to the T-cam used on most single-seaters. But unlike the fixed place of the camera, I’m able to move around freely. I turn my head left, and I can see everything to the side of the car (a spotter’s dream – think of this like the 360º cam used in IndyCar, only with far more freedom). I turn my whole body around, and I’m riding backwards, looking at the cars chasing behind. I was even able to lower myself down into the driver’s position in the cockpit, giving me an eye-line view of the race.

I wasn’t restricted to just a single car either. While still riding on-board with d’Ambrosio, all I had to do was use the pointer to click on the car behind – and now I’m on board with Sebastien Buemi. I bring up the track map again simply by looking upwards and using the pointer, and I’m able to pick any car on-track to ride with. Clicking another button brings up race audio, available via headphones you can also wear.

What Virtually Live is trying to achieve is giving fans who cannot be at a track the next-best thing. This is done successfully, for you don’t have to run on board with a driver. Again using the pointer, I was able to select a corner I wanted to ‘sit’ at, from where I could watch the race play out. Much as I would at a race track, I can change my view simply by moving around. If I want to go back on-board, I just pick a driver. It’s all instantaneous – there’s no lag or delay, even on the demo.

With the race demo completed, I clicked a button and returned once again to the hospitality unit where I started. There, I could find the championship standings and the race results, and all other essential information. I lifted off the headset, and bang – I’m back in the real world, a conference room in a Parisian hotel on a chilly April day. I’d been in sunny Long Beach just seconds earlier…

FE_VIP

One thing that must be stressed is that, much as virtual lives do not replace our real ones, VR technology is not a replacement for physically going to a race track and witnessing a race, and Weingarten is keen to emphasize this.

Motorsport has, to me, always been a highly sensory experience: the sights, the smells, the sounds (even Formula E cars!). Virtual reality cannot replicate this. Much as video game models of racing cars aren’t quite as pretty as the real thing, you’re aware when using the device that it is a virtual world. That’s not a bad thing; it’s just a disclaimer worth making.

What this instead offers is an alternative to the regular viewing experience. Since becoming involved in motorsport, there are few opportunities I get to sit down and truly enjoy a race like I once did, not worrying about reports, live tweeting or filing copy. But when I do, I almost feel compelled to go back into ‘work mode’ to feel more involved and attached to the race. It is something I want to consume and be take all of my attention. Particularly in a drab race, I may start looking on my phone or check some emails, taking my attention away. I am sure that all fans are guilty of the same thing.

There is no chance of that with virtual reality though. Bored of the race feed? Hop on-board with one of the drivers; go and watch the race from one of the corners; hang out with your mates in the Emotion club. It is a true ‘experience’ that is more than just one-way.

So why Formula E?

“One word: innovative,” Weingarten says. “They are a truly innovative series. We are an innovative company, so there was a nice synergy there to go out and collaborate with them.

“It’s perfectly tailored to motorsport. But it’s not just motorsport, we’re looking at a whole raft of other sports. We are a data driven company. Sports use a lot of data tracking, so we’re open to lots of discussions and in fact I think it’s a really exciting, innovative time for sport at the moment.

“Broadcasters like it because it is a complementary experience. Broadcasters need to innovate, they need to retain subscriptions. They know that fans consume content in different ways now. You just have to look at the millennials. If you look at the demographic for Formula E, that is why virtual reality is so well suited to it.”

The word ‘millennial’ gets a lot of criticism, yet it is a nicely-loaded and rather accurate word to describe a up-and-coming generation, of which I’d consider myself to be a part of at the age of 21. Young people today no longer are satisfied just to watch a race on TV – there has to be more going with it to enhance the experience. This is what virtual reality can achieve with motorsports.

I consider myself lucky to have been born at a time when new technology truly seemed ‘new’: mobile phones were still bricks, computers barely portable and video games just about becoming 3D when I was born. For kids growing up today, there is a risk it is all taken for granted. Big breakthroughs become less and less common. ‘Upgrades’ to phones are an extra 0.1 megapixel camera or a few grams off the weight as opposed to being true overhauls. The boundaries of technology appear to have been reached.

And yet this is a long way from being true. Virtual reality is the future, and is one of the most mind-blowing pieces of technology I have tried out in years. The majority of tech that we use – phones, laptops, tablets – primarily offer a service as opposed to an experience. They are largely one way: we tell it to do something, it does it. Virtual reality is all-encompassing, a true experience that reacts to move than just your right thumb scrolling up and down – and because of that, it oddly feels more real despite being virtual.

It is impossible to predict accurately how we watch motorsport in years to come – but I would say with some confidence that virtual reality will be playing a big part in it.

Indy Lights tops 200 mph, produces lots of action at Indy test

Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
Leave a comment

INDIANAPOLIS – The Freedom 100 will run for the 15th time as part of NBCSN’s Carb Day coverage, which begins Friday at 11 a.m. ET on NBCSN with the marquee race of the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires season at 12:30 p.m. ET.

Known for its scintillating action and incredible finishes, Indy Lights seems set to deliver more of the same of that this go-around, after a pair of 90-minute test sessions held today at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

With a tow-assisted lap of 200.070 mph in the No. 98 Andretti/Steinbrenner Racing Dallara IL-15 Mazda, Colton Herta topped the combined speed charts. This will be the 17-year-old’s first big oval race, after only testing at Homestead-Miami Speedway over the winter.

“The draft was the same in the straight-line everywhere,” Herta said. “Obviously, it was a bit more here [rather than Homestead] since we’re going quicker at Indianapolis.

“The main thing is slipstreaming in the corners. It’s really different from anything I’ve experienced, especially when you’re right behind someone and you put half of a wing out or a quarter of the wing out.

“The balance shift is massive. That’s obviously going to be something all the rookies will have to get used to. I would say down the straights, it’s nothing too different.

“It’s really crazy when you pull out of the slipstream, how far your head will move down in the car. You get pushed down so much with the wind, and that’s probably the biggest difference I’ve felt. You feel like you’re going that fast the first few laps, but once you kind of get into it, the other cars around you move at a similar pace, so I don’t really think about it. But, it feels good to break the 200 mark.”

Herta’s speed was on display while the race craft of the other 13 drivers competing was also featured prominently on Monday.

Herta is one of seven rookies set to compete in his first Freedom 100, the others being Belardi Auto Racing’s Aaron Telitz (the Mazda Scholarship recipient), Ryan Norman and Nico Jamin also of Andretti Autosport, Matheus Leist and Garth Rickards of Carlin and Nicolas Dapero of Juncos Racing.

Dapero had a spin towards the end of the second test session as when trying to pass Andretti’s Dalton Kellett, he lost control of his No. 31 Juncos Racing entry and did a 360-degree pirouette and spin. The young Argentine contacted the inside wall but sustained only front wing damage.

The veterans will look to succeed on Friday. Juan Piedrahita looked racey today in his No. 2 Team Pelfrey machine; the Colombian, who made his 100th career start on the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires last time out at the IMS road course, nearly won this race last year.

The other veterans include Kyle Kaiser, the points leader for Juncos, along with Santiago Urrutia (Belardi with SPM), Shelby Blackstock (Belardi), Neil Alberico and Zachary Claman De Melo (Carlin).

Jamin, Kellett, Kaiser and Alberico (pictured below from left to right) were all on hand at a premiere of “Indy Light” beer at Metazoa Brewing Company in downtown Indianapolis last week.

Indy Lights has two practice sessions from 9 to 9:30 and 11 to 11:30 a.m. ET on Thursday before qualifying from 1:30 to 2:30 p.m. ET. The race is 12:30 p.m. ET on Friday on NBCSN, as noted.

Speeds from today are below.

Davison returns to IndyCar under less than ideal circumstances

Photo: IndyCar
Leave a comment

INDIANAPOLIS – James Davison does not have a full-time ride in the 2017 racing season, which meant he was available for more particular one-off opportunities that could arise.

Davison, now 30, received the call Sunday morning from team owner Dale Coyne to take up a one-off that arguably neither side was ready for, nor one Coyne necessarily wanted to go through.

But a familiarity between Davison and Coyne – he’s driven for the team in three of his four past Verizon IndyCar Series starts in 2013 and 2015 – provides a bit of continuity as he gets the call-up to replace the injured Sebastien Bourdais ahead of the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil.

Bourdais had a rocket ship of a primary No. 18 GEICO Honda for Dale Coyne Racing before his heavy crash in Saturday qualifying left him with multiple pelvic fractures and a fracture to his right hip. The team’s lone oval backup car is its primary road course and street course car, and was built up Sunday.

Davison was at Road America at the time when he first saw the accident.

“I was at Road America, watching on a live stream. I was pretty horrified to be honest,” Davison said Monday after running 88 laps in his first day back in an IndyCar in almost two years.

“I had a pain in my stomach. You knew he had to be hurt in some way. It brought back a déjà vu of (James) Hinchcliffe’s crash for many. Certainly was holding my breath. It wasn’t nice to see.”

What it also did was provide a quick response from drivers who weren’t set to be in this year’s Indianapolis 500 to reach out to Coyne to see the status of the No. 18 Honda, while also putting the concern of Bourdais’ health first and foremost.

And, truth be told, Coyne had options to pick from. Davison was known to have been working on a ‘500 program for several months, but his own chances were halted when Fernando Alonso’s shock program was.

“It was my plan to be in the race this year. (I was) aware there was a limited supply of engines and chassis. Someone’s got to miss out. A lot of us didn’t see the Alonso thing coming. That took an engine away from even Stefan or I,” Davison said.

“I knew there was a possibility someone could get hurt, right? You never wish for that. So you’re around the paddock in case something does happen, and you’re there.”

On site in Indianapolis, Tristan Vautier, Matthew Brabham and Stefan Wilson were also pounding the pavement, working to see whether they could be an option too. Other veteran names were murmured, if not actually on site.

Certainly from some paddock observers, and names as big as four-time IndyCar champion Dario Franchitti, Wilson seemed a fit from a sentimental standpoint. Wilson had been set to join in the Andretti entry before stepping aside for Alonso, and his late brother Justin had been the one who’d achieved Coyne’s greatest successes.

Davison, on the other hand, was thinking about another name that could have been his “competition” for the lone vacant seat in the field, while also explaining the process of how he got the ride and how awkward said process is.

“I heard from Dale just after 9 a.m. yesterday morning. He told me to come meet him in the garage. Clearly he’s interested, was what I knew,” Davison said.

“For a number of us drivers, we were hoping we’d get the call-up for at least 12-16 hours or so. There was a lot of nervous energy built up, going through our heads, thinking who’s my competition, and who’s likely to get in the seat.

“I thought Townsend (Bell, NBCSN IndyCar analyst) would be possible – my biggest challenge, if he wanted it. He’s had really good runs here. He’s pulled the pin on driving full-time… but if an opportunity presented itself though where he could jump in, and feel he could win the race, he’d consider it.

“Plus, Townsend’s phenomenal at raising sponsorship. I thought Townsend could have possibly been. But maybe, I’m not sure if he even considered it himself. It was a huge relief when I knew, and I was given the go-ahead.”

What then occurred Sunday morning was a whirlwind of emotions and drivers going in-and-out of the Coyne garage to receive either good (Davison) or bad (everyone else) news.

Davison (18) battles Karam (24) in practice. Photo: IndyCar

“Basically, we then had to meet in the garage and chat,” Davison said. “Once I got the go-ahead it was then a totally different state of mind. I have to get my INDYCAR license. I need to call the sponsors. I have to get my helmet. I need to get fitted in the car. I was at the track until 11 p.m. last night doing the seat fit, then here at 8 a.m. this morning.

“It’s been a stressful 48 hours; my mind racing a lot, and especially watching pole day unfold. There’s everyone running 233 mph… and I haven’t even turned a lap. Talk about a contrast. It was kind of bizarre, the state of mind I’ve been in. I’m excited I’m in the race, but it’s for a very unfortunate reason. It is what it is, we’ll do the best we can with the situation.”

Davison was back in action Monday morning with 20-plus laps on his own, with 88 laps total completed on the day. This marked his first day working with engineer Craig Hampson, while he had worked with engineer Olivier Boisson in his rookie Indianapolis 500 attempt with KV Racing Technology in 2014, when he finished 16th.

He said the team was conservative with downforce selections and thinks a finish in the top half of the field is achievable.

“It came back to me like it was yesterday, two years ago was yesterday,” he said. “I was running in a pack with Hinchcliffe and Alonso nearly immediately. They may have assisted with lifting. Time passes, and there was no problem feeling in context.

“It’s nice the Honda is certainly strong. For sure today, we ran conservatively. Maybe didn’t run in traffic as much as I would have liked, but we worked on the balance and the aero trim as well.

“I think we have to be (modest), based on where we are with our situation. With good improvements between now and Carb Day, and the race, hopefully those will go up.

“From the outset, it was always going to be like this.”

Max Chilton tops frenetic Monday race practice for Indy 500

Photo: IndyCar
Leave a comment

INDIANAPOLIS – Two relatively under-the-radar but improving young drivers, Max Chilton and Ed Jones, ended 1-2 in the final long practice session for next Sunday’s 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil.

The Englishman in the No. 8 Gallagher Honda for Chip Ganassi Racing posted a best speed of 228.592 mph with Jones, the Dubai-based Brit in the No. 19 Boy Scouts of America Honda, in at 228.116 mph for Dale Coyne Racing.

These speeds were set earlier in the running, a three-and-a-half hour session from 12:30 to 4 p.m. ET, with significant tows. The turbocharger boost has been turned back down to race levels after being brought up for “Fast Friday” practice and qualifying over the last three days.

One-lap speed was not as outright important as consistent running over the length of stints, your car’s ability to carve through traffic, or managing falloff on tires.

Lap count is also something to look for on a day like this, and in the time on track there were a whopping 2,705 laps turned between all 33 drivers in a heavy day of running that clearly simulated a race. Seven yellows for more than 50 minutes prevented that number from surpassing 3,000.

Some of the heaviest runners included:

  • Helio Castroneves (121), Juan Pablo Montoya (55), Will Power (109), Josef Newgarden (99) and Simon Pagenaud (95) combined to give Team Penske 479 laps on the day.
  • Fernando Alonso topped 100 laps in the No. 29 McLaren Honda Andretti entry, with 122 laps run.
  • Jack Harvey also went over 100 in the No. 50 Michael Shank Racing with Andretti Autosport Honda, at 124 laps done, most of all. Harvey led the no-tow speed charts at 224.036 mph.
  • Charlie Kimball posted 119 laps in the No. 83 Tresiba Honda for Chip Ganassi Racing, and Chilton did 108.
  • As a whole, Andretti’s six-pack of drivers turned in 523 laps while Ganassi’s four completed 408.

There were a number of hairy moments throughout the day as drivers ran in packs of about 10 or 12 cars or more. Race speeds were anywhere in the 215 to 223 or 224 mph ballpark.

James Davison made his first running in the No. 18 GEICO Honda for Dale Coyne Racing. Davison had a half hour to get up to speed for his first laps in an IndyCar in two years on his own, and made more than 20 laps, before joining the rest of the field from 12:30 p.m. ET. His best speed on the day was after 88 total laps.

Oriol Servia sustained another Honda engine failure when coming out of Turn 4, with a significant plume of smoke emerging from the back of his No. 16 Manitowoc Honda for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. That ended his session early.

Speeds are below.

2006 MotoGP champion Nicky Hayden dies at 35

Getty Images
3 Comments

2006 MotoGP champion and American World Superbike Championship rider Nicky Hayden has died at the age of 35 from injuries sustained in a road accident last week.

Hayden was struck by a car while out cycling in the Rimini region of Italy, leaving him in a critical condition after suffering trauma to his chest and head, the latter resulting in serious brain damage.

On Monday, the Maurizio Bufalini Hospital in Cesena confirmed through a medical bulletin that Hayden had died as a result of his injuries.

“It is with great sadness that Red Bull Honda World Superbike Team has to announce that Nicky Hayden has succumbed to injuries suffered during an incident while riding his bicycle last Wednesday,” Hayden’s WSBK team said in a subsequent statement.

“Nicky passed away at 19:09 CEST this evening at Maurizio Bufalini Hospital in Cesena, Italy. His fiancée Jackie, mother Rose and brother Tommy were at his side.”

“On behalf of the whole Hayden family and Nicky’s fiancée Jackie I would like to thank everyone for their messages of support – it has been a great comfort to us all knowing that Nicky has touched so many people’s lives in such a positive way,” Tommy Hayden said.

“Although this is obviously a sad time, we would like everyone to remember Nicky at his happiest – riding a motorcycle.

“He dreamed as a kid of being a pro rider and not only achieved that but also managed to reach the pinnacle of his chosen sport in becoming World Champion. We are all so proud of that.

“Apart from these ‘public’ memories, we will also have many great and happy memories of Nicky at home in Kentucky, in the heart of the family. We will all miss him terribly.

“It is also important for us to thank all the hospital staff for their incredible support – they have been very kind. With the further support of the authorities in the coming days we hope to have Nicky home soon.”

Known as the ‘Kentucky Kid’, Hayden made his way up the American motorcycle racing ladder around the turn of the millennium, culminating with victory in the AMA Superbike championship in 2002.

Hayden moved into MotoGP, the world’s premier class of motorcycle racing, for 2003 with Honda, and finished his rookie season fifth in the championship.

Hayden scored his first win in 2005 before taking the championship one year later, picking up two victories on the way as he edged out Valentino Rossi in a final-race showdown.

Remaining with Honda until the end of 2008, Hayden then moved to Ducati where he spent five seasons, recording a best championship finish of seventh in 2010.

Hayden rekindled his partnership with Honda in 2014, racing with the satellite Aspar team for two seasons before then enjoying two one-off run-outs in 2016, a year in which he was focused on commitments in the World Superbike Championship.

Hayden took his first WSBK victory in Malaysia last year, finishing fifth in the final standings, and was 10 races into the 2017 campaign prior to the cycling accident.