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How virtual reality could enhance the way we watch motorsports

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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.

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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…

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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.

NHRA: John Force Racing won its 2,500th Funny Car round at Gainesville

Front, from left: Co-crew chiefs Jason McCulloch and Jon Schaffer, John Force, crew chief Mike Neff. (Photo Credit: Gary Nastase and Auto Imagery)
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It wasn’t just a career-best elapsed time run and a final round victory for John Force at last week’s NHRA Gatornationals and Gainesville. It was also the John Force Racing team’s 2,500th Funny Car round win, as well.

The full release is below:

John Force’s Funny Car victory Sunday in the NHRA Gatornationals in Gainesville, Fla., was memorable for many reasons, including yet another milestone over the team’s 40-year existence in the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series.

After winning all four rounds, and coupled with Robert Hight’s first-round victory, the team achieved the 2,500-round victory threshold for Funny Cars. Force’s final-round win over rookie Jonnie Lindberg sealed the deal.

JFR’s first round victory was June 1, 1979, when Force defeated Tom McEwen at the Cajun Nationals in Baton Rouge, La. Force himself has accounted for just over half of those 2,500 Funny Car round victories, as he now stands at 1,269, with six round wins this season. He defeated Del Worsham, Jack Beckman, and Tommy Johnson Jr. before beating Lindberg on Sunday.

Even more impressive is that JFR’s 2,500 NHRA Funny Car round wins account for more than 20 percent of wins all-time in the class.

“It was the reign of terror that started it all, with Austin Coil, Bernie Fedderly and John Medlen,” Force said. “It was really about a group of guys – it wasn’t about me. I just wrote the checks, but I got to drive one of the baddest hot rods on the planet. We won just about everything.

“But those days are gone now. John Force wants to stay in the game, and now we’ve got Robert Hight, my daughter Courtney, young Austin Prock is coming,” he continued. “I’m really excited about this. We put the band back together. Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones said life’s a drag, but today, life’s not a drag – it’s a drag race, and we won.”

Winning races and elimination rounds is one of the things John Force has done best. Overall, nine drivers have won Funny Car rounds with JFR. The total includes:

  • John Force 1,269
  • Robert Hight 375
  • Tony Pedregon 292
  • Courtney Force 134
  • Mike Neff 118
  • Gary Densham 108
  • Ashley Force Hood 105
  • Eric Medlen 95
  • Phil Burkart Jr. 4

Hight added to his total Sunday, besting Bob Tasca III in the first round with career-bests in time and speed, and has two round wins this season. Courtney Force won her first three rounds of the season at Pomona, making it to the final round.

“It’s amazing, but what’s really amazing is when you look at who has most of those wins,” Hight said. “John Force’s records – he’s so far out in front of everybody else – it’s not even achievable. With the competition level and everything else there is today, these records we keep getting will never, ever be broken. I was lucky enough to get the 200th victory for John Force Racing at Topeka (2011), and that was pretty exciting.”

To do it at Gainesville, Hight said, was special. In the 1990s, for example, Force participated in 37 rounds out of a possible 40, and won 33 of those 40 rounds. He just kept winning … and winning … and winning.

“He’s had good luck at Gainesville,” Hight said. “But I take away from this that all three of our Funny Cars are running good, and we’re not searching for faster cars but right where we want to be. We just need to get a little consistency. I’m just happy to be a little part of those 2,500 round wins. We have three good cars now, and we’re going to get a lot more wins.”

The milestone is more than just a number. It represents tireless efforts by drivers, crew chiefs, team members, fabricators, shop workers, and office staff who have worked with Force since the 1970s.

“If you look at the Tony Pedregons that drove for me, the Eric Medlens, the Gary Denshams, Robert Hight, my girls – if you go down that list, they were all part of that. It wasn’t just about me,” Force said. “I’ve done well in the sport, because I’ve lived it and loved it. I give 110 percent to my sponsors, never 100 percent. We overdeliver, you have to.

“With the cast of characters we have, we’re going to keep hitting them with all we’ve got.”

The team earned its 2,500th round victory across all NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series classes last year. Including the team’s Top Fuel dragster – piloted by Brittany Force and sponsored by Monster Energy – the team’s round victory total stands at 2,593. Brittany Force added another Top Fuel round victory Sunday, and stands at 93 in her career.

The fourth round of the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series, the NHRA Nationals, is March 31-April 2 at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in Nevada. John Force Racing has won five races at the spring race in Las Vegas, most recently with John Force running the table in 2015.

F1 on NBC crew previews the upcoming 2017 season

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It’s a new season of Formula 1 that kicks off this weekend with the Australian Grand Prix. All times and streaming details for the new year can be found here, to be watched on NBCSN and the NBC Sports App.

As NBC Sports Group prepares for its fifth season of coverage, all of the broadcast team have made various rounds previewing the season to come (here’s a link to the group’s upcoming live theater presentation at Sellersville Theater next week).

Lead lap-by-lap announcer and host Leigh Diffey spoke to Autoweek in a Q&A, linked here. A quick take on the excitement of the new season is below:

“These cars are faster, will be harder to control in the corners, and will place a high physical demand on the drivers. I can’t wait to see what these cars do these drivers after 58 laps around Albert Park. That’s how I would sell fans on what we’re going to see this season,” Diffey said.

Analysts Steve Matchett and David Hobbs have also previewed the seasons, with both their interviews linked below.

Matchett’s interview with Todd McCandless for Formula1Blog.com is linked here. Hobbs’ interview with Steve Zautke on 105.7 FM The Fan’s (WSSP-Milwaukee) The Final Inspection Show is linked here.

F1 on NBC pit reporter and insider Will Buxton checks in with The Marshall Pruett Podcast, linked here.

Coverage this weekend begins with a live stream of free practice one airing at 9 p.m. ET on Thursday night via the NBC Sports App, which will air at midnight on Friday on NBCSN leading straight into live coverage of free practice two at 1 a.m. ET on NBCSN. The full time breakdown is below.

Hinchcliffe’s DTM test with Mercedes an ‘amazing blast of a lifetime’

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The second half of the James Hinchcliffe and Robert Wickens “ride swap” took place last week at the Vallelunga circuit in Italy, as Hinchcliffe stepped aboard Wickens’ usual No. 6 HWA AG Mercedes-AMG C63 DTM car for his first few laps in the tin-top beast.

After shaking off a tough end to what had been a dynamic weekend for both himself and the No. 5 Arrow Electronics Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda team at the Verizon IndyCar Series’ season opener in St. Petersburg – he’d led early but was caught out on a yellow flag timing and dropped back – Hinchcliffe arrived in Italy on Wednesday to prepare for his run in the DTM car. Wickens tested Hinchcliffe’s IndyCar prior to the St. Petersburg season opener.

The ordinary challenges of getting acclimated to a new car – getting a seat made and adapting to the different driving position – were erased because of a quick and easy fit right into Gary Paffett’s seat.

“It’s funny when we saw the three-week gap between St. Petersburg and Long Beach we thought there’d be down time, and that clearly hasn’t been the case,” Hinchcliffe laughed when speaking to NBC Sports.

“I flew over to arrive a day early, meet the team, and get the lay of the land for the following day. Luckily I fit right into Gary Paffett’s seat. There were very few adjustments needed and it was pretty straightforward. It led into an amazing blast of a time the following day, to rip around Vallelunga.”

The two-hour session that followed saw Hinchcliffe learn a lot, in what is a rare opportunity for North American drivers to have a chance to race in a DTM car.

Hinchcliffe has had some closed-top car experience, but limited outings in either Mazda’s previous Lola Multimatic chassis or Mazda RT24-P prototypes and the Mazda RX-8 aren’t quite comparable to what he saw in the Mercedes.

“Yeah I’d done the RX-8 back in ’12 and the prototype off and on, so it was a very different feel,” he explained. “The seating position is very unique, sitting back in the center. The visuals are very different. Very wide. I think I missed most apexes in right-hand turns the first couple laps, getting used to it.”

But with Wickens as his de facto engineer and driving coach, Hinchcliffe quickly got the hang of it for what would be an intense couple hours.

He’d have a mix of running qualifying simulations, long runs to see how the tires degrade and just general pushing once he got the hang of it. Hinchcliffe being a professional race car driver, it didn’t take long.

“They’ve done such a good job here; you there’s a lot of money spent to make the car magic, and that’s what they’ve done,” Hinchcliffe said. “The tires were very different. We had tire warmers, then did quali sims, did a long run and saw what the (tire) deg could be like. For only two hours of running, it was a pretty nice test.”

“We wanted each other to have a blast,” he added of Wickens’ input and advice. “At Sebring, I gave him some pointers, and we did a track lap in the rental cars. He did the same thing here.

“He’d just been there testing. He did a baseline run in the morning to dial the car in. He was great. He was my engineer for the test, to be honest. He’d pull out the laptop and show data comparisons; look for what to do different and better. It was a lot of fun.”

Hinchcliffe had always tried to keep DTM on his radar from afar, watching the races he could while trying to get to at least one per year. The same goes the other way for Wickens, who tries to make it to at least one IndyCar race per year too, and fully enjoyed his own day in Hinchcliffe’s car.

“When it got announced, I had a bunch of guys say they’d had a chance to test a DTM car. I understand now why it’s one of the most fun series,” he said.

“I’ve followed it more closely with Robbie driving. Having had a taste of the machinery, now you get it even more.”

Formula 1 2017 team preview: Sauber

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Rounding out MotorSportsTalk’s team-by-team preview ahead of the new Formula 1 season, we look at Sauber, the minnow team which bounced back from years of instability to find some strength in 2016.

The arrival of new owners Longbow Finance gave Sauber the chance to rebuild and recruit after a number of losses in the preceding years, while Felipe Nasr’s charge to ninth in Brazil offered a boost in prize money as the team jumped above Manor to P10 in the constructors’ championship.

Sauber now heads into 2017 looking to continue its recent gains, with the new faces at Hinwil eager to make an impact. The goal is now to thrive, not survive.

DRIVERS

9. Marcus Ericsson (Sweden)
94. Pascal Wehrlein (Germany)

CAR

Sauber C36

ENGINE

Ferrari 061

TEAM CHIEFS

Monisha Kaltenborn (CEO/team principal)
Jörg Zander (technical director)

MONTMELO, SPAIN – MARCH 08: Pascal Wehrlein of Germany driving the (94) Sauber F1 Team Sauber C36 Ferrari on track during day two of Formula One winter testing at Circuit de Catalunya on March 8, 2017 in Montmelo, Spain. (Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images)

What went right in 2016: Sauber may have only scored two points, but it both survived the year and was able to secure some much-needed financial backing that kept the team in business. The on-track performances were what we’d expect from a backmarker team, filled with a number of highlights. Marcus Ericsson’s performances through the year were of particular note in the latter half of the season, despite the Swede going under the radar.

What went wrong in 2016: Sauber’s struggles still left its drivers unable to compete on-track, particularly in the run-up to the takeover when updates for the car were hard to find. Sauber failed to get anywhere near the midfield runners in the dry, but again, it perhaps could not have been expected to given the circumstances.

What’s changed for 2017: A number of new faces are at Sauber following an extensive recruitment process. Ex-Audi LMP1 technical chief Jörg Zander has joined the team, while former Haas strategist Ruth Buscombe arrived last fall and is a big, big asset on the pit wall. Pascal Wehrlein has also been signed from Manor, replacing Nasr after his backing fell through, but the team will be racing with the 2016-spec Ferrari power unit. That won’t help come the end of the year.

What they’ll look to accomplish in 2017: In all honesty, it’s hard to see Sauber finishing anywhere but last this year. The rest of the field simply has resources that are too deep to give the Swiss team much chance. Early gains can be made in the first few races when the impact of a year-old power unit will be felt less; some points would be good. But really, this is again a year to battle on and continue to fight for a better future.

MONTMELO, SPAIN – FEBRUARY 27: Marcus Ericsson of Sweden driving the (9) Sauber F1 Team Sauber C36 Ferrari on track during day one of Formula One winter testing at Circuit de Catalunya on February 27, 2017 in Montmelo, Spain. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

MST PREDICTIONS

Luke Smith: Sauber can’t really expect much this year. It’s great that the team is on its feet again, and some of the personnel it has on board gives it strength. But the rest of the pack can simply outspend it. The only team it can get close to this year is Haas, I think, and that’s only if the American team gets things seriously wrong this year. P10 in the constructors’ championship with a couple of points – let’s say picked up by Ericsson early in the year – is the ceiling for Sauber.

Tony DiZinno: It’s hard to think of Sauber as the underdog and last team because they’ve been here 25 years, their reputation is of overachieving and they’ve given so many young drivers their start. Yet with Manor’s absence, it’s Sauber that enters as the 10th place team from 2016, but determined to advance from that this season. Marcus Ericsson has become that dependable, career midfielder as the Swede looks to his fourth season. More pressure is on Pascal Wehrlein, the Mercedes junior passed over by his manufacturer to replace Nico Rosberg and by Force India to replace Nico Hulkenberg. Ericsson may not be as easy a target to beat as Wehrlein might think. A couple points finishes should occur for this team and if they can get to eighth or ninth in the constructor’s points, it’ll have been a much better year.

Kyle Lavigne: With a year-old Ferrari power unit, Sauber should have strong reliability. Whether or not the car has the pace to bring them up the grid is another matter. They languished near the bottom of the time sheets on multiple days of testing, but they didn’t seem to experience reliability problems. That trait could prove very beneficial. As hard as it is to believe, McLaren is likely their closest rival as 2017 begins. And, with McLaren struggling with a car that is both slow and unreliable, Sauber has a chance to leapfrog them, so long as their car keeps going.