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.

Heather Lyne, Dennis Erb Jr. make history in the World of Outlaws Late Model Series

Lyne Erb Outlaws Late
Jacy Norgaard / World of Outlaws
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More than two decades in the making, the pairing of Heather Lyne and Dennis Erb Jr. produced a historical milestone in Dirt Late Model.

Last month, Erb and his long-time crew chief Lyne won their first World of Outlaws Late Model Championship and with this achievement, Lyne became the first female crew chief to win in a national late model series. Their journey together goes back 21 years and tells the story of hard work, persistence and belief in oneself.

After a career-best season with the World of Outlaws, Erb and Lyne secured the points championship at US 36 Raceway in Osborn, Mo. with three races remaining in the season. The consistency and success of their season came down to pinpoint focus. Lyne and Erb are a team of two living out a David vs. Goliath tale. In order to be as successful as possible this year the duo knew they had to do as much as possible with the resources they had.

“It’s always a challenge when you only have two people, both at the racetrack and at the shop,” Lyne told NBC Sports. “I also work full time, so during the day, Dennis has to do a significant amount of work so that when I get down there I can start working and maintaining. It’s planning ahead. It’s having that system in place and making sure that you’re prepared ahead of time.

“When you have a problem at the track, making sure you have all that stuff ready so it’s a quick change and not a lengthy process to make a repair. We had zero DNFs in the World of Outlaws, we had only one DNF out of 96 races [combined among all series].”

Dennis Erb clinched his 2022 championship before the World of Outlaws World Finals. Jacy Norgaard – World of Outlaws Late Model Series.

Taming Time

This was not an easy feat. Between a full travel schedule and Lyne’s full-time job as an engineer, time comes at a premium. What they lack in time and resources they made up for in patience and planning.

“We buckled down, and we got all the equipment that we needed back, motors freshened, and things of that nature,” Lyne said about the mid-point of last season. “We were able to keep up with that. We just had a higher focus. I tried to reduce my hours at my day job as much as I possibly could while still maintaining what I need to get done at work. I got rid of a lot of the other distractions and got a more refined system in place at the shop.

“We did certain tasks on certain days so we had time to recover. We were on the road a little bit more, as opposed to coming home to the shop. So we had to be more prepared to stay out on those longer runs. It was just really staying on top of things a little more. It was a heightened sense.”

This was Lyne and Erb’s fourth full season with the Outlaws, but they’ve been on the road together for the last 21 seasons starting in 2001. Their partnership began with Lyne’s bravery. When one door closed, she was quick to open another. In 2001, Lyne’s dad was ready to stop racing. Her mother wanted to regain her weekends, but Lyne knew this was her life path and wasn’t prepared to lose it.

“I’ve always been a tomboy at heart,” Lyne said. “I watched racing with my dad. Growing up he watched NASCAR. In high school, I got tired of playing at the lake house, so I went to the local dirt track and fell in love with it. I just couldn’t get enough. It took a year for me to convince my dad to come to the track with me. He finally did and we sponsored a car that year, the following year he started to race limited cars. He ran hobby stocks and limited late models.”

At some point, Lyne and her father’s level of commitment drifted apart.

“He did it for about five years,” Lyne said. “And then my mom said: ‘I’m done racing. I want my weekends back. It’s just not fun anymore.’ I wasn’t ready to hang up my wenches and Dennis raced out of the same hometown so I, on a dare, went down and introduced myself; told him if you ever need any help, I’ll drill out rivets, I’ll help wash, whatever you need. Twenty-one years later here I am.”

Heather Lyne became the first female crew chief to secure a national touring late model championship in 2022. Paul Arch / World of Outlaws Late Model Series.

Breaking Through

Lyne entered a male-dominated job in a field that is also male-dominated – and where there were few examples of women creating these places for themselves. In this way, Lyne became a blueprint for other women as they strive to find a place for themselves in racing and in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) overall. She has her mother to thank for providing a strong role model, her father for sharing her passion, Erb for taking a chance on an unknow entity and most importantly herself.

“I was raised to believe that I can do anything, I want to do, as long as I put my heart and soul into it.” Lyne replied when asked about role models in the sport growing up. “My parents did not raise me to have that limitation. But from a racing role model perspective, I went in there completely green and just introduced myself to Dennis, the fact that he was brave enough to take that risk and bring a girl to the racetrack. Someone he didn’t know at all speaks volumes for him.”

Lyne and Erb have learned how to survive and succeed with each other on the road. They do this by leveraging decades of combined experience and an ability to adapt to the everchanging landscape of dirt late models. Next year the World of Outlaws visits nearly a dozen new tracks and Lyne sees it as an opportunity for continued success.

“I just want to do it again,” Lyne says going into next season, “I’m looking forward to the competition, I always do. I wouldn’t do it if I wasn’t competitively driven.

“There are some new tracks on the schedule that I’m looking forward to trying for the first time that I haven’t been to myself,” Lyne said of the 2023 season, “Dennis seems to do well on those first timers. We won out at Marion center, we finished second at Bloomsburg. We have a good solid notebook of information to tackle them over the last three years with these rocket race cars that we’re running. It’s good to have that information and leverage it to try some new things.”