Rowan Horncastle06 July 2012

Massa helps TG drive the British GP

Ferrari driver critiques our ambitious racing manoeuvres around 'Silverstone'...

Felipe Massa is perched on the sidepod of his 2009 Ferrari F1 car as it blasts flat-out through Silverstone's Copse corner, missing the apex by approximately four metres. The driver clearly has no idea what he is doing.

The driver is me. I do not know my way round Silverstone. Very soon there is going to be a massive crash and a priceless little F1 driver will be squashed and the BBC will be crippled by an insurance claim for several billion pounds.

Apart from one tiny detail. This isn't the real world. This is a sim. But not just any sim. It's the very expensive Ferrari Scuderia F1 Professional Driver Simulator.

"I spent last Thursday and Friday in Maranello in the simulator to prepare for Silverstone," the pint-sized - actually, that's a bit mean, more Coke Share-sized - F1 driver tells us. "In the simulator you'll drive a lot more than when you're driving on track. When you want to stop you just hit a button and you're back in the garage. When you want to start again, you just change the settings and go out again. This all gains time. Whereas in practice, if you need to change a small thing you have to go all the way back round the track into the garage."

With on-track testing and wind tunnel hours cut, simulators are playing an ever more important role for F1 teams. But they don't just help car development, they also help driver development. After Massa's crash in 2009 - when he was struck on the helmet by a suspension spring from Barrichello's Brawn at the Hungarian GP - Ferrari's sim helped him get back in the car.

"About a month after my accident I felt really normal but doctors said they didn't want to see me driving. It was better to wait another three months [before getting in a real car] so I started to drive a simulator. The simulator showed that everything with me was normal and I was doing everything just like before."

The simulator in which I'm furiously perspiring as Felipe critiques my ambitious braking points around digi-Silverstone isn't quite as sophisticated as the one in Maranello. But it's a lot better than Top Gear's dusty copy of Micro Machines.

Its tub - chopped from the Ferrari driven by Kimi Raikkonen and Felipe Massa in the 2009 Formula One season - rolls, pitches and yaws with freakish precision. When I inappropriately flatten the long throttle pedal out of Chapel, the whole chassis wriggles and shimmies as the rear tyres lose traction.

Around me, a perfect rendition of Silverstone swings dizzily about. The circuit was laser-scanned to millimetre-accuracy. This precision is rather wasted when I miss the apices of Stowe, Vale and Club by a margin of feet, not inches - despite Felipe waving his finger across the projected wrap-around screen telling me where to turn in.

After my first lap of the circuit I'm feeling woozy. Is the crushing disappointment of not-being-very-good-at-this-F1-thing getting to me? Apparently not.

"Many drivers have some problems driving the simulator," Felipe reassures us. Even the unshakeable Michael Schumacher suffered. "I had motion sickness at the beginning and it felt strange. Even now in the first corners I don't push so hard because it feels a bit strange, but then I get used to it."

Felipe advises me to brake hard into Village's tight right. Stamping on the solid brake - set up for Fernando Alonso - tightens up the five-point harness to replicate the sensation of bringing an 800hp car to a stop. Lacking the iron quads of Ferrari's lead driver, I fail to stamp the pedal with sufficient force and discover a new and exciting area of Silverstone run-off.

Felipe says he likes Silverstone's new layout but isn't a massive fan of the new, low-downforce corners. Neither am I, as I fail to apply enough steering lock and ignominiously fall off the digital track at The Loop.

"Not bad," says Felipe sympathetically as I cross the Start/Finish line. He is being unnecessarily generous. I am 18 seconds off his pace. Even the HRTs could do better. To divert attention from my terrible performance, I ask him about the season so far.

"The beginning of the season wasn't very great," says Felipe. "It wasn't as good as I'd expected. But I have to say the last couple of races I've been strong in the car.

"I'm sure things will improve and there's good to come, I just need to keep working. Silverstone is a good place for me to change the direction of the championship."

Ferrari, if you're looking for a last-minute driver with experience of driving Silverstone, just leave a comment below and Top Gear will be straight over. But as a warning: Ferrari, FELIPE IS FASTER THAN US, CAN YOU CONFIRM THIS MESSAGE?

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