The original Ferrari Virtual Academy (FVA) was a curious sim. Perhaps not really wanting to compete with the mainstream market, Ferrari opted to join forces with Kunos Simulazioni to create a special little nugget of racing-sim memorabilia that people almost definitely wouldn’t be playing for years to come. And so to prove me right, they decided to offer us with a seasonal update, the so-called Adrenaline Pack.
What FVA’s Adrenaline Pack gives us is a chance to drive this year’s Ferrari F1 car, the F150th, bolting onto the 2010 version of FVA which gave us the far more competitive F60. Both cars are meticulously realised, both in sim terms and graphical terms, and can be driven across three laser-scanned circuits (depending on which tracks you shelled out for): Fiorano, Mugello, and the Nürburgring GP. Laptimes, as before, will be uploaded to a central server at Ferrari.com for entry into a competition that will give the winners all manner of things and stuff. This package also includes a more ‘normal’ car in the form of the Ferrari 458 Trofeo Cup, which will appeal to many as a more drivable vehicle. Whether the contest is important to you or not, the important thing to note here is that this sim, whilst derived from the very capable physics engine used in netKarPro V1.3, is a hotlap sim. There is no racing, no wheel-to-wheel, just you, the cars, and the tracks.
For some people this will be an immediate switch off, as there is limited appeal to running around a track on your own, and if you are ‘most people’, and have been driving racing sims long enough, you will know you are not fast enough to set the fastest lap of anyone the world over. Yes, you. So why buy this sim? A good question. The marketing decision not to include an option to race any of the cars on the beautifully realised tracks in the package makes little sense to me, and what will limit long-term interest even more is that each comes with a fixed setup, so even the tinkerers amongst us will not be sated.
For me, this sim represents the peak of what the netKarPro engine is capable of. F1 cars present a unique problem for sim developers: they are exceptionally fast, with minimal suspension movement, and very high torsional stiffness and that all combines to produce a large focus onto the tyres. Thus, any car this fast and stiff will highlight any problems with the tyre model. The tyre model in netKarPro is widely regarded as one of, if not the best, tyre model available commercially. So, the chance to drive such a gem is a feast for the senses; not only is this the first time a high performance, GT-class supercar has been modelled in this engine, but also the differing F1 cars, from 2010 and 2011 respectively, are showcasing very different tyres (Bridgestone and Pirelli respectively).
As many of you will know, the change from Bridgestone in 2010 to Pirelli in 2011 has been the talking point of the year in F1 circles, and FVA gives us the chance to feel that difference, with a sim that has been tested and approved by drivers such as Giancarlo Fisichella, Felipe Massa, and Fernando Alonso. So let’s go back a bit and rephrase what we said: Yes, this is just a hotlap sim. But it also happens to be a unique a chance to compare yourself against F1 drivers in one of the most accurate commercial simulators of this generation. So let’s get cracking.
First of all, I’d like to take the Ferrari 458 Trofeo Cup for a drive. This car, derived from the road-going version, is a stiffer, lighter race-bred GT car used in the European one-make ‘Ferrari Challenge’ series enjoyed by many a playboy. The car features a semi-automatic, seven-speed paddle-shift gearbox mated with a 4.5 litre V8 pushing out 562 horsepower.
Pulling onto the track, my first thought was how comfortable and easy to drive this car is for such weighty specifications. With traction control disabled, it is easy to get the tail wagging, but the torque curve, peaking at the top end of the rev’ range, means that a relatively gentle foot will see you right, and the deftness of the tyres’ slip curve allows supple manipulation on the limit. This starts to become a joy as laptimes start being ignored in favor of controlled four-wheel drifts; though overheating the rears can become an issue, the tyres seem to cool very quickly. This ‘feature’ of the sim is based on the hotlap nature, and there is no damage if you go off, and minimal tyre wear.
Nonetheless, the more I lapped in this car the more I liked it, and subsequently found myself running lap after lap until the fuel tank was dry.
As the laps drew on, it was interesting how the car developed for me. I jumped into the car at Mugello initially, and was instantly missing braking points, taking brakes too deep, and carrying too much speed into corners. This oddly let me learn quite a bit about the car as I started to get a much better feel for its front end. Too much speed into a turn would easily overload the fronts and foster an almost terminal understeer, but more precision, and getting the car slowed in time, allowed me to start slicing into apexes. This felt like the forward weight transfer was causing a heavy dive at the front, as may be seen in a softer road-going car, so the development of style to a more smooth entry yielded notable benefits in times.
This link to a road car feel reminded me of a drive I took in real life in a Ferrari 360 Modena a few years back; the suspension is compliant but usable, with the front tyres being easily overloaded by too much entry enthusiasm, the back-end getting wayward with a heavy right foot, but nothing resulting in anything too ‘uncatchable’. In the sim the tyres behave superbly as they break grip, and then the subsequent return to grip as the moment recovers feels precise and natural.
So after a few laps of understeering, I started to balance it properly on entry and not overload the fronts, getting smoother and smoother as I went, and before I knew it I was having the car moving around gently around me in a delightful way. The final corner at Mugello, indeed, started to become something of an adventure in controlled four wheel drifts. I can’t remember a sim where it felt so natural and easy to put a car into this condition and not fear that it would kamikaze into some insanely exaggerated oversteer moment; modulating the throttle and making sure the rears didn’t get too hot meant I could keep this up for lap-after-lap.
Under brakes, the 458 also feels absolutely superb. The way weight shifts on initial application, the way it feels as it squirms around, is well done, as it is in netkarPro V1.3, with the subtle touches of feedback through the steering wheel making for a clean and visceral experience. The only thing, and I will come back to it again, that took a while to adapt to in this car was judging turn-in grip levels, and how loaded the front tyres were, or whether indeed they were too overloaded and would not turn. This is something I find quite common in cars with power steering, as the steering does not weigh-up sufficiently to feel the amount of grip available. This is usually the hardest thing to judge in any car, as one usually finds out when one takes the first ‘bite’ at the wheel. However, the steering in this 458 does not give enough feedback for my liking, which may well be a complaint I would find in a real-world 458.
Upon investigation and discussion with the guys at KS, it seems that this ‘road car feel’ that the Ferrari 458 has in this sim is something of a limitation of the engine. With the 458 Trofeo Cup we have a car that can generate 1.6 of lateral g-forces, and yet the feel is one of a road car: It does not always feel well connected to the road, and at times feels a bit ‘floaty’.
Trying to balance the car between the setup and physics point of view was like lying in bed with a short blanket was how the KS team explained the process. You try to cover your head and your feet get uncovered, then you try to cover your feet and your chest gets uncovered. So when setting up the car, if you try to give it more front-end bite, you get too much oversteer, and vice versa. It’s hard to find a sweet spot because the tyres themselves are a little unstable.
This is not an issue on light single-seaters (the main cars that netKarPro evolved with as a sim), and you don’t feel it at all with the F1 cars in FVA. But as the weight and the inertia of the car rises, and the grip lowers, this issue surfaces, and the car can feel softer and less connected to the road than you would expect from a race car. This is not to say that the Ferrari 458 in FVA is not superb fun to drive, and would be a blast to race.
The KS team is all too aware of this limitation to the engine, and at present is moving forward with development of a completely new, ground-up rebuild of their physics engine to combat such problems. By focusing on the small details of the engine, one by one, and addressing them at the base, they are hoping for a far better feeling in future titles (and yes, some big ones are already being worked on). netKarPro, admittedly, had many problems, but the fundamental driving ‘feel’ remains its strong point. With their new project, KS are taking this aspect to a whole new level. By starting out making a light car with ‘road’ tyres that generate around 1 to 1.2 of lateral g-forces, and getting this right as a benchmark, is the first priority of KS moving forward. Once a low grip car, road car, feels connected, then anything else, moving up the scale of overall grip, becomes easier and will feel better.
On to the F1 cars, and time for a comparison. Anyone who drove last year’s FVA and the Ferrari F60 will have an idea how the car feels in this sim, and to my mind it remains the best example of a commercially available F1 simulator around. This physics engine feels made for this, and the nature of the experience in FVA closely approaches instinct as you push more and more in a car than can carry obscene amounts of speed through corner after corner. Catch a slide there, mount a kerb here, it feels like the link between you and the car is inseparable.
Where the two cars differ is in the tyres; the difference between the Bridgestones on the F60 and the Pirelli’s on the F150th makes for a surprisingly different driving experience.
The Bridgestones are precise, and favor a smooth style as the driver needs to gently load them up on entry, avoid carrying brakes too deep, and not overload the fronts as the turn-in phase becomes a tight-rope moment. As balance transfers to the rears on exit, it can similarly be easy to overload them and face a big drop off in grip as you power out of a turn. This all adds-up to lend the Bridgestone tyres toward a precise style, with clean, balanced turn-in and smooth throttle application.
The Pirellis, in stark contrast, feel overall lower in grip, and very ‘waxy’ on the limit as they respond better to being heavily loaded-up and considerably more forgiving when pushing outside the envelope. As a result, the driver can be much more aggressive with the Pirelli tyre, giving much firmer steering inputs as the tyre will take the ‘abuse’, though preferably via an earlier turn-in to allow for the lack of precision as the tyre loads up.
Getting speed out of the two differing tyres is achieved via distinctive ends, making for fascinating laps as you learn what works for the two tyres. Swapping between the two cars therefore becomes tricky quickly too as, whilst the vehicles themselves are not radically different, the rubber they are wearing certainly is. The F60 requires a far gentler touch on the wheel than does the F150th, for which the same gentle touch is simply not aggressive enough to make the tyres perform; with not enough load, the Pirelli lacks grip. Comparatively, to be this heavy-handed in loading-up the tyres on the Bridgestone-shod F60, results only in the tyres being too heavily loaded too quickly and dropping off severely in grip.
From this, we can start not only to understand but to experience what we have heard from many F1 drivers concerning their tyres in the last couple of years. And this, really, is the best way to assess FVA: One of the best sims on the market for sheer driving, but with a lack of content and game modes, it has limited appeal. Driving for some fun laps for a while in each of the cars can be a worthwhile diversion, but I cannot see myself booting FVA up too often in a year’s time just to do some fun laps. It’s a shame in many ways, because if there was a relatively simple online racing component to this sim, it would become a long-lasting cult classic that could continue to have DLC added for years to come. Still, a better F1 racing sim doesn’t exist commercially, and if you’re at all curious to experience these ultimate machines, and don’t have a few million to buy a seat, this is as good a place as any to try them out. As it stands, this will remain as a shining diamond that never quite reached its full potential.