Field report: Berlin test drive in ABT's Formula E simulator with Nico Müller
Race drivers spend many hours in the simulator before a world championship race. In Formula E, there are even particularly many, because there are no opportunities to practice the temporary street circuits in any other way. At ABT Sportsline's headquarters in Kempten, e-Formel.de founder Timo Pape got the chance to test the German private team's Formula E simulator. Under the guidance of ABT Cupra driver Nico Müller, the program included the course in Berlin-Tempelhof, where the electric series will be making a guest appearance in just over a week.
A brand new building has ABT for its motorsport department on the former "parking areas" next to the company headquarters in the Allgäu. After a tour of the museum, workshops and offices, we descend a staircase into the basement. There are windows in the command room anyway - good for everyone involved, who spend a lot of time here preparing for an E-Prix.
It's not just about getting to know the track. After all, Tempelhof has been on the Formula E racing calendar for several years now. Even more important is the energy management, which numerous computers simulate in real time. They calculate at which points a driver should take his foot off the power pedal in order to use his available energy as efficiently as possible and at the same time be as fast as possible. This is how Nico Müller, together with simulator engineer Aniello Taliercio, fine-tunes the perfect cornering - for each of the ten Tempelhof curves.
The control room resembles a recording studio. Behind a row of screens is a large glass panel - the partition to the second room, where the simulator is located. ABT set it up ahead of its own Formula E comeback. It was ready in time for the Valencia test drives in mid-December 2022 - mainly due to pressure from the drivers. Since then, Müller (resident in Switzerland) and teammate Robin Frijns (resident in Belgium) have been enjoying shorter commutes to work and more time with their families. The cost of the new simulator would have been in the six-figure range, it is said.
Whoever brakes loses.
Before I'm allowed to take a seat in the simulator, Müller sets a few lap times. Then it's my turn and I climb into the rack. Without shoes - "so you have more feeling," Müller explains. In an almost prone position, I press one or two buttons on the original Formula E steering wheel and drive out of the pit lane. Blue flashing LEDs on the steering wheel tell me when the tires are spinning. That was quick.
As an old gamer with some experience in less professional driving simulators, I actually find my way around quite well. I also already know the "Tempelhof-Ring". Nevertheless, everything looks a bit different with this oversized curved screen in front of me. I take it easy at first. Accelerating without wheelspin actually works better than expected at 300 kW in race mode. But then comes the first hard braking zone.
In turn 6, before the attack mode is in Berlin, I step harder on the "stamp" for the first time. The car starts to lurch, I miss the apex. The first spin follows during acceleration. Until the end of my test, I don't get a feel for the brake. Unlike the power pedal, the brake pedal doesn't move at all - at least not that I can feel. Only the force with which I press against it determines the braking effect. There is no clear feedback - until the next lock-up.
Luckily, you can drive through the walls in the simulator if you make a mistake, and also back onto the track. Still, there's a crash when I hit the concrete elements. Followed by a loud and unpleasant beep on the headphones, which also booms through the command room. Poor Aniello.
Servo steering, please!
The second surprise is the strong "force feedback." The steering goes incredibly heavy and powerful in the arms. It is particularly violent in larger bumps. For example, in the faster turn 8, where two concrete slabs were obviously not laid very evenly. The bumps just hit the steering wheel. I have to use a lot of force to keep up with it. "I don't think there's a driver in Formula E who wouldn't want power steering," Müller also says, and then opens up to me: "We've got the force feedback down to 60 percent for you."
I don't get anything about the energy management mentioned at the beginning - probably to be able to concentrate on the basics. For the drivers and the team, on the other hand, this is the most important aspect of the simulator work. In the braking zones, they receive beeps on their ears when they are supposed to step off the power pedal. After each turn, the model recalculates in real time all the other beeps for the race - the pilot might have braked a little later, after all. The exact timing of the beeps is even adjusted to the individual reaction time of the drivers.
Three to four days are spent in ABT Motorsport's basement before an E-Prix. In the process, Müller and Frijns normally share the days. "After a few hours in the simulator, you're just done," Müller explains to me. I can understand that - after five minutes. Because it's during turning maneuvers, i.e. when the environment turns quickly, that I get a little woozy. I climb back out of the simulator, dab a few beads of sweat from my forehead and notice a slight tremor in my hands and arms.
Big Brother meets mission control.
For some years now, it has been common practice in Formula E for teams to deploy additional staff:in addition to their strictly limited contingent of personnel at the track "remotely," i.e. at their own plant or company headquarters. They form the so-called mission control during the races.
ABT Cupra uses its mission control room during the race weekends, according to its own statement, only "very narrowly". A maximum of six people are allowed to sit in the back office in Kempten on race weekends and evaluate live data. This is controlled by a live camera in the upper corner of the room. It belongs to the FIA. The automobile association has sole access to the input signal and closely monitors that all Formula E teams adhere to the rules.
When ABT was still a partner of Audi, FIA officials had even once stood unannounced at the gates of Audi Sport in Neuburg to assess the situation, reports a long-time team member. In Kempten, no one has yet been on an inspection visit.
After an exciting day, I thank ABT, its employee:s, Nico Müller and Formula E for the opportunity in the simulator and head home. I now feel prepared for the Berlin E-Prix on April 22 and 23. In theory.