Sim Racing Tales #1: Pedal Power

snap19In 1996, chubby little Michael Passingham first laid eyes on a racing game. It’s fitting that this first game was Pole Position, a Windows port of the 1980s Namco title. It was brutal, even more so than the death traps (by today’s standards) of real 1980s F1 cars. If you ran slightly off track, you’d hit a billboard and explode. Even if you kept it on the black stuff, your rivals would also send you to hell in a fireball. Brutal.

But not a day has gone by since then that I haven’t been obsessed with racing games. So I figured I should probably make use of this vast wasteland of a blog to talk about some of my exploits, past and present. I didn’t want my first post to be my life story, so instead I’ve jumped in at the deep end to write about my latest purchase, the Ricmotech G25 load cell brake mod.

Brake time

Before I walk you through the pain and suffering of me fumbling around with screwdrivers, Allan keys and stubborn wires, we first have to understand why I spent a far-too-large amount of money on this piece of kit.

In conventional racing cars – and most road cars for that matter – when you press the brake pedal, the force you apply directly affects how quickly you slow down. The harder you push, the more friction there is between the brake pads and the brake discs. This isn’t some special effect; it’s a physical connection between your leg and the brakes.

cspv2l_1In sim racing, it’s extremely hard to recreate this effect because when you push the brake pedal, you’re not actually connected to anything physical, just wires and the magic of technology. More expensive pedal sets, such as the £200+ Fanatec ClubSport pedals (right) have solved this problem with load cell technology. The brake on this pedal set is stiff, and doesn’t have a huge amount of travel. When you push on the brakes, the load cell sensor can tell how hard you’re pushing, and this affects how the virtual race car slows down, which is about as close as you can get to real life.

In cheaper pedal sets, like those which came with my Logitech G25 (it cost around £120 for the wheel, pedals and gear shifter in 2008), the feel of the brake pedal is defined simply by a spring, with a sensor called a potentiometer installed into the pedal telling the game how far the pedal has been pushed, not how hard.

Unsettling feeling

In a race car, the brake pedal is not just about slowing down; it’s a tool to unsettle your car as you go into a fast corner; throwing the car’s weight onto the front tyres, unweighting the rear wheels and adding a touch of controllable oversteer. There are very few tracks where a dab on the brakes won’t help you at some point on the circuit. The problem with doing this on a potentiometer-based pedal is that it’s difficult to train your muscles to remember how far you pushed the brake pedal, and much easier in terms of muscle memory to remember how hard it was pushed. In my experience, this made for slower, more inconsistent laps.

The second disadvantage of potentiometer-based pedals is that heel-toe gear changes and throttle blips (where you use your right foot to brake and to blip the throttle to equalise the revs of the engine with the gear you’re about to select, increasing stability – see below) are impossible because the brake pedal moves so far.

Armed with a tiny bit of knowledge, about a month ago I did some research into how I could solve this problem on the cheap, and stumbled across the G25/G27 brake mod from Ricmotech.

Mod privileges

RMT-LC27-5T

Ricmotech’s kit (new edition pictured right; I bought one of the last original versions, gosh damn it), which cost me about £100 with shipping and import taxes included, consists of a load cell, a spring, some cable ties and a two-sided A3 sheet of instructions. I believe the most expensive part of the kit is the load cell, as these bits of equipment have to be super durable. Nonetheless, this was a large investment and quite a big risk.

I’m not exaggerating when I say the installation of the kit was a nightmare. It’s partly my fault, but partly the fault of the poorly printed black and white instruction sheet, which made things extremely difficult to understand. But it was mostly me; my coordination with small tools and unfamiliar electronic components is poor.

The product specs say it should take about 30 minutes to install; it took me the best part of three hours of trial and error to get them working, mostly because not all the pieces quite fitted together as I’d hoped.

Feel the force

Once I’d re-assembled the pedal set (after ensuring it was actually working), I fired up iRacing to see if I’d made an expensive mistake. By the end of that day, I was around one second per lap quicker than I’d ever been, simply because of my newly found brake-dabbing ability in high-speed corners. Driving the Star Mazda open wheel machine at Circuit of the Americas, the benefit of this new, incredibly stiff brake pedal was very apparent.

When I say stiff, I mean rock solid. The pedal has about half an inch of travel before it hits the load cell, at which point it’s all about force. It does take some getting used to and one week in I’m still not 100 per cent happy with how I have it set up; I even had to switch to a different, lower chair for sim racing because I needed to put more of my body weight behind my foot when hitting the brakes. My office chair with wheels was no longer a potent part of my sim racing setup; I wanted to move around in the game, not scoot around my room in real life. I know that my next inevitable sim racing expense is going to be a full-on wheel and pedal mount. But that’s for when I move house. For now I’m happy in the knowledge that it’s no longer my equipment that’s slowing me down: it’s now 100 per cent my lack of skill.

Next time, I’ll probably write something about a sim racing game that brings back fond memories. In other words, TBC.

Gentlemen, start your search engines: The future of motorsport on YouTube

YouTube today launched an optional paid subscription/pay per episode model. Content creators will now be able to charge for premium content on their YouTube channels, starting at $.99 per month. This is really interesting. Already, UFC have decided to go in for this model – the first sporting brand to do so.

Could the BTCC ever put its broadcasts on YouTube... for a fee? Photo: BTCC.net

Could the BTCC ever put its broadcasts on YouTube for residents of countries who don’t get it on TV? Photo: BTCC.net

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The following is more of a train of thought than a blog post – just to whet your appetite for the possible future of online motorsport.

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This has actually come at an interesting time. Just today BT struck another blow to free-to-air motorsport by gobbling up the rights to MotoGP in a multi-year deal.

So who’s going to be the first racing series to opt for this? DTM, Blanpain Endurance Series (and the FIA GT Series), World Endurance Championship among many others have taken to live streaming on YouTube or similar services such as Livestream and uStream. Other series such as NASCAR, the BTCC  and IndyCar upload edited highlights, crashes and interviews to their own official channels, which are all available for free. The WTCC used to have all of its races available in a Windows Media format a while back. Motors TV uploads crash montages and random tidbits to their inconsistent channel.

Formula One… Well, Formula One does diddly squat, unless you count their musical highlights packages in their incredibly weird flash media player. Bear in mind that the Formula1.com website is also one of ‘those’ sites which wants you to sit through an animation before viewing the site. We’re still in the 90s, apparently.

These three just realised Formula One is living in the past

These three just realised Formula One is living in the past

Could this be the start of lesser-covered motorsports making their way into the mainstream online scene? Will motorsports channels as a whole start considering YouTube as a means of distribution and live broadcasts?

Perfectly plausible. The fact that so many racing series do this already for pretty meagre viewing figures is a clue to where this is going. The latest DTM live race only has around 15,000 views, which is very modest indeed. Ad revenue on videos like will be low (or non-existent depending on whether they are a YouTube ‘partner’ – estimated payment for views is around $1 per 1,000 views). So, what’s the harm in adding a subscription model?

Well, of course, you’ll upset the sponsors. If the sponsors have joined the sport with the promise of free-to-access online video, only to see it stuck behind a pay wall, they may be somewhat annoyed. The teams will also wondering what’s in it for them. Then you’ll have the issue of distributing TV money to the teams.

I think this is absolutely fascinating, and I can’t wait to see who goes in for it first. Hopefully nobody, because of course we all want quality content for free. And since YouTube will only likely be a tiny source of income for the series and broadcasters, it may not be worth bothering at all. Where it could help us racefans is for series which don’t get broadcast live in the country in which you live. The amount of times I’ve had to resort to dodgy flash streams for my NASCAR fix is… too many.

So there, that’s my train of thought on that particular issue. Feel free to comment or drop me a tweet if you have thoughts.

YouTube experimenting with psychology?

YouTube’s told me not to share this. So naturally I’m blogging about it. YouTube is flagging up this message when I search: “Experiment: There may be confidential content in your search results. Please do not share outside Google.”

A swift Twitter search tells me everybody is seeing this message, so I’m not some kind of super spy. I wish I was. Assuming this is some kind of test to see how people share stuff like this. Fun.

Now I’m going to watch Jake and Amir.

youtube confidential

Same pitlane, different world

I’m pretty new to the world of motorsports journalism. I’ve been following Formula 1 and the BTCC for as long as I can remember, and I’ve made countless videos and forum posts about them both.

I’d been to dozens of BTCC events and had even been lucky enough to wander the pitlanes and paddocks as a child.

But it wasn’t until Brands Hatch a couple of weeks ago that I experienced a BTCC race weekend from a journalist’s point of view. I expected the bigger teams and drivers to be harder to access, and I wasn’t wrong. Myself and a colleague lost count of the times we were shrugged off by a certain top BTCC driver; but I guess he’s a busy guy.

Despite this, I had a successful weekend and was able to get great interviews with a number of good drivers. They were always friendly, but there was also an air of tension about most encounters. Not because of the interviewer, but just because of the situation. For the most part, BTCC drivers are sitting on the edge of a financial cliff. Every race counts in terms of proving their worth to sponsors. After each race, they count up the cost of every bump, scrape, and worse. They love what they do, but it’s an incredible sacrifice to do it.

This weekend I went to the opposite end of the scale. This weekend I have been covering the British Endurance Championship, a series of three-hour races contested by mostly older-spec GT3 machinery.

Me interviewing Britcar driver Javier Morcillo - Craig McAllister Photography

Me interviewing Britcar driver Javier Morcillo – Craig McAllister Photography

The teams turn up with large transporters and modest caravans. They have barbecues and tables dedicated to finger food. The drivers’ families sit under awnings enjoying the British weather and the competitive racing. And at the end of the day, all the drivers congratulate each other on a job well-done and chat about their experiences throughout the day.

As a journalist, each driver and team is always willing to have a chat, and it’s just a pleasure to speak to drivers who are here to win, but also to enjoy the experience. It’s akin to a festival atmosphere but with a stronger smell of racing fuel and burning rubber.

I loved both of my experiences, but for different reasons. The BTCC is intense action performed by drivers under pressure. Britcar is a long race contested by competitive amateurs, enthusiasts and professionals on their days off.

I think I’m going to enjoy 2013.

Thoughts on the Ding Dong battle over Margaret Thatcher

Fellow journalism student John Fernandez posted a Facebook status asking what people thought about Radio 1 deciding not to play ‘Ding Dong, the Witch is Dead’ on its Chart Show, and instead play a snippet of the song + a news piece. I’ve been tossing around my thoughts about this for a couple of days, and the following is what I wrote. I think it’s a fair argument on how it’s the right decision. Feel free to disagree!

“Each time I think about it I have a different opinion. On the one hand, the BBC are supposed to reflect the views of the population. On the other hand, no matter what you think about Thatcher, playing a song which is where it is as a result of the celebration of her death seems incredibly insensitive.

“I mean, you can’t imagine the presenter saying ‘And now, at number one, it’s the song you’ve all been going crazy over, it’s Ding Dong the Witch is Dead!’ There’s no way to sensitively do that. So, playing a clip of the song accompanied by a news story is a good compromise. It acknowledges what’s happened, but doesn’t go as far as to condone what is a fairly childish act for a relatively crap song.”

One Hour in Lincoln

Twitter can be an exciting place, where news is broken and interests are shared and expanded upon. Insightful conversations are had between millions of brilliant, bright and funny Twitter users.

They are the 1%.

Here’s one hour of Tweets sent from the city in which I live: Lincoln. The following takes place between 1300 and 1400 on Monday January 28th 2013.

1300 – Our hour starts off in dramatic fashion. Victoria has been in some trouble with the Twitter police, and wants to make sure everybody can see one of her 15,000 tweets.

She goes on to say that she’s been suspended recently for going over her tweet limit. Just for clarity, you have to tweet A LOT of shit to activate Twitter’s tweet limit controls. Busy day.

1301 - Roxy is having a fruit-based epiphany.

1303 – Callum has seen things that nobody should ever see.

1303 – Amy was ravenous. Now she’s just covered in food.

1306 – Out of context, this is odd. Even with context, it’s not particularly fantastic.

1307 –  Unsalted, I assume…

1312 – This one’s going to be included in a blog post entitled ‘how to attract women’

1316 - I decide that this tweet makes me want to throw up. Throwing up is a decision.

1318 – No retweets, no replies.

#irefuse

1321 – Do you really need to make this mistake in order to learn from it?

1327 – How’s that £9k per year holding up?

1329 - Laundry: one of life’s great social occasions.

1333 – Again. £9k per year.

1340- Lambert is in the wrong timezone. Or he’s just making a general statement.

1349 – Despite how it may appear, this tweet is by itself and has no context. WHAT IS HE GOING TO DO TO HER?

1351 – I’m glad this hour is almost over…

1352 – Paradox?

1358 – We’ll end this hour with some witty banter.

I’m as guilty as most with sending inane tweets, but I felt it was worth highlighting that Twitter is absolutely full of it, and you shouldn’t have to stand for it. Unfollow those who bore you, and ignore the ‘etiquette’ which requires you to ‘follow back’. It’s nonsense. Follow those you find interesting and inspirational – ditch the rest.

Play with your Food – Tech at Teatime Blog – 05/12/12

Hello and welcome to the first Tech at Teatime companion blog. I’ll be using these posts to go into more detail on some of the stories we talk about during the show. Let’s get started.

On Wednesday’s final show of the year, I asked Dave to bring in some suggestions for silly and inventive Christmas gifts. He duly managed to do so, with a selection of incredibly random gadgets. Here’s my favourite.

MaKeyMaKey – Firebox: £39.99makey

I was initially critical of this product, just because of its name. It’s not exactly catchy, let’s be honest. But with that said, there is a great pun buried beneath the impractical title. Make+Key = MaKey. x2. I just about approve.

It’s one of those great, back-to-basics electronics kits that remind me of LEGO’s Mindstorm project and Raspberry Pi. Their website describes it perfectly: “MaKey MaKey is an invention kit for the 21st century. Turn everyday objects into touchpads and combine them with the internet. It’s a simple Invention Kit for Beginners and Experts doing art, engineering, and everything inbetween.”

The kit involves a number of wires and a circuit board hooked up to a USB port. You use software to program which wires are detected as which keyboard input, and away you go. You can make a piano out of bananas. What more is there to say? It looks tremendously fun and there are already some great examples of humorous and practical usage of this kit. Whenever I see stuff like this, it really makes me wish I’d taken an alternative career path and gone into programming.

As an aside, my brother, who is an IT consultant, programmer, web developer etc, used LEGO’s Mindstorm in one of his Computer Science degree projects in 2008 (see video). It’s ‘toys’ like this which should really be encouraged: they allow kids to develop an understanding of electronics, in a practical form, instead of unbelievably uninspiring and dull ICT lessons I received as a teenager. As a result, we should see a greater quantity of  ICT professionals who are incredibly in-demand (and-highly paid as a result), which will most certainly help the UK’s economy as a whole. Bananas for thought, I think.