Top Gear Philippines

Shell Professional Simulator

That's me in the corner. That's me in the spotlight, losing my concentration. This is the media launch of the new Shell V-Power Nitro+ line of fuel products, and somehow I'm in full view of my colleagues fumbling with the steering wheel of a 350,000-euro (P18.8-million) Formula 1 simulator. I have no idea how I got here.

All I know is that, prior to the launch, I was asked by Shell to demonstrate the state-of-the-art F1 simulator to other journalists during the big event. Maybe Derek Ramsay was unavailable, or maybe Shell Philippines executives thought a car magazine editor would be the most qualified person for the job.

"You'd look cool doing it," they said. I itched to ask them how an overweight guy squeezing himself into a tub designed for race drivers with a body fat ratio of eight percent, could somehow manage to look decent (never mind cool).

To try my best to look cool, I carefully picked my ensemble for the day: a red Ferrari shirt complete with the Italian flag, a black Puma Ferrari jacket, a black-and-red Alfa Romeo belt made from discarded rubber tires, a red Casio G-Shock, and a pair of red Puma Ferrari sneakers. I knew that no amount of motorsport-inspired apparel could trick the audience into thinking I looked as fit as an F1 driver, but at least they might give me an A for the effort.

It was very hot and humid when I arrived at the venue (PICC Forum Tent). It was a good excuse to take the jacket off with my dignity still intact, because when I saw the Shell Professional Simulator, I instantly knew I wouldn't fit inside the driver's tub with an extra layer of clothing on. The chassis was that of the original Ferrari F1 car used by Kimi Raikkonen and Felipe Massa during the 2009 season (but with a more current livery and with Fernando Alonso's name on it). This meant the thing had not been constructed to accommodate chubby motoring journalists. But the simulator's British technicians still let me hop in. The simulator could take up to 240 pounds of human fat, I was informed. Indeed, I was able to tuck my fleshy torso in.

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Shell Professional Simulator

I made sure to appear at the venue a few hours before the start of the event. I wanted to practice as much as I could so I wouldn't make a buffoon of myself in front of my peers. When I had fixed myself behind the wheel, it immediately became apparent that I would need a lot of seat time to keep myself from hitting the Armco barriers of the virtual Fiorano circuit. I could sense the technicians seriously wondering how on earth Shell had picked me to do the demo for the media guests.

My reflexes were rusty. I was no longer into video games. The last time I had been an avid gamer, I was still in high school and I used this implement called joystick. Today, mention "joystick" within an office intern's earshot and your ass could get hauled to the HR department.

And so I slipped and slid all over the track. I began to entertain thoughts of backing out. I wanted to volunteer my motorsports editor Mikko David to do the job instead; he'd kill this thing without a sweat. But Shell wouldn't allow it. Now that I think about it, maybe Shell did want me to provide the entertainment during the program--"entertainment" being the joke everyone could laugh at.

The whole setup was intimidating. Aside from the original Ferrari F1 chassis, there was the real F1 steering wheel made by McLaren. The pedals also had genuine F1 provenance. And right before me was a 2m-high, 180-degree screen that projected the laser-scanned Fiorano test track. The imagery was accurate to within 5mm of the real thing, I was told. No wonder this high-tech rig cost as much as a brand-new Ferrari.

And then there was the realistic feedback. The steering wheel offered resistance. The tub rolled from side to side and pitched fore and aft. This was simply the closest I could ever be to driving a real Formula 1 car. I also heard that this simulator had routinely made people throw up. Great.

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After many rounds of memorizing the track and mastering the paddle shifters, I was beginning to put together cleaner laps and faster times. I could do this, I convinced myself. One of the technicians, Anthony Dealtry, was very supportive. "You're looking good," he assured me. "You don't have to go really fast. You just need to drive smoothly. The objective is to stay on the track and not hit the barriers."

"It's difficult," I told him.

"If it were easy," Anthony replied, "everyone would be an F1 driver."

Good point.

To help calm my nervousness further, I was informed that I didn't have to be introduced on center stage. I'd be doing hot laps already when it was time to reveal the simulator, which, by the way, was concealed in one curtain-covered area at the back of the room.

"I will be on the microphone explaining to your colleagues just what exactly you are doing," said Anthony.

The suffocating pressure came right back.

 

 Shell Professional Simulator

This brings us back to the beginning of the story. I hear the hosts call out my name and that of the magazine I'm representing. The black curtain is drawn. Anthony the British technician starts spelling out for the media guests in attendance what is happening at the moment. They've switched off the lights in the room, leaving just the screen, the simulator and my head illuminated. To my left is a monitor showing my wide range of facial expressions to the audience. All eyes on me.

"You can do this," I tell myself. "Just a few error-free laps and you're done."

Ah, but there's a reason I'm a writer. I thrive working in the background. I'm better read than seen because I tend to shrink in the heat of the spotlight.

True to form, I spin out, slide off the track and hit the guardrail. To make matters worse, I become disoriented: I turn the car around and start driving in the opposite direction. I only realize this when I see the garage exit on my left (it should be on my right). And to really send things from worse to worst, I turn back and attempt to use the garage exit as a U-turn area, only to get the car stuck in one corner of heaven-knows-what-part-of-the-track.

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I can't back up. I don't know how. I turn the steering wheel left and right to no avail. So I sit there with a virtual F1 engine revving idly. All this time, Anthony is talking. But his spiel is not consistent with the visuals. He's describing how realistic the simulator feels during cornering and hard braking, and I'm sitting there motionless, staring helplessly at a steel barrier. All this time, Anthony must be thinking: "Who is this idiot?"

 

Shell Professional Simulator

So that's me in the corner. That's me in the spotlight, losing my concentration. Just how anyone can go from looking cool one minute to starring in a Sacha Baron Cohen movie the next, is beyond me.

My colleagues are standing behind me. All of them are laughing, I'm sure, and probably half of them are thinking they could have done a much better job of demonstrating Shell's F1 simulator. I agree. Driving a virtual race car in front of a crowd is just not my thing.

"But that was just a dream," I try to tell myself. "That was just a dream."

Two weeks later, I receive a photo CD that proves every single thing that I've narrated above really took place. If you'll excuse me, I'm off to the mall to buy myself an air pump for my severely deflated ego.

 

Shell Professional Simulator

Photos by Mikko David

Vernon B. Sarne
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