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Simulations drive some unreal laps

Computers run racing scenarios so actual cars don't always have to.

By KEVIN KELLY, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 23, 2003

ST. PETERSBURG -- The inner sanctum is just beyond a mirrored-glass door inside a modified tractor trailer.

There, in a modestly furnished office bathed in fluorescent light, some of Team Rahal's most closely guarded secrets and strategies are housed on a laptop computer.

Each mouse click by Ray Leto, the team's technical coordinator, summons another multicolored chart, another graphic filled with a dizzying array of numbers used in a program that simulates how Michel Jourdain Jr.'s car will perform under different setups at today's Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.

"It's a tool that allows us to spend less time on the racetrack sorting those things out, which is a very expensive proposition in itself," Leto said Saturday, shortly after Jourdain qualified fifth.

"It's a matter of showing up to a race and having some of the big, basic things taken care of. Then you can narrow it down."

Particularly for a new race and track such as this, computer simulators and the databases they house are a valuable and complicated tool.

It can take one employee three workdays to complete simulation work.

The payoff, however, is the time and money saved.

Among the things Team Rahal simulated using more than nine years' worth of information were downforce, drag, gear selection, weight distribution and distribution of aerodynamic forces on the car.

"We showed up, and we didn't change a gear all day Friday," Leto said. "We changed a gear (Saturday) morning before we ran because the wind picked up, and we knew we'd have a big head wind down the front straightaway. That was it.

"It may sound like a trivial thing, but it really allows you to work on other stuff. The driver can just concentrate on the setup or running the track. ... If you're off at all it's usually by one gear here and there based on something you couldn't have simulated like where a curb or a bump is, things like that that you don't know until you actually drive around the place."

But teams aren't the only operations using these types of programs, which can cost $50,000 or more.

Ford supplies its Cosworth engines to all 19 Champ Car entrants. The engines were tested on a dynamometer that simulated settings needed for this track and were distributed in a random order.

"We did about a week's worth of dyno work in Detroit to get the engine right," said Ken Deagle, Ford/Cosworth CART Track Support Manager. "Then we went out and practiced at Sebring two weeks ago.

"That circuit is very similar to a lot of the street circuits. That's what you want to try and duplicate."

The preparations for today's race continued well after Saturday's qualifying. Ultimately it will be the driver's responsibility to race with what he has been given and to offer feedback about what can improve the car's performance.

"You do," driver Adrian Fernandez said when asked if he relies on the simulations. "But at the same time it's a little bit of a guess. You sort of take everything from here and just go back to feeling."

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