Harbury racer Jordan King on life as a simulator driver for the Alpine Formula One team
JUST how important is the role of a simulator driver in the operation of a Formula One team?
To find out the answer to that question, the Herald spoke exclusively to Harbury ace Jordan King about his duties with Alpine, formerly Renault.
The ex-Formula 2 and IndyCar star has been with the Enstone-based team for nearly a year and the 27-year-old explained that the impact of Covid-19 had played its part in him getting the job as Alpine’s simulator driver:
“I’ve known quite a few of the guys there for a while now. It’s changed hands a few times, so it’s Alpine now, which is owned by Renault, so effectively it’s all the same team, and before Renault it was owned by a capital investment company called Genii,” said King.
“Over the last ten years I have known a lot of people there. Some are the same while some have moved on to pastures new. In 2019 I was talking to them about a similar role within the team and the guy that heads the department I have known for around five years.
“At the start of 2020 we talked some more, but we chose not to go down that route because I still had racing commitments, so our paths never really aligned. They demand a lot of your time and on most race weekends I was always racing myself.
“So with the serendipity of Covid-19, a couple of drivers they were using couldn’t get into the country, I wasn’t racing because the pandemic stopped my activities and it all went from there. I’ve been doing it for around ten months now and it’s been going really well.”
With testing restricted in the FIA Formula One World Championship and only a finite amount of track time at race weekends, having a simulator driver gives teams much-needed time to help improve their cars as the season progresses.
King explained: “With those restrictions there’s extra incentives and extra finances for the team, so the money used to go testing didn’t just disappear, it was just put into other efforts.
“All of the simulations, from aerodynamics to actual driving, are being done by all the same guys as if they’d gone real testing. So the role I play is kind of the last cog in that system.
“Around this time of year it’s all pre-season work, so everything that has been worked on during winter is coming to fruition now. The departments bring everything to the sim guys and week by week we are testing different elements.
“That’s where we are right now and the importance of the role in terms of how it gives direction to the team on an ongoing basis without even turning a wheel.”
There’s so much more to the role of simulator driver than just turning up, jumping in the simulator and pumping in some laps. It’s not as simple as it seems and King described the role as one which can be very mentally draining.
“It’s the beauty of naivety in a world you don’t know. We watch Usain Bolt run 100m in the Olympics and think it’s simple running in a straight line, but if anyone tried to run 100m at a meaningful speed as an adult they would soon realise they’re very far off from where they think they might be,” he said.
“There’s a similar element in motorsport. People can drive a car every day and watch motorsport on the television, and then I’ve had conversations with people who’ve said they could drive a race car.
"I’ve then had to explain that you can kick a football but you don’t expect to be Cristiano Ronaldo, or you can run but don’t expect to be Mo Farah.
“It’s quite an intense time being on the sim and I finish the day very tired mentally as you’re going through a lot in a high-performance environment.
“I’m pushing myself and the virtual car as much as I can, and that’s probably the best way I can sum up what it’s like being a sim driver for Alpine.”
For King, a “normal” day in the office at this time of year starts at 9am and finishes around 6pm. Along with that, he does the equivalent of two to two-and-a-half race runs, which equates to around five to six hours on the simulator.
In between those race runs, changes are made to the simulator while discussions are being had about what to do next, so life as a simulator driver can be pretty full-on.
“Alpine are pretty good at understanding there’s a human element to the process and giving us time off in between. The most days I have done on the sim is four and after four days in a row you’re next to useless,” said King.
“That doesn’t apply to myself, it applies to the engineers too – we’re all in a dark room, we don’t see any daylight, so you send yourself a little stir-crazy.
"The sim is usually operational two or three days a week because the team needs time between each session to crunch numbers and to make sure the driver is on form.”
It’s also important to point out that the simulators used by King get you as close to driving a single-seater car as humanly possible. Top-notch simulators cost a lot of money, and while you can’t emulate the extreme G forces, the on-track experience feels pretty real.
“I don’t know the exact figure of how much Alpine have spent on this project, but I know what some teams have and I’d be surprised if it was lower than double-figure millions for this type of equipment,” said King.
“It’s not a case of a steering wheel, TV screen and playing on a PlayStation, it’s more advanced than that. There’s moveable platforms, the car bounces around and if you hit a kerb it really feels like you’ve hit one.
“You’re fully immersed with a helmet on and in the chassis of a real car. There’s the best part of a ten-metre wraparound screen with the most advanced projections you’ve ever seen in your life.
"It genuinely feels like you’re driving down a track and objects are coming towards you – that’s until you turn your head and look up to the ceiling. It’s a strange feeling to be moving in a stationary room.”
Alongside the pre-season work, there’s also the race support that simulator drivers are required to undertake.
King explained: “I’m not doing the Australian Grand Prix support, but the guys that are will be on effectively night shift for all the guys out there. Then for the Abu Dhabi race, they’re four hours ahead so we end up working from 11 o’clock to 2am in the morning.
"Those sort of things provide a different but fun challenge. It’s quite strange to shift your body clock quickly for a couple of days and still drive at night.”
On top of his role with Alpine, King is also the simulator and development/reserve driver for Banbury-based Formula E team Mahindra Racing.
Speaking on how that role came about, King told the Herald: “I’ve known team principal Dilbagh Gill for quite a while and tested his cars in the past, but never managed to pin him down for a job.
“In the December before we went back into lockdown I managed to pop in for a meeting with Dilbagh. It was a good meeting and it’s one of those that took a couple of years to get the job.
“If you don’t ask, you don’t get, so it came around that they needed not only a sim driver, but a development and reserve driver too. There’s a bit more to this role than the Alpine role in terms of real-world driving.
"It’s quite cool to see what’s happening behind the scenes of electric cars and where we’ll be going in ten to 15 years in terms of the technology.”
When asked if there was any difference in being a sim driver in Formula One and Formula E, King said: “They’re very different. Fundamentally it’s still a race car, but the simulators themselves are different. The role for each is different too in terms of what it all entails.
"The overall end goal is still the same, though, and that’s to make the car quicker and to try and win races for the team. It’s a new job for me and I’m getting my teeth stuck into all the nuances of what it takes.”
Although King is not currently racing at the moment and looks fondly back at his time in Formula 2, he’s looking at avenues to get back into top-end motorsport such as the World Endurance Championship or IndyCar.
“I’ve done my time in F2 and got very close to F1, but it’s tricky making a long-term profession from F2 from purely where it sits on the ladder,” said King. “The endurance racing I’ve done before, as well as IndyCar which I did in 2018, is the elite side of motorsport and that’s the avenue I’d like to be going down.
“Formula E is also in the category of top-end professional motorsport. I’ve got a door in at Mahindra so there’s avenues there that can be opened, it’s just getting them open at the right time.”