Turn three at Imola, the storied Italian race track that claimed Ayrton Senna's life in 1994, is coming up frighteningly fast. My left foot jams on the brakes as I hammer the paddles to downshift. Too late. My Formula 1 ride slams up against the metal barrier, its snarling V-8 engine instantly silenced.
Fortunately I'm not in a real F1 car or on the actual track -- but in the virtual world of the unfortunately named Evotek SYM 026. A better name would be the OMG This Is Nuts 2012. As video game simulators go, this baby makes the eminently realistic Forza Motorsport for Xbox look like an Etch-A-Sketch. Everything from track runoff area pebbles to neighboring farm houses are rendered in distracting HD detail. The brainchild of a former Ferrari F1 engineer, with a price tag of $90,000, the Evotek was designed with pro racers in mind -- but quickly morphed into a high-tech toy for the ultimate game room.
"There's a lot of interest in the private market for this machine," says Loris Scagliarini, the director of San Anselmo, Calif.-based Evotek US, who recently arranged a session with the simulator for clients of Ferrari of San Francisco.
While Scagliarini is convinced folks with deep pockets will pony-up for this thrill ride, so far sales have been limited to a curious array of public establishments, including a museum in San Sebastian, Spain, a mall in Ankara, Turkey and, incredibly, a metro station in Baku, Azerbaijan. Closer to home, an Evotek machine has taken up residence at the Whirly Dome arcade in Orlando, Fla. But perhaps the biggest endorsement arrived when Ferrari opted to buy a machine last spring to entertain visiting big wigs.
Part of that may be the cost; while a few companies build home simulators with three screens meant to give owners the feel of practicing at a track, most are a fraction of the Evotek's price. But no other simulator has been built to specifically recreate the experience of driving a modern F1 car, using actual F1 data and a set-up similar to what F1 teams use in their own simulators.
"You not only pick your track, you can pick the time of day at that track thanks to data that's built into the Evotek," says Gian Luigi Cavani, one of the founders of Modenese firm Evotek Engineering who for more than 20 years worked on Ferrari's F1 program. "It's so realistic that if you wind up off and in the pebbles, you'll feel those pebbles on the tires."
All that sounds a bit far-fetched, but it explains the crowd pressing to get a shot at virtual glory. Surrounded by real Ferraris, the Evotek's wheel-less nose sits pointed a three flat-panel displays that offers these middle-aged gamers a 120-degree view of Imola's snaking track, complete with foliage, grandstands and buildings all sourced from scans of the real place.
Cavani points at the shock towers located at the back of the simulator. They're a particular source of pride as he worked on Ferrari's active suspension system before it was banned by the FIA. "That's at the heart of what makes our machine feel so real," he says.
Specifically, the shocks elevate this simulator to the third dimension, producing not just pitch (the effects of acceleration and braking) and roll (lateral movements), but also yaw - the 3D twisting motion experienced in a severe turn or spin.
After a few Ferrari owners set down their wine to have a go (lots of crashing), all eyes are on a lanky pro racer as he settles into the car's faux chassis. Smiles of relief flash as Johannes van Overbeek, who races Ferrari 458s in the American Le Mans Series for Extreme Speed Motorsports, quickly loses control and spins off the track. It's apparent Evotek is less a game and more a sophisticated driving tool that takes time to master.
"For a simulator, it's really interesting," says van Overbeek as he climbs out after removing the F1-looking steering wheel. "A lot of the on-track experience is there. Where it falls short for me is the lack of true peripheral vision and a real seat-of-the-pants connection to the car. You saw me wobbling a bit as I drove, and if that had been a real car, I would have pitted."
But van Overbeek knows all too well the value of driving simulators. One of his proteges at the moment is rookie Porsche IMSA GT3 Cup driver Sean Johnson, whose sole experience before landing a real ride this year was years of Forza Motorsport screen time.
"I was skeptical of simulators until I met Sean," he says. "He learned so much about tracks, lines, braking and even jockeying with other cars from that video game. And he's been able to translate that to real racing. So I'd imagine with (the Evotek) you be able to take things up a notch beyond that."
Van Overbeek's teammate Guy Cosmo has no reservations about the Evotek's ability to conjure up a bona fide track experience. He should know; an acquaintance of his who owns a retired Ferrari F1 car recently let him have at it at Laguna Seca. How did Evotek compare?
"It did a great job replicating an experience that admittedly can't be replicated," he says with a laugh. "There are no forces on your body here, so you can't produce that pure fear. But its movements are so subtle that I really felt it was close to a real drive. And after all, most humans will never even get close to driving an F1 car. So at least there's this."
That sums it up nicely. I've spent plenty of time in real sports cars on real tracks, but have never done anything except watch an F1 car rip past me at preposterous speeds. As I virtually banged around Imola - smoking tires, dinging guardrails, spinning wildly out of control - the only thought that came to mind was, if it was real and not Evotek SYM 026, I'd be dead, broke or both.