John Chalmers: Automotion Green Test Drives

I carefully thread the F1 car through the narrow pit exit … nearly clipped the wall … how embarrassing would that have been … careful, careful, then … out onto the Spa-Francorchamps circuit building up speed as I head out on my warm up lap … a chance to get used to the incredible rate at which the corners come up, one after the other in rapid succession up through to the chicane at the end of the lap then a clean exit onto the start/finish straight and bury the throttle and bam…bam…bam up through the gears before hitting the brakes hard, body being thrown forwards and bam..bam..bam down through the gears for the La Source hairpin and bam … bam … bam… up through the gears as the car hurtles down towards Eau Rouge, over the rumble strip that almost shakes your fillings out, the compression that lifts your stomach as you reach the bottom and remaining hard on the power snake back up the hill at Raidillon, millimetre perfect precision required if you don’t want to end up another casualty of this famous circuit, then the seemingly endless (in any other car) Kemmel Straight towards the Les Combes esses … hard on the brakes … bambambam down through the gears … and so the lap continues, a visceral experience as the G-forces throw you this way and that, a bit like riding a bucking bronco over which you have a tiny, tiny element of control. Lots of mistakes but all ok, until I reach the chicane at the end of the lap, and in a heroic late braking manoeuvre find myself flying off the track facing the wrong way … the shame, the shame!

This was my first experience of “driving” an active simulator. Having driven the real Spa circuit in real cars, I was fascinated to find out what it would be like on one of these simulator machines. You sit in the racing seat, steering wheel, pedals and shift paddles all where they should be, and 3 screens ahead and to the side of you providing a 120° forward view of your trajectory. Six independent electronically controlled pistons tilt and move the ensemble up, down, to the side replicating everything from the tiniest vibration right the way through to a big accident, the steering wheel feeds back every rumble strip, every loss of grip, the sensation is very impressive. I drove a hot hatch first, then, a bit later, the F1 car. The hot hatch gave me a good benchmark, as it was similar to my own that I had driven for real around the circuit, and I was impressed both by the feel, the accuracy of the circuit and also by the fact that my lap time on the simulator was very close to that which I had realised “in the flesh”.

There were some areas for improvement … the brakes were not progressive enough, no real feel of being about to lock up, I would personally have liked the motion to have been just a little more pronounced on the ragged edge, and you cannot save, overlay, replay and analyse your laps, but as an immersive experience it was incredible … I want one … but at 400kg and a 5 figure price tag, it’s a bit out of my league for the time being, even if it is a lot cheaper than running the real thing!

Stepping out of the simulator and back into the “real” world of the Automotion Green Test Drive experience, I took a pause to enjoy some of the cheese and charcuterie provided by sommelière Cathy Lelu, but most of all to come down from my adrenalin high, and then set out on my real mission, to test drive some of the environmentally friendly vehicles that were the reason for the event, and for my visit to Gréiwels Haff in Bertrange. Automotion brought together this event for the first time last year, and although it was an excellent occasion, there were some lessons to be learned. This year the Automotion team demonstrated that it had indeed learned from their experiences and, at least for the time that I was there, the event ran like clockwork.

The vehicles to be tested ranged from the all electric Renault Zoé and Tesla P90s through a Jaguar XE to hybrid BMW i3s, i8s and a 225 xe Active Tourer plug in hybrid, not to mention a hybrid Range Rover Sport. The pure electric cars apart, not all of these exotica would necessarily feature in many people’s list of top ten most environmentally friendly vehicles, but everything is relative. For example, a “regular” Range Rover Sport SDV6 has an official carbon emission figure of 199 g/km whereas the hybrid model with the same engine and an additional electric motor sees that come down to 169 g/km, reasonably impressive for a 330 bhp 2.4 tonne SUV, and the 362 bhp BMW i8 officially emits 49 g/km, which for an exotic, gull-winged performance car (0-100 kph in 4.4 seconds) is almost as staggering as its near 150,000 euro price tag.

The ambience was friendly and convivial, the organisation was excellent, with plenty of staff on hand to attend to the needs of the many guests, and it gave a great opportunity for those contemplating the acquisition of one of these hybrid or electric cars to have an initial drive without the pressure of the sales pitch.

Good food, good atmosphere, good organisation, useful and fun, Automotion ticked all the boxes, so all that’s left now is for me to win the lottery and get myself one of those simulators!