It’s 10.15am on Tuesday March 25 and I’m purring along the M3 towards London, enjoying the cosseting interior and high-end sound system of the just-launched Jaguar F-Type coupé. Not 20 minutes later, I find myself taking part in the Monaco Grand Prix of Sunday May 22 1966. I’m behind the wheel of a BRM Formula One car and in a state of utter panic, having idiotically turned the wrong way at the entry to Casino Square. Suddenly, the view from the cockpit becomes a blur of colour, then there’s a shudder and an almighty bang as the car grinds to a halt, its wheels buried deep in a pile of straw.
Thankfully, however, I wasn’t really anywhere near Monte Carlo, but in the less glamorous surroundings of an industrial estate in Surrey. I had travelled there to meet Alastair McLeod, whose lifelong passion for Formula One has led him to create what must be the ultimate distraction for any fan of historic motorsport – an uncannily realistic racing-car simulator that enables users to “drive” any one of around 400 competition cars dating right back to the 1930s on any Formula One circuit in the world.
Racing-car simulators are, of course, nothing new. But what makes McLeod’s so different is that it beautifully captures that golden era of motorsport, during which, as they say, “sex was safe and racing was dangerous” – a time when the cars were raw and uncompromising and gears had to be changed by dipping a clutch and throwing a lever instead of merely fingering an electronic shifter. The most obvious and striking feature of McLeod’s creation is that drivers sit in a superb replica of a 1960s racing-car monocoque, complete with fully operational brake, clutch and throttle pedals, a gated gearshift and an almost eerily realistic steering system.
McLeod launched Classic Race Simulators at the end of last year, having returned from working as a property developer in Mallorca, where he had rigged up a makeshift simulator at his office desk. A highly skilled and experienced builder of scale models, he then decided to make the set-up more real by constructing a near-exact replica of a 1967 racing-car cockpit from glass fibre, which he then painted and liveried in period style.
“Initially I just wanted to build something to use myself – but then I had the idea that other people might appreciate that they are both attractive to look at and lend an extra realism to the race-simulator experience,” says McLeod. “I made a couple of examples and took them to the Autosport International show in Birmingham at the beginning of this year. Not only did we win an award for the best stand, but I discovered that people who race real historic cars as a hobby have been looking for something like this for years. As well as simply being good fun, the devices enable them to practise in a situation that closely resembles, for example, being in a classic Grand Prix car – and, when they’re not in use, they can be wheeled to the edge of the room and stood on end to serve as a good-looking piece of automobile.”
In its most basic form, one of McLeod’s “tubs” costs £2,995 and is sold as a pod with mirrors, driver’s seat and windscreen, together with a mounting kit for the gearshift and steering wheel. Buyers then add their own screens, computer and software. But for £5,950, McLeod will supply the simulator body together with a custom surround-sound system, three 23in monitors, the gearbox shifter, Logitech G27 steering wheel, control pedals and a PC programmed with the most essential ingredient of all – the rFactor 2 historic race-simulator software made by Image Space Incorporated. Beyond that, it is possible to commission a bespoke package that could include the tailor-made tub of your choice finished in any livery you desire, together with even more sophisticated monitor and audio systems.
I tried the second option, and it is difficult to convey just how remarkably realistic this complete “off the shelf” package feels, right down to the fact that driving a 1950s Mercedes Formula One car requires a completely different technique to driving a Lola endurance racer, just as it would in real life. Every input from the driver results in an almost instant response from the simulator – be that a fluffed gear change, an overzealous stab of the brakes or an excess of engine revs – and any attempt at making a fast lap on cold tyres quickly ends in a spin, just like in a proper racing car. The result is that, within a few seconds of climbing into the accurately snug cockpit, there’s a feeling that you really could be dicing with the likes of Graham Hill and Jackie Stewart in one of the epic battles of the 1960s or 1970s.
Each circuit represents an exact replica of the real thing in terms of length and layout, and superb attention has been paid to the detail of the graphics. So much so that the cheering crowds are dressed in correct period attire and the buildings are just as they would have been at the time of the race. During my first lap of the Monaco circuit, I was startled to have the steering wheel almost torn from my hands as the “car” hit an asphalt-covered wooden ramp somewhere near Tabac corner – a makeshift feature that was used to connect two levels of the circuit in the days when it crossed over a set of stone steps.
What it really felt like to race an F1 car back in 1966 I’ll never truly know – but McLeod’s remarkable simulators must be the next best thing to travelling in a Grand Prix time machine.