Q&A: Michelin engineer Andrew Simrell on virtual IMSA racing with Risi Ferrari

June 16, 2020

Q&A: Michelin engineer Andrew Simrell on virtual IMSA racing with Risi Ferrari

June 16, 2020

Michelin tire engineers and their IMSA race teams enjoy a tightly knit closed loop feedback. And during this period without real world racing, that relationship has extended to the virtual world.

Andrew Simrell with Risi’s Anna Lenzi. Photo: Risi Competizione

Andrew Simrell is Senior Subjective Test Driver at Michelin’s Laurens Proving Grounds. He’s also a Michelin motorsport tire specialist, who has primarily worked with Ferrari GT teams in IMSA.

His race-winning skills have been on display for years, and most recently occurred at the 2019 Motul Petit Le Mans. There, Risi Competizione Ferrari scored a popular season-ending win at Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta.

Ahead of the final IMSA iRacing Pro Series event at Watkins Glen International last week, Simrell had a chance to trade his day job for a seat behind the wheel of the virtual No. 82 Ferrari 488 GTE.

Here’s his take on the experience:

How did the opportunity arise to drive the Risi Ferrari in this Watkins Glen race?
Risi Competizione engineer Rick Mayer with Simrell (far left) and another Michelin motorsport tire specialist at a February 2018 test in Sebring. Photo: Michelin North America

“I have supported Risi over the last several years, and I reached out to their head engineer, Rick Mayer, after the virtual VIR race to see how the team and drivers were working together to setup and race the Ferrari. So I offered to help improve the setup for Watkins Glen (which was 2 weeks away).

“I became their primary virtual test driver by using my home simulator rig to test setup changes at least a couple hours every day. We treated this like serious real life track testing, by making 1 chassis change at a time, running 4 timed laps, and reporting lap times and subjective feedback.

“After a week of testing, one of Risi’s drivers (Joel Miller) had a conflict that would not allow him to participate in the Watkins Glen race. So, Rick asked if I was interested in racing for them. Of course, I said yes. Not only would I be racing the virtual Risi Ferrari, but it also had a Michelin livery!”

What was your level of interaction with the team/engineer and/or other drivers Jules Gounon and Matt Griffin?
Classic “Rosso Corsa” red adorned the No. 62 Ferrari 488 GTE at Watkins Glen, while Michelin adorned the other two cars. Photo: Risi Competizione

“Building from the last question, once I was confirmed to race for Risi, the daily communication with Rick expanded to include Jules, Matt, and 2 others in the Risi crew. Jules also ran though chassis setup changes for qualifying and then provided data from his best lap that I was able to compare to my own. This helped me improve my laptime in 2 key areas.

“We then started testing long run setups for tire degradation, balance, drivability and fuel consumption at varying track temperatures. I drove 9 long runs of between half and full stints leading up to the race, as we honed in on the final race setups.”

How much sim racing experience did you have coming in?

“I joined iRacing when it first launched in 2008 and put together my home sim rig. I credit all the hours racing on my home rig in 2008-’09 for improving my driving skills in a way that helped me land a full time job as a Michelin Subjective Test Driver in 2010.

“Since then, I’ve continued training on iRacing using a simulator we installed at Michelin Laurens Proving Grounds. We use it primarily for track familiarization before tire testing and events at race tracks around the country. I had not actually raced against others in iRacing much in several years until finding myself at home more during the current crisis.”

Is there anything you can take from sim driving/racing to apply to your real world duties as test driver/motorsport tire specialist? If so, what?

“There are a few very clear benefits of sim driving/racing that apply directly to test driving and trackside support:

  • “Learning the intricacies of each laser-scanned race track is hugely beneficial to tire testing on the same real life track, and track familiarity is also very useful while discussing race tire performance with racing drivers and engineers in the Motorsport Tire Specialist role.
  • “I mentioned that sim driving improved my real life car control skills, and specifically it improved the speed and accuracy of my steering corrections while driving a car at the limit.
  • “Driver-in-the-loop simulators are being used more and more in the automotive industry to improve the efficiency of automobile and tire development, and so, simulator driving proficiency is becoming a key target for Michelin test drivers.
  • “Driving consistently and quickly in the sim requires even more mental focus than real life, and so the recent intense testing with Risi might help my mental focus for tire testing.”
Is there much “feel” in the tires in iRacing? How did you notice the tire evolution over a stint?
The No. 89 Ferrari 488 GTE driven by Jules Gounon, at virtual VIR in the IMSA iRacing Pro Series event presented by Michelin. The Oak Tree lives virtually, at least. Photo: iRacing/LAT

“The feel of the tires in iRacing comes in the form of the grip level, warmup, and degradation due to tread temperature, inflation pressure, and wear. Initially, it takes some time to generate enough tire temperature for proper grip levels.

“Also, it is very easy to overdrive the virtual tires, generating excessive temperature, and thus reducing grip and increasing wear. Over a stint in iRacing, it is important to have a chassis setup and driving style that minimizes the tire degradation, which is pretty similar to real life racing.”

You usually view a race from pit lane and the tire workshop. How different was it to be behind the wheel and be in the race?

“It was really an interesting experience to be behind the wheel of the virtual Ferrari, while in contact with my spotter and the Risi crew over a headset. I was told information on pit windows, fuel consumption, relative race pace and position that I’m so used to hearing communicated to racing drivers. It was almost a surreal experience after so many years watching from pitlane.”

Qualifying seemed impressive. What happened in the first lap/first turn that caught you out and forced you into a comeback drive?
Qualifying 29th in a 46-car field, ahead of many full-time pro drivers and within 0.2 of teammate Griffin, was a very solid effort. Photo: iRacing/LAT

“I was reasonably happy with qualifying. You only get 2 laps, and cannot have any off-track incidents. So, my strategy was to set a conservative lap 1 and push harder on lap 2. I managed 0.2s slower than my best lap time, and was just 3 spots behind my teammate Matt Griffin. 

“Going into the race, I was always concerned about possible chaos on the first lap, while the tires are cold and race drivers aggressive. That’s exactly what happened. I drove towards a flipping car and others sliding to avoid it while entering the high speed esses.

“I was one of several cars caught up in this big wreck. So I had to limp back to the pits for a repair. This put me immediately out of top contention, but we kept pushing all race and outlast some other cars. I have to give a big thanks to my spotter, fellow Michelin test driver Tim Spencer, who guided me throughout the race.”

What was your top highlight from this experience?

“My top highlight was representing Risi, Ferrari, and Michelin in a pro race!”

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