Max Verstappen isn’t even old enough to rent a car in the United States, but he’s a remarkably distinguished auto racer: Verstappen is the youngest driver to compete in Formula One (F1) racing, the youngest driver to lead a lap during a Formula One Grand Prix, the youngest driver to set the fastest lap during a Formula One Grand Prix, and the youngest Formula One Grand Prix winner in history—among a slew of similar “firsts.”
In a sport where winning—and even just survival—hinges on maintaining razor shape reflexes, muscle memory, and situational awareness, any significant time spent away from the track is a major threat.
That being the case, COVID-19 could have been disastrous for Verstappen and other drivers: In the interest of public health, a quarter of the F1 racing season has already been postponed or cancelled.
Instead, these top-tier competitors are using the time away from the track to sharpen their driving skills without stepping out of their homes.
The Role of Driver Simulation During a Pandemic
Like many racers, Verstappen got his start early (he’s been karting since he was just four years old largely set aside sim racing (and similar immersive video games) when he began driving in Formula One races. “I like sim racing,” he’s explained, “but I love real racing more.” This love of being behind the wheel made the COVID-19 shutdown especially “Of course it was boring,” Verstappen notes, “but I’ve done a lot of races in the simulator at home.… To be fast you need time [in the sim]. In the first two or three weeks, I trained six to eight hours a day.”
He’s far from alone. Andrew Tang (a fellow formula car racer) has likewise been spending hours in his sim. “I’ve tried to keep sharp using the simulator and it’s pretty good because the simulators are quite developed although it’s not exactly like what you’d experience in a real car.… When you don’t have much choice, it’s really the closest thing you can do.”
Christian Ho (a noted young Singaporean karting champ) believes working in a sim may actually be better for zeroing in on driving skills: “The simulator is much harder to drive and control because you don’t get the same level of adrenaline and you can’t feel the car as much as in real life… I do think that the simulator can help me to improve my racecraft.”
Verstappen might agree. He’s noted, “I think my form is already better than it was then in Australia.” (Verstappen was in Australia, primed to race in the first Grand Prix of the 2020 F1 season when races—including that season opener—began to be cancelled due to the pandemic.)
Where F1 and Mass Transit Meet
No one will ever mistake a revenue route for a Formula One track—but the cognitive demands, while of different intensity, are fundamentally the same. Pro racers’ opinion—that while the sim is no replacement for time behind the wheel, it is an excellent tool for focused skill improvement—echoes what we regularly hear from transit operators and trainers. As one transit operator put it, “it makes you a lot more aware of what’s going on,…it teaches you to be more aware by raising your hazard awareness.”
Many transit agencies are running at much-reduced capacity. If you have drivers sidelined or not driving as much as before, this is the perfect time to get them back in the simulator—not just maintaining skills, but sharpening them.