24 Hours of Le Mans. We tested the simulator that was used to develop the tires for hypercars


To create the tires for the new premier category of hypercars, Michelin relied on an ever more powerful tool: the simulator. State-of-the-art equipment that the French manufacturer let us try out at the premises of the AOTech company, in the Paris region.

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The argus had the chance to test one of the most sophisticated motorsport simulators in France: that of the company AOTech, in the Paris region.

AO Tech

Take the wheel of a 24 Hours of Le Mans hypercar? This is an opportunity hard to turn down. Apart from the professional pilots, few are those who have already had the opportunity to taste these prototypes. Signed Ferrari, Peugeot, Porsche or Toyota, these 680 hp cars represent the new queen category of Endurance. But beware of over-enthusiasm. It is not in the « real world » that Michelin offered us this rather special test. Here, no real circuit nearby. It is in a business park as there are dozens in the Paris region, in Essonne, that the meeting was fixed. Right from the reception hall, the presence of a former Lewis Hamilton GP2 single-seater nevertheless sets the tone. AOTech is closely linked to motorsport. It has one of the most sophisticated simulators in France, on which all drivers new to the 24 Hours of Le Mans must drive “virtually” before being able to set foot on the legendary Sarthe track for real. A tool that has also been used by Michelin to develop tires for new hypercars.

A simulator worth several hundred thousand euros

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Behind the simulator is the operating room.  An operator is in charge of managing the operation of the equipment while a second engineer collects the data obtained during driving to analyze them.

Behind the simulator is the control room. An operator is responsible for managing the operation of the equipment, while an engineer collects the data obtained during driving to analyze it.

AO Tech

So here we are far from a simple video game. Moreover, before taking place in this machine which cost several hundreds of thousands of euros, there is something to be impressed. A lightweight platform is mounted on huge jacks and topped with a tubular carbon frame. It can accommodate different cabins to reproduce various types of vehicles. For the occasion, it’s a real closed prototype cockpit that awaits us. The first difficulty therefore consists in contorting oneself to take place on board. I am then asked to put on my harness. It plays no role here for safety, but it is motorized to enhance immersion. The pressure is mounting… especially since I am the first of the journalists present that day to enter this “instrument of torture”. Just before, it was the professional driver Filipe Albuquerque, winner of the FIA ​​LMP2 Endurance trophy in 2019, who gave us a little demonstration. He chained the laps of Spa with total relaxation… until the engineers in charge of controlling the simulator imposed a really unrealistic track temperature on him. The virtual Michelin tires then went out of their normal operating window, and he ended up making a mistake.

Less beautiful than a recent video game

For my part, I hope to avoid this kind of « bad joke » and not to seem too ridiculous while riding after this top athlete. The three video projectors located above me light up to broadcast the image of the famous circuit of the Ardennes behind the windscreen, on a panoramic screen 5 m in diameter. The illusion of being at the wheel of a hypercar in Belgium is real… apart from two details. The sets, textures or lighting effects are far from equaling those of the most beautiful current video games, such as Gran Turismo 7 or the Forza saga. Blame it on a graphics engine that is the same age as the simulator, which has been in operation since 2015. However, AOTech has told us that it intends to switch to the much more modern Unity engine in the coming months. The other downside, more subjective, comes from the absence of virtual reality. A technology already used by many followers of « simracing », including yours truly, but still difficult to reconcile with the movements generated by the jacks. The risk of causing nausea would be too high… although we should already be wary of it in the current configuration, we have been warned!

Realistic and exhilarating sensations

It is therefore with caution that I make my first turns of the wheel. At first, my brain is a little taken aback by the lag between the weak movements of the platform and the rapid scrolling of the image on the screen. But he will quickly get used to it and allow me to increase the pace. It is true that the engineers were kind to us. The cylinders are far from operating at their maximum power, which would inflict up to 1.7 G. Forces quite sufficient to destabilize a non-regular, even if we remain far from what Formula 1 pilots can endure. That day, we will not even reach 1 G. The movements therefore remain rather soft and seem to me always natural. Nothing comparable with other simulators on more general public jacks that I could try, which had seemed to me in the exaggeration. In particular, AOTech limits the phenomena of plunging or rearing up of the platform during braking and acceleration. To simulate this aspect, the company prefers to use the motors of the harness to loosen or tighten it depending on the situation. It’s much less unpleasant and quite stunning.

Little by little, I find my bearings and my times are improving. I accelerate earlier and earlier, brake later and later and no longer hesitate to climb generously on certain curbs. The engineers installed in the control room just behind even encourage me to do even better. « Here it is all the way »they tell me on the radio, or  » brakes from the gate before the last chicane. For more immersion, the brake pedal is connected to a real hydraulic system and to a disc, even if it remains less communicative than in reality. The steering wheel is of the « direct drive » type: a powerful electric motor is responsible for creating force feedback without being disturbed by a system of belts. On this point, I don’t feel any real difference with the Simucube 2 Pro that I use at home, which is already very high-end equipment. On the other hand, I missed the jacks and the motorized harness more once back on my « living room simulator ». I would also have liked the experience to last a little longer than the meager three laps that were allocated to me.

A working tool for pilots

In the end, despite an improvement of several seconds at each crossing of the starting line, I still missed more than 6 seconds to be equal with Filipe Albuquerque. A hole ! For the Portuguese pilot, the simulator is much less fun than for the guest journalists. It is above all a work tool on which he spends more and more time. Actual test sessions, which are very expensive, are in fact now limited to a minimum by the regulations. Filipe Albuquerque explains:

What makes motorsport so charismatic and special is fear. You don’t feel that adrenaline in the simulator. I prefer real life. [….] The simulator is especially very good for creating a routine. You can know in which gear to pass the turns, have an idea of ​​the braking distances and test various aerodynamic downforce or suspension settings.

The virtual also has the advantage of being both less polluting and more economical than the real… even if the costs remain very high in absolute terms. The constantly evolving software and engineers needed to credibly run a facility like AOTech’s still cost far more than the hardware. In return, it is possible to go from Spa to Laguna Seca, in the United States, then to Suzuka, in Japan, in a few seconds. Or even to drive all year round on the great circuit of Le Mans, while it takes parts of the road which are open to traffic most of the time. All with a layout and surface reproduced as faithfully as possible thanks to a laser scan carried out beforehand on site. However, some elements, such as the evolution of the grip of the track as the cars pass, are still missing.

Racing tires developed without rolling!

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Michelin has very advanced digital tire models, which help it develop products for both road and racing.

Michelin has advanced digital tire models that help it develop products for both road and racing.


Pilots are not the only ones to use this increasingly sophisticated tool. Michelin has also used it to develop tires for new hypercars, a category of which it is the exclusive supplier. Erasers that had to be created when these prototypes did not yet exist and at a time when the planet was hit by the Covid-19 pandemic, which restricted travel. Matthieu Bonardel, director of competition at Michelin, says:

We no longer had the opportunity to test. In 2020, we were here. We then used our knowledge of tires and our ability to model them to develop everything virtually.

To succeed in this unprecedented challenge, the manufacturer has fortunately been able to count on a long experience of digital models. He prides himself on being able to simulate the behavior of tires better than anyone else, a mixture of materials that is much more complex than it seems. It was thus possible to test numerous technical solutions without having to travel the slightest kilometer in reality. And the result was convincing when the first real track tests were carried out at the wheel of a Toyota GR010. After this success, Michelin intends to go even further. The company has just acquired simulation software specialist Canopy Simulations. “They are the best to try to predict the ideal trajectory”, assures Matthieu Bonardel. This acquisition should make it possible to create a “virtual pilot”. This artificial intelligence will then be used to accomplish certain unexciting tasks, such as long stints, much faster and more efficiently than a real human would. A way to further reduce the development time of future tires, both for competition and for the series. However, there will always be a place for the real driver, the only one able to give his feelings. According to Matthieu Bonardel, it will simply become “the chef rather than the one who selects the ingredients”.



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