Sarel van der Merwe is, arguably, South Africa’s most famous racing driver. Supervan is still a household name nearly two decades after retiring from competition driving. The lanky Capetonian has won multiple titles on tar and dirt in SA and raced on some of the biggest international stages, including the 24 Hours of Le Mans over the course of his thirty year career. He’s also not averse to the odd sim race here and there as he explains in his latest column: My Sim Racing Experience.
It’s not as if e-sports and gaming tournaments weren’t already extremely popular and growing at a rapid rate when, as a result of the alarming rate of Covid-19 infections around the world, governments and sporting bodies made the decision that sports events were not essential activities. Motorsport, along with many other sporting codes, was put on the backburner for the first half of 2020, with no end in sight for the global lockdown.
It was supremely fitting then, that some of the younger generation racers took to their simulators at home, or at the office and held races online. To the delight of racing gamers and motorsports fans alike, real driving heroes from different categories were vying for wins alongside e-racing’s elite.
Despite being officially retired for nearly two decades now, Van der Merwe is still being invited to prestigious events all around the world, some at tracks that he’s never raced on before. So, for South Africa’s most-famous motorsport personality being able to use a simulator to familiarise himself with a couple of them is quite nifty. He also recently participated in a round of the local championship hosted by Western Province Sports and GT iRacing League at the Road America circuit, on a serious motion racing rig built by sim-racing stalwart Len Gerber.
What’s the biggest challenge for a real racing driver on a simulator?
Sarel van der Merwe: Well it’s not that difficult, and the only real difference is that guys who compete in these sim racing championships obviously know that they can’t die behind the wheel when competing, and I still drove with the outlook that my life can be snuffed out with one wrong move, and tried to avoid collisions and so on.
Some of these competitors crash and carry on, or they press a button and then they’re back in the pits. They are off again within a second with repairs that would usually take an hour in real life. From that point of view, its not the same as real racing, though everything else is essentially the same.
Was this your first time behind the wheel of a sim rig?
SvdM: I actually used one of Len’s set-ups previously, about two or three years ago, to get used to the layouts of the Autodromo Internazionale Enzo e Dino Ferrari (known colloquially as Imola – Ed) and Misano World Circuit before taking part in races at both tracks. I put in quite a lot of laps on the simulator and when I got there it was exactly the same thing.
Did anything like this exist when you retired from motorsport?
SvdM: Well, no. You know the Formula 1 teams, for instance have systems like these rigged up in proper racecars and the drivers put in thousands of laps before heading to a new track. Even if it’s a new track, they know exactly to expect when they get there. These things are so sophisticated that you can expect very nearly the same thing on track as you do on the simulator with regards to the bumps and things.
Having said that, it takes away a lot of the natural talent of a racer because now a driver can sit for hours and not risk ‘killing’ himself spending hours getting faster at one location. But it is definitely a wonderful invention and essential to have because nowadays everyone else has one and you risk being left behind if you show up with no experience.
What are the forces on your body like?
SvdM: It depends on the set-up, but the only body parts that work are your arms, because the steering can get quite realistic. But you basically just sit there and there are no G-forces that tire you out.
What does the future hold for sim racing looking from the outside in?
SvdM: The people who are involved at the moment will make sure it carries on. A lot of these guys are ‘wannabe’ racing drivers essentially who, maybe don’t have the funds to go racing for a season or three, but they’re still experiencing the thrill of racing. I don’t think it will die down, and it will only probably get bigger.
Sarel will be in action again at the South African Endurance Series 9 hour at the Killarney International Raceway on 5 December.
Double Apex went to visit the owner and builder of the racing rigs Sarel used to prepare for his international races and recent virtual event. You can read about the incredibly sophisticated machinery in an upcoming installment.