December 19th, 2010 by DavidP
I’m living a motorsports fan’s dream: Watching a race at Spa-Francorchamps from the window of my room at Auberge de la Source, the picturesque country inn overlooking the La Source hairpin which, of course, takes its name from the adjacent establishment.
The amazing thing is that I’m actually nearly 4,000 miles west of Francorchamps, Belgium, in the office of Greg Hill, iRacing.com vice President of art and production. Greg is giving me a preview of the latest addition to the online racing service’s catalogue of virtual race tracks, legendary Circuit Spa-Francorchamps, set for release to iRacing’s membership on December 21.
We’ve taken a virtual tour of the majestic circuit as it sweeps up hill and down dale for 4.3 miles through the Ardennes Forest. Eau Rouge. Les Combes. Malmedy. Pouhon. Stavelot. Blanchimont. Names steeped in the lore of grand prix, sports and touring car racing. But for all of Spa’s history, I keep returning to the fact that iRacing members will be able to view online racing from a second floor window of Auberge de la Source.
There is, of course, a practical reason why iRacing’s designers and artists went to the trouble to create the old inn, along with dozens of other buildings in and around the circuit. For in addition to competing in their virtual cars on exacting digital replicas of the world’s fabled race tracks, many iRacing members record their races, watch the playbacks and, in some cases, post them on YouTube.
“When we’re done creating what the driver sees,” Hill explains, “we do the spectator areas because we offer so many camera angles within our simulation. We go to all those viewpoints and create panoramic shots of what the spectator would see. So when we broadcast races or members record them, it’s similar to what you would see on TV.”
Think of it this way: if iRacing invests the time and energy to make it possible to watch races from Auberge de la Source, imagine the resources that went into creating the precise curves, gradients and road and curb surfaces of the race track itself. It’s a painstaking process, one that spanned six months from the time a crew headed by iRacing Laser Scan Project Manager Dave Moulthrop arrived in Belgium to next week’s release of the virtual track.
The fact that Spa-Francorchamps is the longest track yet created by iRacing contributed to that lengthy development process. But it was hardly the only factor.
“Spa was a huge project,” says Hill. “It’s the longest single-configuration track we have. The tall pines of the Ardennes Forest flanking the track are different than those at the American tracks we’ve done. So we had to create some new tree types. Then there’s the terrain at Spa. There’s hardly a level surface anywhere. It’s very mountainous and complex, which always adds time.
“And the paddock . . . there are so many objects stuffed in there, and the architecture is a mixture of new, classical, old; stone houses and barns, aluminum. Most new tracks have a kind of vanilla architecture – brick walls over and over again.
At Spa every object is so different.”
As well, the scanners, graphic artists and software engineers worked with a new process at Spa, one enabling them to improve on the industry-leading authenticity of its tracks. As with all of the iRacing tracks, the Spa “build” began when Moulthrop & Co. painstakingly laser scanned every inch of the track from the driver’s perspective. Next they augmented the laser scans with tens of thousands of photographs, capturing the textures and colors of road side objects like billboards, tire barriers, curbs and grass verges.
However, like most tracks, Spa is in use virtually every day of the summer, if not for races and testing, then for driver schools, track days and other revenue-producing activities that keep the facility in the black, so to speak. Thus Moulthrop & Co. were forced to do most of their work “after hours” – as in after dark or the fading light of evening. Hardly an ideal recipe for accurately capturing subtle textures and colors. But the recipe changed at Spa.
“In the past, the guys would take a bunch of pictures and then we would come back and try to determine the textures,” says iRacing software engineer Shawn Nash, “There’s no science to that; it’s pure art. At Spa we began using a method to collect textures with a reference in each photograph so that we can later calibrate how reflective the material is.
“We also used light meters to collect information about ambient light levels and direct sunlight levels with the sun at different positions and with different amounts of cloud cover.
So the lighting is more calibrated and the track is the most accurate we’ve ever done – not just physically but visually.”
What’s more, the best is yet to come. The calibration process will enable Hill, Moulthrop, Nash and their colleagues to dramatically enhance the realism of future iRacing tracks.
“In the past we’ve worked within a limited dynamic range; the darks haven’t been as dark as they should be, the brights haven’t been as bright as they should be because we didn’t have a way to encode the data,” Nash continues. “Now we have features with accurate reflectivity and lighting that’s real values; we’re putting-out lighting levels that you can’t even display on a computer monitor because the monitor doesn’t get bright enough. You know how when you’re driving your car the sun hurts your eyes? That never happens on a computer screen, does it?
“So we have all that information – the data to make it as bright as the sun – so now we can start doing effects based on that to trick your mind into thinking that it’s hurting your eyes.”
To be clear, iRacers won’t need a pair of sunglasses (or a tinted visor) to race at Spa. But the Circuit Spa-Francorchamps that will be available on December 21 is the most accurate — visually as well as physically — yet produced by iRacing.com, From Virage de la Source to Auberge de la Source. Take it from one who knows the track . . . intimately.
“I went to my first dirt track race when I was 8 years old, so I’ve been around racing for about 50 years,” says Moulthrop. “When you go to these places full of racing history that you always thought about as a kid, and now you have the opportunity to replicate it; to know you’re going to spend nine days at Spa-Francorchamps and when you leave, you’re going to know Spa better than just about anybody else because you’ve captured every nook and cranny. That’s very satisfying.”