Like a video game arcade on steroids, Motionators offers drivers the chance to experience the thrill of Formula 1 racing in a giant, lurching motion rig that simulates bumps, acceleration, deceleration and cornering G-forces – and crashes; very physical crashes, as the rather pedestrian Gizmag Race Team discovered. Thankfully we had budding US F2000 racer Scott Andrews on hand, who holds every lap record at the facility, to show us the way around Monaco.
Formula One simulators are no joke these days – and not just for PC gaming nuts. There are now harsh restrictions on Formula One teams limiting how much on-track testing they can do, so all the factories are pouring millions of dollars into incredibly realistic simulators that allow them to make changes to tires, aerodynamics and engine management systems and test them in the virtual world.
It's got to the point where Ferrari's president has labelled the no-testing rules "a joke" – they were put in place to keep costs down, but so much money is going into the simulators that it would actually be cheaper to take real cars out on track.
At the other end of the scale, PC games like rFactor are pushing to extreme lengths of dynamic realism, and spitting out enough information about vehicle physics to drive all sorts of home gaming rigs.
Not many people would have the dough to run one of these babies in their living room, though. Motionators, in Melbourne's Docklands precinct, has built three giant motion rigs, to the tune of AUD250,000 (US$235,000), to give racing fans the most realistic F1 experience possible.
Each rig features a realistic cockpit, a carbon fiber steering wheel festooned with all sorts of buttons, paddles and readouts, a three-projector, 180-degree wraparound screen, adjustable pedals and a communications system to link in to other players in a race situation.
But the real expense has gone into the motion platform. Each rig sits atop six struts, with each strut controlled by an electric motor, so the whole platform can be lifted, lowered, tilted, shaken and even slightly rotated in response to physics data coming out of rFactor.
The experience takes some getting used to – Motionators' co-founder Amir Masinovic tells us the general idea is to warm people up to it over the course of an hour or two, starting out with no motion and building up to ramp up the realism.
On the gas, the platform rocks back to push you back in your chair, and it nosedives hard when you slam on the brakes to throw you forward. Whipping the car into a corner tilts it sideways to give you the feel of sideways G-force loading, and every bump on the track slams your backside like a good firm set of suspension would in the real world.
"For the driver in the center of all that chaos," says Masinovic, "you'll see them fighting the forces of gravity and the motion system itself. It's an amazing sense of immersion."
With limited time and talent to test the system, the "Gizmag race team" focused most of its testing efforts on the crash physics, and I can report that running into walls certainly shakes you up physically. Spinning the car out is another intense experience that can really start making you feel woozy. I spent 15 minutes at the wheel with the motion settings turned up to maximum, and got out just about ready to hurl.
When you nail a corner, though, and gas it out, it feels fantastic. The system has been set up by Motionators' own "Stig" – Scott Andrews, a young Australian racer competing in the F2000 championship in the United States. Andrews has worked closely with Amir to tune the simulators to feel as close as possible to a real race car.
With rFactor being so sensitive to race car physics, it's been a useful training tool for Andrews in his developing racing career. He appreciates the small touches mortals like us wouldn't notice, such as the way that grip increases as you speed up and add downforce to the car, or the fact that you can get a little extra traction out of the spots where you've laid down some rubber on the road on a previous lap.
The main attraction is the motion feedback letting him know when he reaches the edge of traction and goes beyond it. That, and the ability to learn a track inside out, down to bumps and braking markers, before he ever sets foot on it.
Watching Andrews drive is … shall we say, slightly different to watching one of us at the wheel. His consistency and accuracy is astonishing – it's no fluke that he holds every lap record for every track in the Motionators database.
It's good fun, but serious business, too, for Andrews and the other real-life racers that use the Motionators facility as a substitute for expensive track time. "It keeps you driving on the limit," he tells us, "the more you're in the seat, the better you become. Unfortunately to be in the seat properly, it's very expensive. This is the next best thing, and it's about as realistic as you can get."
The Motionators experience isn't cheap, but it's a pretty stunning experience and probably the closest I'll ever get to the cockpit of a top class race car. And looking at how I performed in the simulator, that's no bad thing.