By Mike Garrison
Welcome to LiveRC's weekly column, "Talk-It-Up Tuesday!" Here we spend a little time talking with industry icons including racers, manufacturers, team managers, developers, promoters, and everyone in between! Sit back, relax, and go behind the scenes as we interview them all!
Simulator racing, training, and just for fun playing has become more and more popular over the years a wide range of motorsports. iRacing is perhaps the most popular in full-scale car racing, MX Simulator the most popular in motocross racing, and VRC Pro is without a doubt the most popular in R/C car racing at this time. VRC Pro has nearly 185,000 members playing from around the world. Some of which are purely playing for fun, others are training to fine tune their skills and practice away from the track. Is it coincidence that rising star Tom Rinderknecht has recently become an avid VRC Pro player, was crowned a VRC World Champion in late 2017, and has now has successfully made his first real-life National Championship A-Main this past weekend - or is his time spent behind the virtual wheel paying off?
We sit down with the mastermind behind VRC Pro, co-inventor of the original AMB Timing System, and one of the founders of Serpent R/C cars - the one and only Pieter Bervoets.
LiveRC: Welcome Pieter to “Talk It Up Tuesday,” we appreciate you joining us! Many know you as one of the masterminds behind the VRC Pro Simulator, however, you have played many roles in R/C car racing over the years. Tell us how you got started in R/C car racing, and your different jobs in the industry?
Pieter: That’s a long story, but I will try to keep it short. I started r/c cars back in 1972, bought my first and only car back then, a Kyosho. The radio set was a kit which my younger brother Fons had soldered together and much to our surprise: it worked. The cars in those days were very primitive so I started making my own stuff. In 1979 I started Serpent Model Racing Cars, became European Champion in 1:8 sportscars in ’79, ’80 and ’81 and made 3 WC Finals until 1985. Early 80-tees I worked with my little brother Fons on the AMB timing system which came on the market in 1983, in 2005 AMB became the Mylaps brand. By the way, AMB went on to develop their transponder system for F1, Indy, Le Mans, MotoGP etc., a very successful company. Unfortunately I was only involved at the very beginning because my focus was on manufacturing r/c cars…
(Photo courtesy of Classic.RC-Junkies.net)
LiveRC: When was VRC first released, and what inspired the creation of the VRC Pro simulator?
Pieter: In 2002 we release VRC v1, which was kind of a 2D game. The whole idea of doing a sim was to give people a hands-on r/c experience at trade shows. For most driving an r/c car for the first time is a very frustrating experience so this was a good first easy step. We had also developed an interface, so you could hook up your transmitter to a computer.
In 2003 we released v3 which was a 2 1/2D version of the game with a more realistic cars and tracks, but no special physics. We also released our first USB adaptor. This game was sold by Kyosho worldwide and by Horizon in the US and Canada.
In 2005 we started development of VRC v4 which should become a proper 3D game with real physics. I thought it would take us 2 max 3 years, but it turned out we needed 6 years before we could finally release it end of 2011. It was just 1:8 and 1:10 nitro on-road. Other classes were added later.
LiveRC: Obviously there are a lot of brilliant individuals working behind the scenes at VRC Pro. Who are some of the others that have worked hard to develop the simulator?
Pieter: We have developed everything ourselves, the whole game architecture, the graphics engine and the phyiscs engine. We had a team of 9 developers working on VRC for 6 years! About the physics engine, this was a special project headed by Todd Wasson from the US. We had to start from scratch because only the very basic car physics principles apply to r/c cars. Todd consulted a lot with Michael Salven who was my head engineer in Serpent to understand the specific r/c chassis dynamics. And don’t forget, no data available so we had to do everything ourselves, including equipping r/c cars with dataloggers to measure acceleration, cornering speeds etc., engine and motor dyno’s, windtunnel tests, differential tests etc. We even built our own tire testing rig to find out the characteristics of foam tires, and later rubber on- and off-road tires. No one has ever done this before and probably still hasn’t been done till this date, very complex stuff. Todd worked very closely with a real tire expert Dough Milliken for these tests to develop his tire model. Just to give you an idea of the complexity, the tire model uses over 50 parameters! Instrumental to the success of the development of VRC v4 were the real-life testers like Michael, Renee Cornella and Julius Kolff.
LiveRC: Over the years VRC has changed a lot, and now includes 1/8 Nitro and Electric Buggies, 4wd Short Course Trucks, a VRC specific Rally X class, and many others. Is there plans to continue adding more classes in the future such as 1/10 scale off-road or Formula 1 on-road?
Pieter: Unfortunately the development of VRC was halted when Todd Wasson decided to leave the team in 2015. This meant that the physics engine became a closed box so all new classes need to be reasonable close to what we already did before in order to work with these physics. We were able to rease electric 1:8 buggies, 1:8 rally electric cars and 1:8 nitro GT3 onroad in the past 3 years without touching the phyiscs, just configuring the parameters of chassis, tires and engines differently. Doing the 3D models is not the problem, but for example the whole suspension also needs to be configured in the chassis parameters because that’s what the physics engine works with for chassis handling!
LiveRC: Do you ever have time to sit down and play VRC yourself? If so, what class is your personal favorite?
Pieter: To be honest, I hardly every race my self, I jump in and out frequently to test certain things of the game, a track or a chassis. So on average I spend an hour or so on the track but no focus on actually racing the car. We have a lot of ex r/c racers in VRC, also of my age (I am 69 now) and they are fast and having a ball! Maybe one day I will join them. With my on-road background I still feel most comfortable with 1:8 nitro onroad, but enjoy off-road too. This was really an eye-opener to me, how different off-road is. Very challenging!
By the way, we have racers (especially over 60) who have raced over 160.000 km or 100.000 miles in VRC, that is 4 times around the world. Makes me proud that we have been able to achieve such a level of realism that people go that distance in a sim…
LiveRC: Several weeks back we asked viewers during a Monday Morning Poll if they felt video games and simulators helped their real-life R/C racing abilities. 68% of the viewers said “YES”. Who are some of the top drivers in our sport that you know of who use VRC Pro to help practice and train for their real-life racing?
Pieter: This unfortunately is a very underestimated part of r/c racing. It is very hard to reach a level where you start enjoying r/c racing, I would argue that 80% who start with r/c racing drop out after 1 or 2 years. Frustrated with being too slow, high cost for repairs etc. For a helicopter or an airplane everyone understands that you should start with a sim to get the basic feel for flying a helicopter or an airplane, because when you crash it’s game over. For r/c cars this awareness is just not there, but in many ways learning to drive r/c cars is more difficult because of the boundaries which you don’t have in the air.
VRC can really help to get you going in r/c, learn to control the car, slowly improve lap times and consistency, start to play with setup and understand what these changes do to your car. You can really feel the differences in setup in VRC, just like on the real track! And when you have overcome all these hurdles without spending a dime or a second on repairs, you can join the online competitions. In most cases you race against the clock, like in qualifying. The intensity is as high as in the real world, you get the same rush when you are on the edge on a very track, believe me!
We have seen many top-level racers in VRC Pro, David Ronnefalk, Tom Rinderknecht, Martin Wollanka, Ronald Volker to name just a few.
LiveRC: VRC allows racers around the world to compete against each other on some of the most famous race tracks on the planet. How long does it take to take these real-life tracks and accurately re-create them within the simulator?
Pieter: The first tracks we did were the on-road tracks, I collected the data and took pictures and video myself knowing what Tony West needed to create the 3D model of the track. I also did some of the first off-road tracks myself, but later on we relied more and more on track owners to provide this data. We have also worked with r/c portals like Neobuggy, RedRC and I believe also LiveRC to provide this data to us, I am very grateful for that. Tony, who lived in Thailand for several years has travelled to the Pattaya track himself, and also to C-Netic to collect all this data himself.
It depends on the quality of the data we get, but usually it takes Tony 4-6 weeks to do a new track, and then another 8 weeks for implementing and testing the track. We have a group of beta testers who help with that.
LiveRC: How does a track get selected to be featured in VRC Pro?
Pieter: We get many requests for tracks but as it is very expensive to create a track we need to be very selective. We usually go only for tracks with a very high international reputation, like having organized an IFMAR Worlds.
LiveRC: Within VRC Pro users can create their own events and clubs, however, this is also an official VRC series for each class and a yearly World Championship in each class. Can anyone participate in these events, and do they cost money to enter?
Pieter: Sure, even our ‘Free2Play’ members can participate, they have access to the spec version of all the classes we race, and we have configured our classes in such a way that they can participate in both the spec and the modified classes. Modified can of course not race in spec class. If you want access to all cars, spec and modified, and all tacks, you should get an All-Inclusive license. When you sign up and buy the adaptor you get 1 month all-inclusive for free, you can purchase also 3, 6 and 12 months periods and the Lifetime, best deal of course.
LiveRC: Who is currently the winningest driver of all-time in VRC Pro history?
Pieter: Probably Martin Wollanka from Austria, he is an onroad and offroad expert. He races all classes and has won over 10 World championships, don’t know exactly how many.
LiveRC: What is the most exciting race you have witnessed in VRC Pro history?
Pieter: We have many close finishes, like top-3 within a second, but the last nitro buggy race at Psycho Nitro Blast 2012 beat them all, top-3 with 0.04 seconds. That must have been the closest finish every We have a video of that race commented by Mike Garrison in our YouTube channel at https://www.youtube.com/user/VRCPromotion
LiveRC: We know you guys are always working hard to improve, expand, and grow VRC. Can you share with us any sneak peeks or hints at what might be currently in the works or coming soon?
Pieter: As I explained earlier on, with the freezing of the physics engine we are limited to what we can do. With it also game development has been limited to just maintenance and bug fixing when necessary. Of course you can go on and on with development but unfortunately the member growth doesn’t justify continuing this. We have 12 classes right now and over 90 tracks, that should be enough to spend good time on this sim. I regret we never did the 1:10 buggies but this class would most likely require expansion and adjustments of the physics engine, which isn’t possible. Therefore, it’s very unlikely we will see a completely new class in VRC.
We are working on a new Ladder competition concept, basically we will create such a competition for each of the classes, the ladder will develop over time and you can challenge a racer that is higher on the ladder. When you beat him you move up on the ladder. Here is the trick. We could do this with our multi-player technology, but as VRC is a world-wide platform time is the issue, it is virtually impossible to challenage someone who is in a completely different time zone. So we use the replay file of the opponent you are challenging (actually his run that got him in that position on the ladder), and you are racing against that replay run. We call this technology ‘time shifted multi-player’. At least it solves the time zone issue… We think this will be an exciting new format for our members! (185.000 plus by the way…)
LiveRC: For those who anxious to start playing – what is required, how much does it cost, and where can they download VRC Pro?
Pieter: What you need is a decent PC with a good gaming or video card. The faster the better. You also need a good size monitor, 24” or so is perfect. I have an ultrawide screen 3340x1440, ideal because it gives you good view in front of the car! Then all you need is download the software from www.vrcpro.com, get a VRC USB adaptor (essential to use your own radio in the sim) and you are ready to go!
LiveRC: Thank you so much for joining us today Pieter! You guys have done a fantastic job of creating a real-life simulator for R/C enthusiasts to enjoy around the globe. Is there anything you would like to add before we go?
Pieter: I think we have covered quite a lot ground in this interview. I appreciate the opportunity to explain a bit about my background and V(irtual) RC Racing to your readers. Hope it will encourage many of them to give it a go. Like in real r/c it takes a bit of time to adjust yourself to it. But once you get the hang of it you’re hooked and you may be on your way to 100.000 virtual miles in VRC.