A qualified motorsport engineer and former racing driver himself, Alex Hodgkinson today is responsible for vehicle handling development and AI teaching at KW Studios, the company behind RaceRoom. We spoke to him about the differences between a real car and a simulation car, the biggest challenges in the development of simulation cars and his favorite cars and tracks.

“Data Is King”: Alex Hodgkinson on Vehicle Handling Development

A qualified motorsport engineer and former racing driver himself, Alex Hodgkinson today is responsible for vehicle handling development and AI teaching at KW Studios, the company behind RaceRoom. We spoke with him about the differences between a real car and a simulation car, the biggest challenges in the development of simulation cars and his favorite cars and tracks.

OverTake: Alex, what do you do exactly at KW Studios?

Alex Hodgkinson: I work mainly as a developer of vehicle handling and am responsible for “teaching” AI how to drive our cars and circuits. I make a point of saying it’s vehicle handling and not physics development, because what I do is more specific than general physics work. Physics don’t change, F = m × a will always be true! But how cars are put together and how detailed and accurate we can be about simulating, that is what we keep improving on.

OverTake: What is your professional background?

Alex Hodgkinson: I studied Motorsport Engineering at university, which is heavily maths based as you might expect, and built a good foundation for the work I do every day now. With that I worked with several racing teams in British Endurance series as race and data engineer.

Vehicle Handling Development: Alex Hodgkinson, KW Studios
Car handling developer for RaceRoom, qualified motorsport engineer and former racing driver: Alex Hodgkinson

OverTake: So you have had a motorsports career of your own before KW and RaceRoom?

Alex Hodgkinson: Yes, I had my own real racing career starting with karts from a very early age. I won a lot of stuff, but the one I am most proud of is probably the 2006 Long Circuit champion in England. Those are what are also known as superkarts – probably the fastest thing I’ve ever actually raced. After that junior single seaters for two seasons, followed by British Endurance Series. As well as a few races here and there in Cup series like MX5, MR2, Caterhams and a few others. Also been lucky enough to test a lot more. For eight years I also worked for the various circuit-based driving schools in England. Silverstone, Goodwood, Oulton Park, Donington, I’ve taught on every circuit here. Except for Croft – as I realised on a visit there last month I’d never been before!

Alex Hodgkinson raced in various Kart Series and won the Long Circuit Championship in England in 2006.
Alex Hodgkinson raced in various Kart Series and won the Long Circuit Championship in England in 2006.
Besides British Endurance and Cup Series, Alex Hodgkinson raced also Junior Single Seaters for two seasons.
Besides British Endurance and Cup Series, Alex Hodgkinson raced also Junior Single Seaters for two seasons.

OverTake: As an actual motorsports engineer who now is responsible for vehicle handling development in a racing sim, what are the most striking differences between a real car and a sim car?

Alex Hodgkinson: The biggest difference that comes to mind is the amount of tools you have on hand to play with. On a real car someone else has done the design work, set the anti-roll bar rates, weight distribution, inertia etc. So you inherit all that and you just have to work with it optimising everything. The sim world is the total opposite – it’s a sandbox where anything and everything can be changed. Depending on how good your relationship is with a contact, you may get some, even quite a lot of data to build up the picture. However, I’ve often found that the more you know, the more the unknowns can become puzzling.

Data is king. So before the work even starts, the most challenging thing is getting hold of all the relevant information.

Alex Hodgkinson, Developer at KW Studios

OverTake: How much did your education help you with your current job? What was unexpectedly more difficult and what was easier than expected due to your previous knowledge and experience?

Alex Hodgkinson: Massively – but not necessarily in a direct way. I can’t for example go through some university notes and find the answer to every question I’m stuck on. Although I have done that! I think what I am very lucky to be able to do is bring together the theory, maths, hands on work and driving experience to build a picture in a different way to others.

Vehicle Handling and Tyre Behavior are Alex Hodgkinsons key concerns when developing a sim car
Image credit: RaceRoom

I think what I’ve found trickiest is looking at tyre behaviour. Alluding to what I mentioned before about working on actual cars, you just deal with what you’ve got in the real world. You don’t spend hours looking at how tyres behave in different conditions because you can’t change that. All those guys tend to deal with is: What temperature do we need to be at? And: What pressures do we need to have when they’re warm? So it’s quite an abstract thing modeling tyres and people have dedicated their entire life to doing it accurately.

Now thankfully we have Thomas Jansen in our team. And as a brilliant mathematician he’s picked up this and runs with it. The soon-to-be updated tyre model is massivley down to his work.

Watch our video on the upcoming tyre model update for RaceRoom.

OverTake: What is the most challenging aspect in vehicle handling development?

Alex Hodgkinson: Data is king. So before the work even starts the most challenging thing is getting hold of all the relevant information. With the experience I now have you can start to imagine the character of the car even before you’ve driven the first laps with it.

OverTake: Is “realism” actually your goal when developing the handling model of sim cars?

Alex Hodgkinson: Yes, definitely that’s the end goal. With a vast majority of real cars they are actually quite easy and enjoyable to drive without them trying to kill you. They may get sharp when you start to try very hard, but what we really want is our skills learned in the sim to translate to the real world directly.

Vehicle Handling Development: Group C at Road America
Group C on the Nordschleife is Alex’s go-to car/track combo. Image credit: RaceRoom

OverTake: What do you think of ButtKickers, Vibration Mats, Motion Rigs, Seatbealt Tensioners etc.? Do they enhance your sim driving experience?

Alex Hodgkinson: I’m all for it! I don’t have a motion rig or any of those things at the moment. Although obviously we have TrackTime under the KW umbrella too, so I’m lucky enough to have tested our work out in the best of those. I think vibration and buttkickers are particularly nice as being in a real car is always noisy, lots of vibration. What I’d also wish for is a way to recreate the smell, that’d be something really cool.

What we really want is our skills learned in the sim to translate to the real world directly.

Alex Hodgkinson, Developer at KW Studios

OverTake: What do you personally like in sim racing? What are your favorite cars and tracks?

Alex Hodgkinson: If I could transport myself to any motorsport era it’d be the 1980s where Group C was king. I really pushed for us to include the cars we have, so they are my go-to. I absolutely love the Nordschleife and as it’s my go-to track I probably do 25-30 laps every single day of it.

OverTake: How do you think sim racing is going to change in the near future with more possibilities like more potent hardware, complex software, AI etc. entering the picture?

Alex Hodgkinson: I see constant evolution and improvement. I’m not sure a revolution is on the cards. Back when I started sim racing I was into IndyCar Racing 2 and GPL. We’ve basically got a direct lineage of evolution from that era, so presumably that will continue. What I’d love to see is more convergence and greater accuracy between the real world and what we are simulating. Everything we need to be able to jump from the cars in the sim to the real world and back without even having to think about it, that’s what I hope for. So better hardware and more accurate software for everyone, how’s that!

Vehicle Handling Development: Crosslé 90F
The Crosslé 90F (on Silverstone International) would be Alex’s recommendation for a newbie to experiencing sim racing in its essence. Image credit: RaceRoom

OverTake: If you had to pick one car and one track to recommend to a sim racing newbie, what would that be and why?

Alex Hodgkinson: I think our Crosslé 90F in it’s about-to-be-updated condition is the one to go for. It’s super reactive to inputs. If you do the right thing, it’ll reward you. But if you do it badly, you’ll end up in a mess. It won’t kill you though, you’ll live to tell the tale, but you’ll be in a cloud of smoke. It’s a great learner car. As for circuits, you want a bit of everything, but it doesn’t want to be too long and still easy to learn. I think Silverstone International is really underrated in that sense. Has absolutely nothing to do with the fact it was the first real circuit I ever drove on!

Find more about RaceRoom in our Games section or take a look at these articles:

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Cars, motorsports and racing games addict since 1974, I am constantly hunting for perfect authenticity and deepest immersion from the safety of my sim rig.