Advancing technology blurs the line between virtual and real-world driving as today’s champions practice on television screens.
When I suggested to Kazunori Yamauchi — creator of the “Gran Turismo” video game — that he codrive with me in his first ever “real world” race, a one-hour Mazda MX-5 endurance event at Tsukuba Circuit in Ibaraki Prefecture in 2006, he vacillated for a day or so. Despite being a very good driver, he said no one had ever invited him to join a real race before.
But getting Yamauchi into a racing car was a lot easier than what he went through to get his game off the ground. “Understandably, I hit a few brick walls in the beginning,” he says.
Back in 1997, Yamauchi approached carmakers for permission to include their models in a driving-simulator game that mimicked real-world driving — only to be turned away. Eventually, though, Toyota, Aston Martin and a couple of other similarly visionary companies gave the nod to the pilot version of the game.
A decade on, Yamauchi continually works to make each update of the game more realistic, winning the admiration of not only millions of game players around the world but also real-world professional drivers.
Take the reigning World Rally champion, Frenchman Sebastien Loeb, for one. He spent a day in front of a Playstation console running “Gran Turismo 4” before qualifying for the famed Le Mans 24-hour Sarthe circuit in France in 2005.
“It’s more than a game now,” Loeb told me a year ago. “It’s so precise that this ‘game’ has become a full-blown driving simulator, and just about every driver I know uses it for practice these days.”
Even Formula 1 racing drivers such as Toyota’s Jarno Trulli and BMW’s Kazuki Nakajima have been seen practicing in front of a console. Whenever a new track comes onto the racing calendar, like Fuji Speedway did last October after a 30-year absence, and drivers cannot get there to practice for real, many fire up “Gran Turismo.” They say it’s the only way to memorize the track layout and braking markers — the points where you must start killing the speed to take an upcoming corner.
As Loeb and these other seasoned race drivers readily testify, this game significantly blurs the line between the virtual world and reality, making it possible to drive quickly and safely on a real circuit on your first lap. But what about less gifted people like you and me? After sufficient time on “GT,” can a normal driver also make a smooth transition from the virtual world to the real one — where mistakes can be disastrous, or even fatal?
Yamauchi himself proved the point by driving an Audi TT at over 90 percent of its potential on his first-ever lap of the legendary 20-km Nurburgring track in Germany in 2005. “Not knowing a track like this one can be hazardous, not only to you but to the hundreds of other local track users who know the circuit a lot better than you,” he said.
Yamauchi got more than 1,000 virtual laps of the world-famous circuit under his belt while developing his game, “so knowing the track like the back of my hand made it easy,” he beamed. “But you’ll need to do over 100 laps just to memorize it. There are more than 170 corners, you know.”
Wanting to put his claims to the test, I too clocked up more than 150 laps of the Nurburgring on “Gran Turismo” before going to Germany to drive the real track last year. Those 150 virtual laps took around 24 hours to complete, but it was time well spent. Every corner of the real track in Germany felt uncannily familiar. Each detail, down to the Armco crash barriers and the castle on the hill, had been perfectly re-created in the game, and made me feel right at home.
As I accelerated through each corner, I became aware that my body was reacting to real stimuli that had become second nature in the game. Blind corners, apexes, braking markers and the fastest driving lines through the corners that had been programmed into my brain from a two-dimensional screen were suddenly approaching me in real life at 160 kph — and my memorized on-screen reactions were allowing me to drive my borrowed Subaru Impreza STI near the limit of its potential.
That’s the beauty of this game, oops, I mean driving simulator. Whether you’re hurtling along the Nurburgring, France’s Sarthe Circuit, California’s Laguna Seca race track or Japan’s Fuji Speedway, virtual practice sessions translate into quick, safe real-world laps. And we can expect the whole experience to get even better. Yamauchi has just launched “Gran Turismo 5 Prologue,” which allows players to drive online against opponents from all over the world on high-definition TVs. The only thing missing are the huge G-forces created when real cars corner at over 200 kph or brake heavily from 300 kph. Strengthen your neck muscles to withstand these and you too could be driving real race cars on real race tracks — after plenty of practice in the comfort of your lounge, of course.
And how did Yamauchi do in his first race driving the Mazda MX-5? Not bad at all. Having done more than 2,000 laps of the Tsukuba Circuit in his game, Yamauchi only needed a dozen laps of real-world driving before he was clocking the same times as the rest of the field — many of whom had been circling that track regularly for years. But then, as I mentioned, Yamauchi is a good driver. The same year, he was only 0.4 secs behind Loeb’s best Le Mans lap time when they battled it out on “Gran Turismo” at maker Polyphony Digital’s Tokyo headquarters.
Peter Lyon is a 20-year veteran motoring journalist who covers the Japanese automotive industry for more than a dozen publications worldwide.
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