My First Lap for the Thousandth Time: A Gamer’s First Track Day
It’s a pretty well-known fact that if you want to dip your feet into the racing world, you attend a racing school. There are many around, with Skip Barber Racing School, Bondurant Racing School, Cadillac’s V Performance Academy, and Ford Performance Racing School in Utah being just a few examples. The high cost to attend these elite driver training schools kept me at home in front of my Xbox as a child, dreaming of someday driving on a real track. Finally, during my internship with Motor Trend, I had my chance at Best Driver’s Car 2017.
So how well did racing simulators prepare me for the real deal? Looking back at my drive on Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, the answer is somewhat well—but the Corkscrew really threw me a curveball. In a game, I drive with all driver aids off and go full attack through the course, jumping off curves and almost kissing the walls. In person, you’re agonizingly conscious of your rapidly moving surroundings and the fact that something could go wrong at the drop of a hat.
That realization flashed me back to testing at California Speedway exactly one week earlier, where I witnessed testing director Kim Reynolds pilot the Ferrari 488 GTB gracefully around the figure eight. After he stepped out of the Ferrari, he pulled associate road test editor Erick Ayapana and me aside for a quick discussion. “That car is worth how much?” He asked us. “Over 250,000 dollars,” Erick said. “So, a quarter-million dollars. I felt that I could have pushed the car faster, but at some point I had to remember that I’m just a car journalist. That car is worth more than a year’s work,” Kim said.
With that said, here I was on my first-ever lap of a racetrack, in a Mercedes worth nearly $200,000. Senior features editor Jonny Lieberman and I had to drive all the way around the track to redo a shot of the cars going through Turn 6. Because there were other cars on the track, we couldn’t turn around for another attempt.
Jonny gave a stern pep talk over the walkie. “Francis, we gotta go faster. FAST FAST FAST! DON’T LET CHRISTIAN CATCH US!” Features editor Christian Seabaugh had begun a hot lap in the Aston Martin DB11 while we were off the track, and he was about to be on our tail. I refocused, painfully aware of the Mercedes-AMG GTR’s price tag, which had been seared into my mind after glaring at the window sticker in shock only hours earlier. Having no choice in the matter and getting yelled at to speed up by the Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio in my rearview mirror, I went for it.
As I began to put the pedal down, I was amazed at how much I could predict. I knew exactly where to brake, how to follow the racing line, and how the turns would affect the car’s handling. Then came the Corkscrew. In “Forza Motorsport 6,” the latest iteration in a series of racing games for Xbox One, I could clearly see where the racing line wanted me to go as I turned left and entered the chicane. In the game, the car pivots downward, allowing me to look ahead to see how much steering input I needed to steer the car toward the apex of Turn 9. As I approached the Corkscrew in person, however, I found that the blindness of the fall—which felt like driving off a cliff—really limited my vision. I went down without knowing where the track would lead me. I knew I had to turn the wheel to the right, but how much? Too much or too little, and I’m off the track. This put driving a real car on a real track into perspective quite rapidly. Even though I always drove in “Cockpit” mode in the game, dimensions morphed in real life, and the car felt a lot smaller than I imagined. The track felt a lot larger.
On paper, I should’ve been able to lose the Alfa, but I couldn’t. Because I wasn’t anywhere near the car’s limits and I didn’t dare mess with any of the driver aids, I couldn’t shake Jonny. Having experienced how different driver aids can affect a car’s performance in the game and knowing how good video game physics engines have become, I knew I couldn’t handle it.
Ultimately, as much as I defend the realism of these games, racing simulators simply couldn’t prepare me for the utter brutality I experienced on the track. Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t to say that you can’t use a racing simulator to practice or prepare yourself for a track day. In fact, several years back in 2008, Sony and Nissan launched a program through PlayStation’s “Gran Turismo” called the GT Academy. Participants qualify and compete in a tournament online, and can go on to race camps at Silverstone Circuit in the U.K. The competition eventually invites the winner to take part in Nissan’s Driver Development Program. This program has discovered and produced some world-class drivers who might not have otherwise had the chance to compete at a professional level.
As I anxiously await the release of “Forza Motorsport 7” in a couple weeks, I am optimistic about the future of racing simulation—all the while knowing that nothing beats the real thing.
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September 20, 2017 at 07:02PM