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Gran Turismo 6 versus the real world

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    Brands
    Hatch, late November. It’s an overcast Saturday afternoon, the tarmac looks
    damp and there’s a serious chill in the air. On track, it’s the Britcar Winter
    Warmer. Spectators are thin on the ground but they’re dedicated.

    I’m not
    here to watch, but to do something totally unique: racing Brands’ Indy circuit
    in Gran Turismo 6, competing lap-for-lap against this year’s GT Academy
    champions as they tackle the real-world Britcar night race out on track.

    Words: Tony Coles 

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    For the
    2013 GT Academy drivers, the Britcar night race is a vital step in their
    journey from PlayStation to professional racing. Under the tutelage of RJN
    Motorsport, their target is the Dubai 24 Hours - and this will be their first
    time racing for real in the dark. A arse-clenching prospect for mere mortals at
    the best of times, these four young men will be fighting against a icy track as
    well as limited visibility. They’ll be driving two production-spec Nissan
    370Zs, with race tyres, uprated brake discs and a sequential gearbox.

    I’m teamed
    with Krisztian, a seasoned Gran Turismo player. We’ll be racing the same
    virtual 370Z against AI traffic, no driving aids and on a pro-spec racing sim
    with a Thrustmaster t500 RS wheel. Krisztian’s a graphic designer with some
    serious Gran Turismo skills, and he’s already putting in fast laps as I arrive.

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    Watching
    are the Nissan PlayStation GT Academy winners: Miguel Faisca, 2013 European
    Champion; Florian Strauss, the German champ; Lee Cunningham, the US winner.;
    and Stanislav Aksenov, overall 2013 GT Academy champion. 

    None have
    the money or backing to enter via motorsport’s more traditional routes, so GT
    Academy was their golden ticket. But for Stanislav, it’s more than golden -
    it’s his only option: “There is no way I’d be able to do this without GT
    Academy,” he says. “Russia has almost no motorsport for beginners, and nothing
    near where I live.”

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    I ask
    Florian and Miguel about the difference between sim and reality. Does the
    g-force come as a shock? “Not in these cars,” says Miguel. “We only pull about
    1.2g in the turns, so it’s not too bad. We drove GT3 cars earlier this year and
    they were amazing. The g-forces were a real step up. I can’t imagine what an
    LMP2 must feel like.”

    “The
    toughest part is the endurance training,” explains Florian. “It’s things like
    strength and cardio that we really need for Dubai, as well as coping with the
    temperature. It’s going to get so hot in the car.”

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    Krisztian
    and I are suited up in Nissan race overalls. These are part fun for the hell of
    it, part protection against the elements: we’re in an open garage in November
    darkness. Warming my hands up, I board my rig to see how Gran Turismo 6
    simulates Brands Hatch. Krisztian’s pace is bang on - putting in 0:54s and 55s,
    he’s right up there with the quickest real-life racers. On my first lap, I put
    in a blistering 1:19. I’m into the gravel on nearly every turn, and banging off
    armco elsewhere.

    It’s Gran
    Turismo 6’s new suspension model taking me by surprise. Brands Hatch’s
    undulations and cambers have been immaculately modelled, so the fearsome
    Paddock corner is just as challenging as in real life, pulling the car around
    as you plunge down the hill.

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    The Indy
    circuit’s transition from Surtees, through McLaren and Clearways to Clark, is a
    series of kerb-bumpers before, all of a sudden, you’re heading straight for
    some cones, with the car needing to be settled and ready to turn for Clark’s
    blind apex. I’ve got it switching spring compression from left to right, and
    can feel the car driving me, rather than I driving it.

    I need some
    guidance. RJN’s Bryce Wilson takes the wheel for a demonstration lap.

    A veteran
    of Brands in sports and touring cars, Bryce’s gentle third-gear tour is a
    masterclass in braking points and turn-ins. All his pointers from real life are
    there in the game - the 50m board for Paddock is bang on, and the car reacts
    with total realism as he dives into the apex on a turn that demands total
     commitment.

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    At the
    Druids hairpin, he takes late braking and a wide entry, clearing the near-180
    degree corner with minimal wheel turn. At the tortuous Surtees-Clearways-Clark
    sequence, he remarks on an easily-missed change in the kerb brickwork that
    tells you when to floor it on the way out. Sure enough, there it is. And
    there’s the tiny patch of mud that everyone catches as you speed onto the start
     straight.

    With just a
    few minutes to go before official qualifying, I get back on to try and piece
    together something that’s not an embarrassment. Miguel, who had previously been
    giving tips to Krisztian, is right beside me. With his and Bryce’s pointers, I
    start to get that Senna feeling. I get a clean 1:03, then, between the odd
    overcooked corner, a 0:58, 0:56, 0:54.

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    Krisztian’s
    going quicker, though. With his 15 minutes of qualifying over, he steps from
    the pod with a smile on his face and a best lap time of 0:53.304 seconds. In
    the end, I throw caution to the wind and miraculously pull out my own 0:53, but
    it’s much closer to a 0:54. Out on the track, the GT Academy cars put in
    0:53.613 and 0:53.807. They’re top of their class, but, with Krisztian’s
    blistering time, we’re on virtual pole. Score!

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    The race
    proper. Krisztian, we decide, will do the first 45-minute stint and I’ll take
    the car to the finish. Out in the real world, the field roars past our garage
    on full-throttle, and Krisztian heads off on a most serious test of our Gran
    Turismo skills. Not wanting to hover over my team-mate’s shoulder, I head out
    back to watch the real cars fight it out. On track, the Academy cars are
    pulling away slightly from the field, but they’re yet to get into backmarker
    traffic. Krisztian’s doing well in the garage. Our strategy is pure
    consistency. Aim for 0:55 laps and keep it tight.

    Within what
    feels like a minute, the real-world cars are coming in to pit. I’m up.
    Krisztian pulls into the virtual pit lane and pauses. Our driver change is a
    touch more leisurely than the frenzy of refuelling and last-second checks going
    on behind us. I settle into the seat and am counted down. As the game channels
    me out of the virtual pitlane, it’s my turn to put in 45 minutes of
    professional-standard laps.

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    Flooring it
    in the short distance from the pitlane to Paddock’s 50m board, I realise that
    on my first lap out, I’ve already overcooked it. The car makes the entry, but
    the corner is pulling me hard towards the gravel. Instinctively, I back off and
    hold the car steady.

    In the
    heightened mood, I’m feeling the car with more immediacy and amazingly, keeping
    it together. I haven’t breathed since leaving the pitlane, so it’s a welcome
    exhale as the car speeds up to Druids.

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    Keep wide,
    down to 2nd, dive in, keep the angle shallow, floor it on the way out. I’m
    through. Now it’s Hill. Dab the brakes, down to 2nd, power before the apex.
    We’re bombing towards Surtees now. All I can think of are the dreaded cones at
    Clearways. There’s the 50 board. Lift off, turn in, floor it through McLaren.

    Position
    for the cones, brake, turn hard for Clark. There’s the change in the kerb.
    Floor it, head out to the left, then right for the dirt patch. Keep on the
    right, keep on the power, let the car drift to the left and phew - we’re over
    the line, and haven’t spun.

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    I haven’t
    got time to reflect on another 45-odd laps of this, as I’m braking for Paddock
    again. Easier this time, but slower. Must improve, but most of all, don’t spin
     out.

    Amazing how
    focused you can be when the situation around you encourages it. It’s nervy
    enough to race Gran Turismo 6’s version of one of the world’s best race tracks.
    Doing it in a real racing garage, against real competition, is something else.
    There’s nothing like racing with the smell of petrol and rubber in the air.

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    Everything
    else narrows down into tunnel vision, but that smell is still there, and your
    entire universe is the wheel, the pedals and the track. You don’t notice the
    cold and you don’t even notice the race cars tearing down the straight. Le Mans
    veterans always talk about the rhythm that comes with endurance racing,
    especially at night. I’m slipping into that rhythm at last.

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    My laps
    start as solid 0:56s, then 0:55s, with the odd 0:58 for AI traffic reasons. As
    I settle into the zone, my hands relax and the times slowly, but steadily fall.
    I’m putting in consistent 0:54s and inching towards 0:53s when I’m told I’m on
    my last lap. The 45 minutes have flown by and I want another 45, at least. Most
    pressing, I want to know how we’ve done against the real-world boys.

    We lost.

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    But not by
    much - after 90 minutes of racing and 95 laps, we’d finished just 30 seconds
    down on the lead GT Academy car, driven by Florian and Stanislav. That’s just
    0.3 seconds a lap slower, on average. Krisztian’s fastest lap was a blinding
    0:52.949. The Academy’s was 0:52.394.

    It seems
    our virtual challenge was the talk of the pitlane, with people checking up on
    our progress and even marshalls popping in to see how we’re doing. The biggest
    reward for me was to have Bryce, my tutor for the day, compliment me on my
    consistency. I was surprised that I’d kept it together. The relief was just
    settling in as the cramp in my right leg started.

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    My day with
    RJN was fantastic, and our result apposite. We shouldn’t have beaten the real
    racers, the cream of the eligible Gran Turismo players, but it was fun giving
    it a go. As for Gran Turismo 6, it was one of the real winners of the day. Its
    recreation of Brands Hatch is superb and its handling model is utter, utter
     joy.

    Here’s
    hoping that one day, we’ll all get to face off again. The real-world
    Nurburgring 24 Hours against a Top Gear virtual team? Who’s with me?

What do you think?

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