Tuesday, December 13, 2005

An Open Letter to Jeremy Clarkson

Sony’s Gran Turismo 4 is a cool game. A really cool game. But it’s also an instructive one, too. Gran Turismo has track representations and driving dynamics that range from pretty-darn-close to virtually spot on (okay, except for the whole crashing with no damage thing). So much so that I think there’s a definite training element to the game. Certainly, with repetitive use on highly accurate simulations of world famous racing tracks, a small part of me, tiny though it is, actually navigates and learns their braking points, turns, and apexes.

So, as I navigated the sacred Nurburgring for what was probably the 300th time (virtually) from the air conditioned comfort of my living room, I remembered one of the best episodes of Britain’s best imports since Monty Python – Top Gear. In it, Jeremy Clarkson takes a diesel Jaguar and flogs it around the ‘Ring to increasingly better lap times. Seems when he started, his times were, uh, average. Then, after repeated laps, he got off a lap under ten minutes - respectable in a diesel, even if it is a Jag. The ‘Ring matron, a rather hot looking lady who drives a van around the course faster than a lot of sports cars (and their male sports car drivers), managed 9 minutes 12 seconds.

The thought occurred to me: what if all of that learning curve could be accomplished in simulation? How would a complete piker such as myself do right out of the gate on the real Nurburgring? I’ve had some basic – very basic – racing and autocross experience, but I’m nowhere near a ringer of any kind, and I’ve never even been to Germany. Nonetheless, with practice on the simulated ‘Ring, I’ve cut my lap times markedly, much in the manner real drivers do – by learning the course. And, by learning the car.

Ah yes, the car. In Top Gear, Jeremy uses an S-Type Jaguar Diesel, and Gran Turismo 4 does not feature such a car in its lineup. It does however have a BMW 120d Sport, a car which, while excoriated by Clarkson, does at least have similar performance characteristics. It’s acceleration looks to be a little better, but it’s top speed a little lower. One is a BMW, the other a Jag – both meant to handle, albeit the Beemer will likely be more tossable.

So, a while back before this idea came about, I remember posting a 10 minute and 12 second run round the course in the 120d with very little knowledge of the simulated ‘Ring on the first go. With practice, that is now in the low 9’s.

I’m better primarily because of the acquired knowledge of the Nordschlieffe, of course. Now, how would that knowledge play in real life? I feel like I know the ‘Ring, or at least Sony’s fantastically accurate representation of the ‘Ring like the back of my hand. Could I indeed drive out on the course and drive it like I knew what I was doing?

So, what about it? I put it to the blokes at Top Gear (or Sony, for matter) to hold an experiment like this. I’ll even volunteer, heh. We could take a safe but acceptably fast and handling-oriented car, and three drivers: a top notch driver with experience and knowledge of the ‘Ring, a control subject, and me, or someone who has done what I’ve done with Gran Turismo 4. The control subject would be someone who has about as much experience as me, and has not seen the course, virtually or otherwise.

Ultimately, I maintain that the test subject will outperform the control subject by a significant margin, such that the test subject may approach the top notch driver in ability more so than the control driver, at least on this track. I assume clear weather conditions, and a modicum of driver skill all the way around, of course.

I’m not sure if a test like this would really prove anything, other than that it’s interesting. It may on the other hand give inspiration to thousands of committed GT4 junkies who may now fret that those hours at the PS2 will never amount to anything. Those junkies may then be able to take solace in the fact that GT4 has been officially certified as an educational tool.

Bob Brooks
December 2005

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