The ex ‘STIG’ Ben Collins has seen the future
As “Ready Player One” recently demonstrated, sim racing is the gateway to Virtual Reality. In the movie, the players sped through a world populated by scarier curves than the Monaco Grand Prix while dodging a giant Donkey Kong who was trying to pulverize them. I grew up playing Pac Man and Eye
Spielberg’s futuristic vision of VR is already here. The Games Industry, led by a few notable visionaries, has spurred innovation on to an unprecedented level. Who would have imagined that a graphics card company, Nvidia, would pioneer the Artificial Intelligence inside the robots that will be driving the cars of the future. Or that games would become so vivid that they would evolve into professional sports.
I became addicted to speed at an early age when I convinced my Dad and my cousin to push my pedal kart until they were sprinting, and then let go. After that anything with a steering wheel was fair game in my view.
The first racing games felt a bit like ‘Pong’ by comparison to the real thing. The first ‘sim’ racer that had any value was ‘Grand Prix 2’ by Microprose. The tracks bore some resemblance to the places I was frequenting in a Formula 3 car, and the degree of discipline to sit there for hours shaving a few tenths off a lap time was familiar too. The game-changer was when my teammate linked our computers and we had a three-way race between ourselves and Juan Pablo Montoya, who was extremely fast.
There was an interminable pause in quality between Sim Racing then, and now. F1 teams spent millions creating rigs that lifted and shook you all around, while you steered and pedaled to the video on a multi-screen. The experience split the drivers right down the middle: those that threw up and those that lied about being sick. The irony was that despite the diabolical handling references these machines produced, the teams were able to extract useful data about different car setups.
Here’s where Ian Bell at Slightly Mad Studios stepped in. Ian’s vision was to re-create, down to the last bolt and fiber of carbon, every car that would appear in his vision for the ultimate sim racing game: Project CARS. Realism was the goal. Assimilating the varying weights and measures of the cars provided a solid foundation, but the holy grail lay in recreating something almost intangible: the tyre model.
The way a tyre behaves is organic and it’s what makes a real car so intuitive to human beings because it responds to every touch. After a painstaking development process, we rounded on an intuitive handling environment. No more driving by Morse code. You could feel the road through the feedback flickering through the steering wheel. You became one
with the car.
That’s where my role developed with the studio. A car either feels right, or it’s really wrong. A minor flaw in the handling or a delay in the resolution is like rubbing sand into your contact lenses. It kills the reality. I worked with the development team to slay these undesirables and chase down the dream. With Project CARS 2 we rounded on a mode of handling that was gradual. The feedback loop between losing and regaining control felt natural, and its that connection that makes it so addictive.
The reality of racing involves a degree pain too. In England, we call it weather. At Le Mans you race for 24 hours come rain or shine at speeds of up to 230mph. In my first race there, it remains etched in my memory for all time. It was an experience we wanted to share with Gamers.
Real racing drivers rarely get the luxury of practicing in the rain because Team Managers generally don’t like sweeping up fiery wreckage. So for those looking to learn how to drive like a Ninja, this is definitely the sim you’re looking for.
Factor in the laser-scanned tracks, depicted in 4K resolution, and you become deeply immersed into the world of speed. Every bump and kerb
is reproduced and accurately placed, which means that you learn the rhythm of the track and can carry that over into the real world.
Last year I was asked to do a project at the Nurburgring, and I had to get up to speed before I arrived. The best and only way to learn 170 corners
in the two weeks I had available, was to climb aboard a GT3 car and boot up Project CARS. For my line of work, it’s become as routine as going to the gym.
Logitech is probably the biggest supplier of plug-in steering wheels for racing games and of gaming paraphernalia in general. During a visit to
their HQ in San Francisco, I was blown away by the scale and professionalism of their eSports program. Their sponsored players work in an environment as advanced as a Formula One team; with coaches,
dieticians, tacticians and analysts pressing for an advantage wherever it can be found.
While you might expect that level of elite performance from a corporate-backed operation, the secret to the success of eSports is the way that it has democratized the Sport. Real racing costs somewhere between the tens of thousands to the millions. For a few hundred dollars, you can hook your
steering wheel into a virtual Nascar, Le Mans or F1 car and drive it like
you stole it. The mental skills are broadly the same, as my heart rate told me during a live race at GamesCom. Physically, you get chucked around a lot more in real life because gravity is elusive like that.
But don’t presume that gamers aren’t fit.
Be ready for the next generation of Player One to walk onto the grid and surprise you.