Monday, December 11, 2006

A Dose of Unreality

Sometimes, it feels like we're already living in the future. I don't mean that literally, of course. I am as aware as anyone that we live, as we always have, in the present continuous. What I mean is that so much that we take for granted, that has become so mundane that we barely think about it, would seem to someone from just twenty or thirty years ago like the wildest dreams of science fiction.

Imagine, for example, that we were to go back to 1970, and meet Bob Smith, a hypothetical motor racing fan. Slicks and wings were just beginning to make an entry into the sport, but such developments as turbocharging, carbon fibre monocoques and exotic alloy materials for engine blocks all lay a long way off in the future. As for active suspension, traction control, electronic engine management and the rest? Forget it.

The year before, Bob would most likely have been glued to his television set (or perhaps round at his neighbours' place watching theirs) as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first two men to set foot on the moon. Their Apollo 11 craft's on-board computer, a truly state-of-the-art piece of equipment which NASA had handsomely funded Intel to go away and develop, had about 4k of something we might recognise as RAM, and about another 74k of hard wired Read Only Memory. Enough to put a man on the moon, but not enough to run any kind of a sensible electronic launch control system on a racing car.

My hunch is that while Bob would have been impressed, rather than particularly taken aback, by the aerodynamic and materials-science aspects of a modern F1 car, it would have been the electronics and computer software that would have seemed most alien to him. And then it occurred to me that, actually, there's something else that he might find much more mind-boggling.

Imagine, if you will, a race with real drivers, but one which involves non-existent cars, competing at an equally incorporeal track. The drivers, far from being lined up on the grid in their cars together, are each sitting in their own living rooms, quite possibly thousands of miles apart. Only the pedals, gear shifters and steering wheels have any physical reality. The rest exists only as 1s and 0s on a computer somewhere. And yet, every slightest steering input, every dab on the brakes, is transmitted in real time down each driver's phone line to a central computer, and information about every other driver's moves are sent back down the line, where they will appear, perhaps just a little way up the road, or perhaps menacing in the wing mirrors, on their screen. And yet not only is this all this possible in 2006, its easy and cheap. Much more so than even the most low-budget form of real racing. Tell all that to Bob, and he'll probably be imagining that we're all driving round in flying cars, strapping on jet packs and going off on holidays to Mars. Yet this is the mundane world of online gaming, or more specifically, the small but enthusiastic on-line simulation racing community.

Oh yes, and something which surprised even me, when I stumbled across it the other week. The organisers of these races are now after spectators. The Sim Touring Car Cup claims to be the first online racing championship to be "designed for broadcast from the ground up." Curious, I downloaded the 30 minute plus video of the first round of the series. It was a strange experience. On one level, it didn't look a whole lot different from the action replay footage that you see on all manner of computer games these days. Yet, to be fair, the race direction was actually pretty good, in terms of concentrating on where the battles were on track, and making the most of the almost infinite flexibility in terms of camera angles that the virtual world presents. There was also a full commentary, provided by a team of two commentators. Suffice to say that, while this does help to make sense of what is happening on track, it does illustrate the gulf between the man on the street and even the most irritating of professional presenters (James Allen, step forward...)

I can't imagine that this sort of thing is going to be troubling Bernie Ecclestone's FOM any time soon. The racing may actually have been rather closer than in any Grand Prix I've seen in a long time, but its rather hard to work up the same kind of interest in a race between a bunch of anonymous guys sitting in their bedrooms. Especially when the consequences seem so, well, inconsequential. The cars might have seemed to handle like proper touring cars (especially allowing for the fact that the website states that they are meant to be running on 'road tyres) but there was more contact than in any BTCC crashfest and the cars always seemed to bounce off the walls almost unscarred. And let's face it, there's something visceral, something firmly rooted in the physical world, about the appeal of motor racing to the typical fan. Its about speed, noise, the smell of castrol GTX, and a million and one other things that no computer could simulate.

Still, its an interesting concept. For one thing, you know that the drivers are in literally identical cars - something which can never be ensured in the inevitably approximate real world. Theoretically, every last detail of a driver's technique could easily be made available via telemetry, and there can be no excuses about getting duff set of tyres or an unreliable gearbox. Neither can there be any suspicion that a rival driver is winning because of his superior budget, rather than his superior throttle control.

I was intrigued as to how difficult the cars were to drive, and so downloaded a demo version of the simulation used in the game, Live For Speed. Suffice to say that, as an occasional Pro Kart racer in the past (2 4-stroke Honda GX160cc engines, giving about 70mph at full chat, in case you're wondering), I was a long way further back from the best times in this simulation than I've ever been in a kart. Its not as easy as it looks - and certainly not as easy as play station arcade games like Gran Turismo. The guys winning these simulation races are not without a certain level of ability. How much I would be hard pressed to say...

These are all just games for kids though, right? Perhaps, but it turns out that Alx Danielsson, this year's Renault World Series champion, is a fan of FIA GT series simulation GT-R. Juan Pablo Montoya once confessed a liking for Grand Prix Legends, and a cursory search on some of the Simulation racing sites shows that several race at a club level in karts, touring cars and hill climb events. Rather more significantly though, SEAT touring car racer and occasional Aston Martin sports car driver Darren Turner was reported in Autosport to earn most of his living testing simulators for Mclaren. The team is reputed to have tried Mika Hakkinen out on its simulator before he got back into a race car recently at Barcelona and clearly they wouldn't be paying a professional driver to test it if they didn't think there were some substantial benefits to be gained along the way.

All stuff that might baffle our Bob Smith from 1970. But the real irony is, we never did get to Mars, hell, we've never even been back to the moon.

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Blogger Unknown said...

Thank you for finding and mentioning the STCC series. We've been working hard to improve our show since that first prioneering broadcast you watched, and I think you'll agree that the more recent races are a huge leap forwards on all fronts :).

The sooner I can replace those opening few episodes with a subsequent season the better! lol

7:15 AM  

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