Monday, August 29, 2005

Nurburgring: real vs. virtual

BILL THOMAS switches from the safety of a video game to the perilous reality of lapping Germany's daunting Nurburgring at 200kmh.

It wasn't really a journey into the unknown, more a journey into the perfectly familiar. After playing Sony's new driving game, Gran Turismo 4, for longer than I'm prepared to admit, lapping the world's most treacherous circuit, the Nurburgring Nordschleife, with a Logitech Driving Force Pro steering wheel clamped to an ironing board placed in front of the television, it occurred to me that it might be fun to try the real track and see how fast I could go. I'd never been there before, so I'd be driving blind, with no previous knowledge - other than about 100 laps in the game.

If you've never heard of Gran Turismo 4, or the previous generation Gran Turismo games, all you need to know is that they are probably the best driving games ever created and the latest version pushes the PlayStation 2 platform to the limit.

It's an extraordinary piece of work - not the most sophisticated physics model ever created but challenging and difficult. The graphics are almost photo-real, there are 650 cars to drive - everything from a Honda Zot to an Audi R8 Le Mans car - and one of the 50 tracks is the Nurburgring, modelled to an accuracy of about five centimetres.

It's the central feature of the game and GT4 freaks around the world are honing their racing lines around it as you read this. It's quite a challenge. The Nordschleife, or Northern Loop, located near Koblenz in the Eiffel Mountains in north west Germany, is 21km long and has 73 corners, with a total elevation change of more than 300 metres. Nicknamed the Green Hell, it makes Mount Panorama look like a kiddies' go-kart track. It's where Niki Lauda had his terrifying accident in the 1976 German Grand Prix and it was dropped from the Formula One calendar the following year.

It is dangerous and freakishly difficult, a track where the driver can make a real difference: men such as Fangio, Moss, Nuvolari, Carraciola and Clark were legendary here. Today it is used for occasional races, including a couple of 24-hour events, then is booked for most of the year as a manufacturer test track. For the remaining time, it is open to the public. read more.

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