While I’ve been an avid gamer my whole life, there are two parts of the medium that have historically not been my thing: esports and racing.
With respect to the former, I can certainly appreciate the skill that goes into all of it, but it’s just never really appealed to me. In the case of the latter, I’d rather play a cartoonish arcade-style racer like Mario Kart or even a game that includes cars on top of other types of gameplay, such as Grand Theft Auto.
Naturally, then, I did what anyone in this situation would do: I took part in a Gran Turismo 7 tournament.
Stumbling into the driver’s seat
This month, I flew to Amsterdam to attend the Gran Turismo World Series Showdown, a two-day tournament bringing together pro sim racers from around the world. The first day was all about the Manufacturers Cup, in which racers play for specific automakers, with day two centred around the Nations Cup, in which three-person teams represent 12 different countries.
In between all of this, though, was the ProAm, in which the professional players teamed up with amateur media to compete against one another. (So out of touch am I with sports in general that this was actually my introduction to the whole ProAm concept.) Some of the other international “amateurs” were also actual GT content creators and enthusiasts, which didn’t exactly help my confidence. All I had for inspiration were MobileSyrup video and podcast editor Chris Brown, who chronicled his own amateur Supercross journey on the site, and contributor Andrew Mohan, who joined the world’s biggest fighting game tournament as a complete noob.
Much to my delight, then, when I got paired with Ethan Lim, the 19-year-old Vancouverite representing Canada in the Nations Cup who’s also our country’s top player. Right off the bat, I was vibing with our makeshift “Team Canada,” and to Ethan’s immense credit, he’s a really good coach. In our practice sessions, he’d give me helpful pointers through a mic, all of which made me feel more comfortable, especially in the high-end racing rigs they had set up. The closest experience I had to such a setup was a cheap steering wheel for Crash Team Racing on the PS1 and the racing games in Chuck E. Cheese and other arcades.
Meanwhile, my only prior time with Gran Turismo had been on the original PS1 title (remember those Pizza Hut demo discs?) and a bit of GT7 in VR (arguably the PS VR2’s killer app.) Making things even trickier was the fact that these practice sessions were relatively brief, so I had to quickly soak in as much of Ethan’s knowledge as possible. (One particular pain point: it’s more efficient to use both feet in the sim rig, but this went completely against my 10-plus years of driving real cars, so I had to constantly fight against my own brain.) My fear of public speaking also kicked in as camera guys circled the seats to capture close-ups of us racing, which was simultaneously distracting and nerve-wracking at times.
On the flip side, the organizers graciously threw quite a few bones at us noobs. Media got to pick our cars the day before, and I was fortunate to have Brazilian competitor Igor Fraga nearby the check-in desk to suggest the Nissan GT-R Nismo for being a more well-rounded — and, therefore, approachable — vehicle. Further, amateurs were able to use many of GT7’s significant array of assistive features, including a driving line to suggest the best positioning for corners, brake timing and automatic transmission. Races were also streamlined so we didn’t have to worry about tire wear and pit stops or weather conditions. This meant that we could focus solely on the core racing mechanics, which was most appreciated since that probably would have been too much to balance on the fly.
Because really, there are so many things I never considered about the sim experience: having to shift gears, knowing exactly when to break and throttle, and compensating for wet terrains. Truthfully, I had held a myopic view of sim racing, sort of reductively chalking up everything in my head to “car go vroom.” And even with the assists removing many of these challenges, it was by no means “easy.” A single mistake could make all the difference. The pressure was on.
I’ll be honest: that first match was all a bit of a blur because I was just so concentrated on not messing up in my first tournament. Besides hanging around and chatting with Ethan for a bit in between practicing, my recollection of the actual race is fuzzy.
What I do remember are the rules of the race. On top of those aforementioned assistive settings and driving conditions in place, the race took place on the Autodrome Lago Maggiore circuit. In our practice sessions, the trickiest part of the course was the bottom left sharp turn, as I’d either brake too early, too late, not enough or too much and wind up in a ditch, killing any momentum I’d had. Consequently, I began to dread having to navigate it in an actual competition.
Meanwhile, the 12-team, 11-lap race required each driver to complete a minimum of five laps, while either the amateur or pro could take on the remaining lap. Since I’m not a madman, I oh-so selflessly let Ethan have that honour. Once all of that was determined, it was time to race.
From here, I experienced what could best be described as a fever dream. There’s an almost euphoric feeling of zipping down the track at over 250 km/h, particularly when you can successfully maintain speed around corners without careening into the dirt. This sensation carried over into instances that practice didn’t prepare me for: scrums with other racers. When I was neck-and-neck with my competitors and would get bumped, the force often set me spiralling and threw me off my game for a while. That said, those seat-of-the-pants moments of fighting with the wheel to regain control were absolutely thrilling, especially when I managed to successfully right myself. Going into this, I was indifferent to racing. Now, I was Danny DeVito’s Frank Reynolds in that It’s Always Sunny “I get it now” meme — by no means good, but certainly having a great time.
At the end of the fifth lap, I pulled over to the pit stop to quickly hop out of the seat and pass the wheel to Ethan. I’d left us in 10th place, so he had his work cut out for him, but naturally, he handled it masterfully. I was in awe watching him zip around the course at record speed, passing people whose dust I had been eating the entire match with dizzyingly tight driving. In the end, he managed to make up for my lacklustre performance and finish fourth, landing us a spot in the Finals. Now this is
pod sim racing!
Going into our second and final day of the ProAm, I felt a lot more at ease. We had a solid showing the day prior, I’d already improved a lot with the help of Ethan’s coaching, and, best of all, I went on a wonderfully relaxing 1.5-hour canal boat tour right before. (Seriously — Amsterdam’s litany of UNESCO-protected water tunnels are absolutely stunning, and I could spend hours of each day coasting through them.)
Ethan, for his part, had been at the venue all day with his two fellow Canadian competitors to prepare for the Nations Cup in the evening. When I caught up with him, he got me set up once more for some last-minute practice. Already, I felt more comfortable going around the course, and Ethan’s words of encouragement only added to that. On a base level, there’s also just an innately rewarding feeling of seeing your times go down in real-time, a constant and tangible reminder of the progress I’d already made.
That all helped immensely as we started the race. I was in the groove, not necessarily performing significantly better — consistently floating between seventh and tenth place — but really enjoying it all. Not wanting to distract me, Ethan kept his radio chatter to a minimum besides a few key pointers and words of praise, which allowed me to really immerse myself in the racing. Meanwhile, the English commentators in the background, coupled with the game’s photorealistic visuals and cinematic presentation, gave everything an authentic feel. I may not have been a good racer, but man, I sure felt like it at the moment.
Unfortunately, a toss-up with another vehicle cut my career a bit short, sending me spinning into a stack of tires and setting me back several spots as I frantically tried to reverse and head in the right direction. This hurt my morale a bit, but I quickly reminded myself to just have fun and do my best to get things back on track for Ethan. After another lap or so, it was time for him to take over, so I hopped out and eagerly watched him race.
Ultimately, we came 11th, so hey, not dead last!
Crossing the finish line
My biggest takeaway from the whole thing is just how fun racing sims can be. There’s absolutely a place for arcade-y and chaotic experiences like Mario Kart, but there’s also just something special about a game that’s pretty much as close to the real thing as possible. I mean, there’s a reason that someone like Jann Mardenborough — the racer upon whom the Gran Turismo film is based — could end up driving real cars using his gaming skills. (The GT Academy designed to help facilitate this very transition has had many graduates over the years.)
But for people like me who have no intention of actually attempting to go pro, racing in a friendly capacity like this was such a blast. The feeling of passing another racer, not with the help of some randomly generated Mario Kart item, but rather, my own abilities, is absolutely exhilarating. All I needed was Manuel’s “Gas Gas Gas” from Initial D to play as I raced.
My friend, MobileSyrup contributor Andrew Mohan, is a massive racing aficionado, so I absolutely plan to pick up GT7 and play with him. (I’d previously already shown him the VR version and he was quite impressed.) If you’re someone like me who has historically only been into PlayStation’s strong third-person story-driven experiences, I can’t recommend GT7 enough for a completely different yet uniquely engrossing experience.
Gran Turismo 7 is now available exclusively on PlayStation 4 and 5.