Before we begin, I’d like to ask you a question. Do you think the skills we acquire mastering racing games (or ‘simulations’) such as Gran Turismo or Forza will ever be helpful, or translate in any way into real-world driving and car control skills? If you asked me this question a few years ago I probably would have answered with a firm No, but recently more recently my opinion on the subject has swayed. I think driving skills acquired in the virtual world do translate into the real-world, and here’s why.
I played a lot of games in my teenage years and into my early 20’s – and I mean a lot – with my favourite titles being racing games. I began with Poll Position on the Commodore 64 back in the late 1980’s, before moving on to Virtua Racing and Daytona USA, Sega Rally, Top Gear Rally, and the Gran Turismo series – with each providing their own take on the concept of ‘racing’ and providing varying degrees of realism. Now before you say it, yes, some of those games were actually not very realistic at all, and you’d hardly call some of them ‘simulations’, but even games like Daytona USA are still able to teach you the concept of taking racing lines through corners, slipstreaming and what generally happens if you take a corner too fast. But there’s one other game which taught me more than all of the above titles put together – and that’s Live for Speed.
Live for Speed was responsible for introducing me to a great many things – with the most important relating to the aspect of car setup. Changes to spring and damper rates, tyre pressures, plus wheel alignment and camber settings all had a tangible impact on how your car would perform, and it was through a thorough understanding of these settings that you could optimise the handling of your car and get the edge on your competitors. I’m not just talking AI competitors, either – LFS had a strong community and an excellent online multi-player mode to match. It was the first game I ever played online and there’d be races available almost any time of the day or night, so I’d often jump online after my classes were done for the day, and go racing. Through the game, I met a brilliant bunch of fellow Australians and we’d often organise racing nights during the week, consisting of single events, championships and even drifting competitions – with the latter being the most interesting to me.
For a bit of a laugh, I gave my low-powered RWD car a Takumi Fujiwara Toyota 86 Trueno livery and began practising how to best drift the tracks provided in-game. Despite being virtual, the same real-life drifting techniques all worked properly in the game. Power Over, Hand Brake, Clutch Kick, Shift Lock, Dirt Drop, Feint, Jump, Braking, Kansei, and the Scandinavian flick were all techniques that I began to learn and put to use, before actually knowing what they were called. For me, it was just looking for ways to keep the under-powered car sliding sideways for as long as possible. While it would have been easier to drift with some of the other higher-powered cars available, there was something challenging and fun about using the slower car. It really forced me to refine my techniques and the car setup to get the very most out of it.
For a while, my in-game focus moved to Live for Speed’s ‘Blackwood Carpark’ map, which was pretty much what you would imagine – a big car park style space where you could place objects like cones and barriers, and create your own track layouts. This was an amazing opportunity to create figure-8 style layouts and drift around them, or more complex drift circuits like the one in the video above. I spent hundreds (if not thousands) of hours racing and drifting against human competitors in Live for Speed’s virtual world, but a question still remained in the back of my mind – could any of the car control experience I had learnt in-game actually be applied, or help me in any way to race or drift a car in real life? It was difficult to tell.
The real-life car I owned at the time, a Nissan Skyline R34 GT-Turbo, may have been reasonably sporty and handled well through the corners, but there was only so much I could discover about my car control skills while I was driving on the street. My knowledge of coaxing a vehicle into a power oversteer or drift situation remained limited, with most of them occurring by accident when I applied too much throttle on a wet roundabout – where my instincts would tell me to back off immediately to regain grip and bring the car back under control. The long arm of the law, public safety and road-side obstacles like gutters and trees meant that there was simply too much to lose if I got things wrong – and I loved my car far too much to risk damaging it. But perhaps the skills I learnt racing online helped me deal with those ‘oh-shit’ situations in some way? I wouldn’t find the answer out until a few years later..
After working in the tyre industry for a few years, I was lucky enough to be offered a spot in a drift school program run by a local driver training company which we sponsored at the time – Safe Drive Training. SDT ran the session as an introduction to drifting, where they’d teach participants how to drift a nearly-stock Toyota 86, and also in a drift-prepped Nissan 200sx across a wide open car park space near a local drag racing facility. I leapt at the chance, as I figured it’d be an interesting way to see if my virtual skills gave me any advantage at all against other participants on the day. As it turned out, I was in for a rude shock!
The first session of the day involved attempting to perform a handbrake drift in the 200sx – where you’d simultaneously turn into a corner, push in the clutch and pull the handbrake briefly, before applying power and opposite lock as the car stepped out, in order to keep it sideways through the remainder of the turn. It is something I’d done hundreds of times in a virtual environment, but I can safely say I was one of the worst people on the day. While the timing of the handbrake was tricky, what I struggled with the most was applying opposite lock. After the handbrake is pulled and the rear of the car steps out, the instructor had advised me to let go of the steering wheel briefly and allow it to quickly spin around to opposite lock all by itself – but as it was something I’d never done in the virtual world, and the idea of letting go of the wheel felt completely foreign. On the first attempt, I held onto the wheel and attempted to apply opposite lock manually (which I couldn’t do fast enough) and ended up spinning the car. On the second, I let go of the wheel successfully, but grabbed it again too late, and applied too much throttle, resulting once again in a spin.
It was a frustrating start to the session. I knew damn well what I had to do, but I was struggling to make it happen. In hindsight, I realised that what I was actually struggling with was “the controls”. In the end, I did manage to drift through the turn, but right at the end I spun the car in the opposite direction when I backed off the throttle and the tyres regained traction… with the steering still at full opposite lock. Whoops…
I had a few small wins in the sessions which followed, as I got used to the cars and felt more comfortable with the way they handled. The 86 was underpowered but very light and forgiving, while the drift-spec 200sx was loud, rough, uncomfortable and a bit of a bitch. I nailed a succession of 180° handbrake drifts in the 86, and also managed to initiate a drift in the 200sx by performing a Scandinavian flick – or in layman’s terms, flicking the car left before turning hard right and applying throttle – which if done properly, will unsettle the rear and cause it to step out. By my own admission, I was moving up through the group but there were still plenty of people who were performing much better. It wasn’t until the final two sessions where I’d get the confirmation I was looking for…
In the second-last session for the day, the instructors had placed two cones roughly 10 metres apart from each other and we were instructed to drift around them in a figure-of-8 arrangement driving the Toyota 86 – by pulling the handbrake to initiate the drift around the cone at each end. Since I felt quite comfortable in the 86 by that point, I had no trouble pulling the handbrake, allowing the wheel to spin to opposite lock, and then applying just the right amount of power to send the car drifting around the cone, and then repeating the process again and again. But then something amazing happened – I stopped using the handbrake altogether.
What I’d actually started doing instead, was using the weight-shift from the previous drift to make the tail of the car swing across to the opposite side, and ready to drift around the next cone. Put simply, if you’re drifting a car in one direction with opposite lock applied, suddenly lifting off the accelerator will cause the tyres to regain grip, unsettle the car, and send it sliding in the opposite direction. All I had to do then is let go of the steering wheel so it could spin around to the opposite side, and apply enough throttle to drift around the next cone, then repeat. It was a technique which wasn’t taught on the day, yet something I had performed thousands of times in the virtual arena – and it felt damn good to do it in reality. In my eyes, this was already enough to prove that at least some of the skills I’d learnt in racing simulations can translate into real-world driving, but something even better was about to happen.
The final session of the day involved an even larger figure-of-8 layout, roughly 40 metres from end to end, with the turns at each end having a radius of approximately 5 metres – meaning you had to enter them at a much higher speed in order to maintain the drift. I was nervous because most of the people who tackled it before me struggled, and even worse was the fact that I had to do it in the drift-spec 200sx, which had not been kind to me in the previous sessions. In order to begin, we were instructed to perform a handbrake entry into the first turn to initiate the drift, then attempt to hold the drift around the entire course, by flicking the car from one turn into the next. It was essentially what I’d achieved in the prior session in the 86, using the weight shift of the car to change the drift direction – only on a larger scale and at a much higher speed. On the first attempt, I pulled the handbrake too long, applied too much throttle and spun the car. Business as usual, I thought to myself, as I rolled my eyes – but then something amazing happened.
On the second attempt, I nailed it. I successfully coaxed the 200sx into a full-bore smoking drift around the first half of the figure-8 track and kept the rear end out until I reached the middle of the course. When I thought the time was right, I lifted off the throttle briefly in order to allow the rear to grip up and pivot across to the other side, let go of the steering wheel to allow it to spin to the opposite lock, then regained control and applied the throttle again to begin drifting the opposite direction through the next turn.
As luck (or skill?) would have it, I nailed the second turn as well and managed to drift around the entire track. Twice. While I might sound more than a little proud of myself here, it must be noted that I was the only participant on the day who managed to link at least two turns together in one big drift – with most of the others either spinning out after drifting through the first turn, or spinning the car the opposite way as they tried to enter turn two. I’d gone from the very bottom of the class, straight to the top – and in my eyes there’s only one reason why that happened. I’d actually drifted a figure-8 track like this many times before – it just wasn’t a real one.
It was on that second attempt where I felt something in my mind suddenly click. In an instant, the car went from being difficult and unwieldy, to feeling utterly natural and in completely in sync with my movements. Rather than think in detail about what I needed to do – the handbrake, the steering, the throttle – I began using them all together in perfect unison, as if it were second-nature. I’d mastered the controls, and all of the skills and techniques I’d learnt in the virtual world were suddenly able to be put to use in the real world – and the results were amazing. Sure, it wasn’t a completely perfect run, and I definitely wasn’t about to go and win any drift competitions – but the fact of the matter is I managed to drift the course twice without stopping, while no-one else was able to get anywhere near that. And you’ve got to ask yourself, why?
In my mind, there was only one thing it could be. All of the time I’d spent racing online in Live for Speed actually did count for something. Through the game, I was able to learn the fine-art of how a car handles on the limit of available grip, and beyond it. But critically, there are a few things it can’t teach you – and that’s the way the car feels as it begins to lose traction, and how the g-forces feel on your body as the car flicks from one direction to the next. There’s also how the steering wheel reacts and moves around in different situations and even the matter of where you need your eyes to be looking at any given moment. You can’t learn any of that while sitting at your computer – even if you have one of those fancy force-feedback steering wheels clamped to your desk.
I think it is important to remember that the game or simulation you’re playing will also have an impact on how much you can actually learn about car control. The realism of the physics in a simulation like Live for Speed no doubt played a big part in helping me understand how a car would behave in the real-world once I’d initiated a drift, but if I’d spent all my time playing a slightly less realistic driving game, like Gran Turismo or Forza, I’m not so sure if they would have been anywhere near as helpful. The type of controller will also have some bearing on this, with a force-feedback steering wheel obviously being far more helpful than a regular game controller.
But there’s good news. Once you’ve learnt everything you possibly can about car control, racing or drifting in a virtual environment of the game of your choice, it’ll mean that you’ll need less training in the real-world when compared to a person without any experience at all, should you wish to take up drifting or circuit racing as a hobby. So get to it!