About three quarters of the way through the classic John Candy film "Cool Runnings", the hapless Jamaican bobsleigh team are shown preparing for the the 1988 Winter Olympics using the most cutting edge technology at their disposal. Crammed together in their hotel room's bathtub, team captain Derice Bannock shouts out turn numbers and the rest of the team - Junior (who is responsible for my favorite scene in the movie), Yul Brenner and Sanka - lean left or right depending on the curve they imagine that their bobsleigh simulator is approaching. Since access to the Canada Olympic Park bobsleigh track was so limited, the Jamaican team was faced with the prospect of having to qualify for the Olympics without ever having actually been on a real bobsleigh run, and so the team had to prepare the best they could, running through mental models of the track that were gleamed from photographs of its various corners. Such preparation was undeniably a pale substitute for actually hurtling down an icy cavern at speeds approaching or exceeding 100mph, but was better than nothing.
While the fictional Jamaican olympians were practicing with their relatively low-tech tools, I was making use of cutting edge commercial simulation technology to prepare for a race of my own.
Entering and exiting the tunnel under the Grand Hotel is one of the most memorable and tricky stretches in Formula 1 racing. After a slow series of achingly down-hill hairpin turns, cars hammer down the gas as they accelerate under the Casino. What makes this stretch particularly disorienting is the rapid transition from the glaring summer sun of the Cote D'Azur to the tunnel's muted darkness, all at speeds of almost 175 mph. Then, just as the driver's pupils have made the appropriate dilations, the drivers are plunged back into the fierce sunlight, only to tackle a high-speed chicane that requires jamming on the breaks and navigating a quick left-hand then right-hand turn before speeding along the city's gorgeous waterfront. Again, as this is happening the driver is undergoing another set of pupil dilations that seems roughly akin to staring a a light bulb, then turning off the lightbulb for 10 seconds, then turning it right back on again, all while operating a multi-million dollar machine that is more than capable of killing its operator and the people in its immediate vicinity - who, by the way, are also doing the exact same thing and likely are trying to overtake each other. In short, this is a thrilling piece of F1's yearly schedule, and has been responsible for some of my favorite moments as a fan of the sport.
Interestingly enough, before I had even known about the real-life Formula 1, thanks to Accolade's Grand Prix I had logged many hours driving the circuit in my virtual Williams Renault (I never was, nor will I ever be, a Ferrari guy). Through Accolade I was able to experience a facsimile of a real world experience.
My experience, however, diverged strongly from that of the Jamaican Bobsleigh Team, since while theirs was engineered to better prepare them for a real-world experience, for me driving the Monaco circuit has always been (and, although it is painful for me to admit it, will always be) a virtual experience. And, as can be seen in the video of my qualification run and aborted 1st lap of the Monaco GP (spoiler alert, I crash out pretty early on), in 1988 the gap between the virtual circuit and the real one is fairly large.
For example, the real Monaco is a street circuit (as opposed to a self contained track that was specially designed for racing, a street circuit is what it sounds like: a track that is composed of streets that are publicly used throughout the rest of the year). As such, the track is hemmed in by towering chain-link safety fences that force drivers to be particularly cautious when trying to overtake -- if you are edged out of a turn, you will find yourself jammed against a concrete barrier rather than bumping along some safety run-off. In the virtual Monaco, the track is surrounded by a pleasant green expanse that never betrays the claustrophobia of the actual circuit.
Indeed Grand Prix's selective imitation of Monaco - a result of decisions made to work within the limited processing power of contemporary computing machinery - creates a game that gives a gesturing sense of what it must be like to drive it in real life, while abstracting out some of the features that I've come to learn make the course so compelling. Without the elevation changes, it is hard to get a sense of the g-forces that constantly tearing at the Formula One driver's body. Without changes in contrast, the anxiety inducing chicane is no more or less challenging than any other section of the race. And without the cacophony of noises that accompany any good race day - the roar of adoring crowds (including the chants of those annoying Ferrari fanatics) and the mechanical drone of other cars (in Grand Prix I can hear a rubberized "bump" that indicates I've made contact with another vehicle, but my car is the only one that emits the telltale whirring 8-bit blip that was the sound of an accelerating vehicle in a 1980s video game) - driving Monaco in Grand Prix always feels a bit like I'm one of the billionaires who flocks to the French coast on their multi-million dollar yachts (a coast which doesn't exist in Grand Prix, since the surrounding landscape is always and forever green) and who has managed to rent out the circuit for a day so that I can pretend to be an F1 driver.
Which, in some weird way, isn't far from the truth. Though in Accolade's world, the Monaco circuit is abstracted from its real environment, and is translated into a flat series of curves and break points, it is nevertheless fantastic. I, a small child, was able to participate in a reasonable facsimile of one of the most stunning sporting experiences that exists. And, as a result of games like Grand Prix, all the way up to Gran Turismo 5 - a game that renders the circuit with such fidelity that the difference between driving in the virtual world and driving in the real one is approaching negligible (with some crucial differences - a topic I will return to later) -- I know how to drive Monaco. I can fully visualize the track in my mind, and can anticipate where I would need to break, or where I would need to take a counter-intuitive line to ensure that I exit a turn correctly in preparation for the following sector. I can't help but think that if the Jamaican bobsleigh team had access to a simulated run of the Calgary Olympic track, they could have spent less time jammed into a hotel room bathtub.End