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Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Goodwood Festival of Speed 2015 - GT Academy


For the third year running, the Goodwood Festival O' Speed has featured Gran Turismo gaming pods at various manufacturer stands. Unsurprisingly they are always most prominent at Nissan, who are closely connected to the game, and since 2013 (when GT6 was released with the Goodwood Hillclimb Course inserted) they have held a "Wildcard Event" for their increasingly well-known GT Academy competition, in which proving your virtual driving chops can propel you into a real-life racing driver development programme and a career racing real racecars. How good is it? Now that they've got the training formula down to a science, they've been able to put a graduate into an LMP2 car at the Le Mans 24 Hours just ten months after he won the competition, and he wasn't bad. If you can't afford the traditional route into motorsport, this is your golden ticket. I always take part and while I've always been up there somewhere, I haven't yet won a wildcard entry to the Race Camp in which you compete in an elimination process for a place in NISMO's driver squad. This year things stepped up a gear, as you shall soon read about......

But before I get to the main event, I'm going to tell you about the prizes at Peugeot and Mercedes-Benz, because this is my blog and I'm the boss and if you don't like it then you can just scroll down a bit so don't worry.

Peugeot

See that guy in the nearest pod? That's Kazunori Yamauchi, the man behind Polyphony Digital, makers of all Gran Turismo games. He visited the Peugeot stand on Friday for photos and a video of him playing his own game against one of Peugeot's rally drivers. The car one had to drive on these particular pods was Peugeot's ballistic Vision Gran Turismo concept machine, of which a scale model was wheeled out while he was there. He showed speed but crashed a few times, ultimately setting a time slower than mine. I was quietly pleased with that! He's probably a lot busier than me though, to be fair.

I wanted to say hi, but he was cordoned off while at the stand. He then wandered off with his mates, but I felt creepy going after him after watching him do all the PR stuff, and left him alone.

The day before, on Thursday, I won a poster signed by Yamauchi-san early in the morning. They were giving one away per hour for the fastest time, but I had to then compete against the other first-hour contenders first to confirm my victory. It's being posted so I can't show you yet. My 40.4s run was about two seconds up on the others, although later on in the day somebody set a 39-second time, so I went back again and matched it to see if I could. However, the 37-second time somebody managed on Saturday was out of my reach. Remember kids, there's always somebody better out there somewhere...

UPDATE (19th July): The poster has arrived! There was even a little congratulatory note :-)



 It appears to be an image actually made in GT6's photo mode, and it's signed by the game's creator! It have framed it and put it up proudly on the wall where our games consoles are at home.


Mercedes-Benz AMG


Mercedes are also regulars when it comes to GT pods, with the fastest time up the virtual hillclimb on each day winning an AMG Driving Experience at their Mercedes-Benz World facility inside the legendary Brooklands Circuit in Surrey. I've tried and narrowly failed before in the SLS GT3, so I had a go this year, this time being given the AMG Vision GT concept to play with. Again, I was so close but so far. Thursday? 2nd place. Friday? 2nd place. Maybe Saturday would be the day? Nope, 3rd. Sunday saw another 3rd place despite encouragement from the staff (Sunday final leaderboard pictured). No skidding around in a real-life C63 for me yet, then......

Oh, and there was also a machine at VW, but that had no prize and the overseer was too indifferent, so I only used it once and didn't bother again.

Nissan


Right, here we go again, folks. Which Nissan will we need to throw up the hill this year? For a day in 2013 it was the DeltaWing, which was horrid, then it's been the GT-R NISMO GT3. I was quietly hoping it wasn't going to be the GT-R LM NISMO "Frontzilla," because not only was that thing tricky enough to get around the relatively wide Circuit de la Sarthe but my PS3 died when I got home from university, so I had only driven the car once before going to Goodwood.

So of course it was the 1250-horsepower front-drive Le Mans car I had to thread through the Flint Wall.

Thankfully, Thursday was just a practice day before they started handing out the three big prizes during the weekend proper. This gave me a chance to find out what I was in for, with driving aids on and glowing guide line. God damn Frontzilla is a fighty little bastard. I don't know if it's the downforce or putting that much power through the front wheels or both or neither, but the wheel in my hands was even more nervous than I ever was, writhing around as the car negotiated the bumps under full power. The braking zone into Molecomb [turn 3] was also a bit exciting with so little of the weight over the rear wheels, yet it was still the fast but poorly sighted Flint Wall chicane that proved most daunting of all. Hurling towards it at that kind of velocity makes it seem even narrower, and when you don't know where to turn in you can't possibly carry a competitive amount of speed into it. Still, at least the car straightens up under power, so once you've flicked right and left you can just stab at the throttle until you're out of it and start setting up for the corner after it, a right-hander with absolutely zero run-off and a blind exit. This is the second worst corner of the 1.16-mile course. It's so easy to hit the hay bails on the inside or the outside, and because it's the penultimate corner and you're anxious to keep any advantage you've gained, it's even more important to get right, not least because you keep the throttle pinned from there to the line and thus need a clean exit. The kink before the line was also made harder than necessary by Frontzilla having such a darty nose, meaning you could steer too much inadvertently and spoil or even invalidate your time by brushing the hay walls right at the very end. Lord March is an evil genius for making such simple-looking corners so bloody challenging...

Friday


As with all the days, I didn't just stay there at Nissan constantly retrying, instead stopping by whenever I was near to try again or just check the times. On Friday I made progress with the car but still ended up in a lowly 8th place. Previously it was only the top two that went through to Race Camp, so operating on that principle I decided I would need to keep making progress on Saturday. I was as high as 3rd last year, so there was surely more for me to give with more seat time...

Saturday

NOTE: These are not the final times, but they are pretty similar in order (photo from 4:37pm)
The following day was a lot busier now that anyone still at work/school on the Friday was able to come to Goodwood. I'd started to figure out most of the track at this point, especially the first two corners and braking into Molecomb, however Flint Wall and the corner after still required more confidence in the car than I had. Despite being marginally slower than the day before, a different mix of people meant I was 6th. In the afternoon I'd decided I wouldn't be able to reach the top two, but still wanted to at least improve on myself and the 42.5 I'd been relying on for most of the day. Sometimes you just have to be happy with beating yourself and the subsequent feeling of progress. There was always Sunday, after all. After shaving another quarter-second off, I felt I'd done what I could and started heading back through the F1 paddock to the car at about 5pm. I took my phone off Aeroplane Mode to stop conserving battery life and text home to let them know I was leaving.

Immediately I got a call from an unknown mobile number. It was somebody from the Nissan stand.

It turns out the format was a little different this year......


Rather than fast-tracking the top two, Nissan invited the six fastest people back to compete against each other in...... [TopGear voice] a series of challenges. [/TopGear voice]

Everyone else had thought to ask about the format, so they were waiting for me. I power-walked back via a coffee stand so I could pump my tired body and mind with an espresso and arrived feeling a bit more sweaty and breathless than the other five Saturday finalists. Excuses, excuses ;-)

We were split into three pairs so we could rotate around three rather different challenges. I was paired with 5th place in Group 3. The first task for us was an interview with real TV presenter Amanda Stretton and a camera and everything, watched by three judges from Nissan. I went second of the two of us - if you were there then I was the guy with long hair and a silly internet T-shirt proclaiming that "I Walk The Racing Line" ... which I actually do when I'm in a hurry. Anyway, after an intro I was asked about studying Automotive Design at university, whether I'm willing to make sacrifices for the chance to become a racing driver (yes, always), the challenges of physical training and how to deal with/approach them, and other such stuff. Unfortunately, while it generally went pretty well, I totally blanked on the final question when I was asked "What can you say to the judges about yourself that makes you unique over the others?" Immediately I got all pedantic and thought "I don't know a thing about the other people, how do I know what's unique?!" I paused, said "...No?" and then started giving a fairly generic answer about it being my dream and all that before stopping myself and thinking aloud "wait, everyone will say that." It felt like a bit of a mess to be honest, but at least it was the last question. Besides, the rest of the interview seemed to go down pretty well with everyone. I ignored the camera and gathering audience and just chatted to the interviewer for the most part.

The second part of the top-six final was two goes on a BATAK Lite reaction test machine, where one of eight buttons lights up on an X-shaped frame and you hit it ASAP, over and over until time runs out. I had seen it there on the wall and didn't think it was relevant to the GT-A challenge (Nissan had other prizes on offer for other challenges). I stepped up to the oche having never used one of these things before, and saw that the previous person's score was 99, which sounds high. It was certainly high for me, because I scored 74. We all had two goes each to get the highest score in 60 seconds, although I didn't see the time limit and just sort of kept hitting it until it stopped. My second score was 81. The other person in my pair was at or around 100, and apparently somebody else got 120, higher than the likes of Chris Hoy and Jann Mardenborough according to the wall graphics. So, er, I rather fell short at that test...

Thankfully the third part was well inside my comfort zone: five laps around the Nürburgring GP Short circuit in a road-going R35 GT-R, a car I know very well indeed. The one catch was that any times the game deemed invalid would have 10 seconds added to them, so crashing or going off track even once would basically ruin your chances. They were marking not just for speed but consistency, so I made sure to find late-but-safe braking points and try to stick to them. The GT-R road car will happily take care of you for the rest of the corner once you've braked in the right place. Some trail-braking on turn-in to keep the nose pointy, then pin the throttle as early as you dare and let the all-wheel-drive catapult you onwards. Of the five times I set, four in a row were blue, denoting a fastest lap for my session. Obviously the first lap was blue, it's difficult to be slower than nothing. I took big chunks off for laps 2 and 3, around six to eight tenths, then only three tenths for lap four, then I went way too deep into the first turn on the final lap and couldn't quite claw the time back, setting an ordinary time in the low 1:33s.

Strangely, late on in that final lap when I had time to breathe on the flat-out run to the final chicane, I realised where I was and what I was doing, I stopped being disappointed in that shoddy turn one and smiled to myself, uplifted at the thought that I was getting somewhere and doing something special by playing good old Gran Turismo. I actually found out the following day that I'd scored highest of anyone in this segment of the final, despite just missing out on a perfect run.

Alas, it wasn't to be. After the six of us had rotated around the three challenge elements, two finalists were chosen to do five more laps to decide an overall winner. I didn't make the cut. But hey, I was told that I did very well by the judges, plus I was allowed to return the next (and final) day to do it all over again. Knowing what I was in for gave me some confidence for Sunday.

Sunday


I arrived in the usual parking field at 8:25 or so. I didn't go straight there because I had been meaning to film a lot more of the action on the real hillclimb to post on here, which I did and which you'll see later. As much as I want to win GT Academy, I still had a lot of stuff I still wanted to do at Goodwood which I felt I should have the time for when given a whole weekend to play with. Nevertheless, I set a time at around 10:15 of 42.17 seconds, good enough for fourth place. Having opened my account for the day I then went to the BATAK machine, where I was taught what it was about. I bent my knees to centre my weight relative to the machine, used peripheral vision and managed to get 45, 47 and then 49 points in half the time I'd had on Saturday. Logically this means I'd be up in the high 90s if I had the full minute, where I needed to be before.

An hour later, after a tub of chocolate ice cream, I went again. It felt good. The first three corners were almost a formality now as long as I kept it off the grass exiting turn two, but I'd also worked out from the immobile shadows where to turn in for Flint Wall, carried decent speed in, nailed it, then almost but couldn't quite do the entry into the subsequent penultimate corner just as well, losing time there to somebody else's ghost but nailing the exit and punching in a 41.91, my fastest of the weekend and a run that felt so positive I'd surprised myself and needed a brief moment to let it set in that I'd blasted through Flint Wall. Still need to work on braking and entering the one after it accurately, though...

Either way, it put me in 3rd place, where I stayed for a couple of hours. After lunch I was 4th again, but still comfortably within the top six. That run felt like it would be hard for me to beat, so because it was a sub-42 second time and 42.27 was enough the previous day, I went off to do other things, occasionally popping back to make sure I was still P4. By 3:30pm I was up past the real Flint Wall and looking at the bottom end of the Forest Rally Stage to see some of the rally cars I'd neglected, then an hour before the final that I actually knew was happening this time, I went back to Flint Wall and started watching the Hillclimb Shootout on the big trackside screen. There were some heroic displays of driving by people in pre-war cars I wouldn't want to even sit in, let alone powerslide out of Molecomb. At 4:30, just as Alex Buncombe set off in the Nissan GT-R NISMO GT3 (above), I decided to head down and make sure I didn't miss anything in my own shootout. On the way there as I stopped for an espresso, I started worrying that I could've been pushed out, but decided it was just my anxiety playing up and relaxed. I stopped by Peugeot one last time to say goodbye to the booth guys I'd chatted to all weekend, then arrived at the adjacent Nissan stand.



SHIT!!

With 10 minutes to spare before the 5pm cutoff, I queued up for a final shot. I had a bad first run, bumping the hay at the end of a scrappy drive. The second time was valid, but a 43-second irrelevance. I was ready for it to come together on the third run...... only to be informed that in order to keep to time, the last goes of the day were only allowed two runs, not three. Oh. Wait, really? Oh.
Headphones off. Climb out. It's over.

...

I considered staying to see if the runner up yesterday could go one better, but I didn't stay. I then went to the Mercedes stand so I could lose that challenge as well, before trying to go home. I say "trying" because I completely forgot where in that huge field I'd parked my car and had to get someone to help me find it. It had been the longest day, and I'd clearly felt it. I took it easy on the drive home.

Perhaps I'd just had the wrong attitude and fate simply handed it back to me by putting me 7th, less than a quarter-second from being in the final again. If I had actually queued up and had another go on those occasions when I just hovered for a bit and walked on, maybe I could've found that time. If I'd had the same approach as Saturday of just trying to improve on myself each time rather than focusing on the leaderboard position, ugh, who knows...

Last year I could easily accept missing out by that margin - better a good couple of tenths than a few agonising hundredths - but this time it just felt like I had thrown it away by preparing for the end and then tripping up at the first hurdle. In hindsight, if I had known I needed to use the BATAK during Saturday, in which case I would've practiced, I could have genuinely been in with a shout of winning it that day. If only I'd thought to ask whether the format was different to previous years...

Maybe it's all a sign that I'll really have to commit properly next year. Clearly one can't get away with taking anything for granted here. If I get another weekend ticket and have to devote an entire day solely to GT Academy, then that's what I'll do. Prepare properly, focus on personal bests instead of the leaderboard and don't rest until it's done. Hopefully I won't lose my edge at the game now my PS3's died (it's most likely cracked solders, which is a big deal to fix).

Next year. That must be the year.

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