The second part of this section is dedicated to a true phenomenon of the car racing computer simulation world - Grand Prix Legends (GPL). If you've always had an urge to compete in motorsport yet lack the opportunity - or the courage! - as most of us do, then GPL offers you the next best thing. You can race live against other people in a car whose control requires some of the same finesse, delicacy and experience as the real thing. Believe me, when you sit on the grid at Monaco in among 16 other real people all ready for the charge to the first corner, the rise in adrenalin level is in no way virtual, it's all too real!

Designed by Papyrus and released by Sierra in 1998, this simulation was so far in advance of the technology that at the time there wasn't a PC on the planet capable of running it at full force. It redefined the boundaries of car simulation physics by introducing the car as a separate sum of components, wheels, suspension, chassis parameters, fuel load etc, so the first true 'simulation'. Due to the limited power of PC's up to that time, previous driving sims had essentially been a simulation of a simulation, had been what has been described as 'a brick with a wheel at each corner' made to react as much like the real thing as possible. Fortunately since then computer development has sped ever onward, and by a couple of years after it's release, computer power largely ceased to be an issue.

The subject of this simulation was an inspired choice - the 1967 Grand Prix season. Those of us who are as old as me will have direct memories of this time - it was the year the Lotus 49 appeared, the time of Clark and Gurney and Amon and Graham Hill. When the glorious Nurburgring was still on the calendar along with the old Spa and a chicaneless Monza. The year before aerodynamics began to exert it's leaden weight on motorsport in general, the year before sponsorship entered the arena, a couple of years before safety began to be an issue. A golden age indeed for me at least. It was a time when I went to many Grands Prix, and I was inspired by the sight and the sound of those cars and the men who drove them.

It certainly wasn't a business inspired choice - given it's somewhat arcane subject matter, and the fact that, being so much more realistic, it was far more difficult to master than the average F1 sim - the sales were minimal, it wasn't a commercial success. Some believe that it was a kind of testbed for a future version of Papyrus' highly successful Nascar series, deliberately chosen for it's purity (the lack of downforce) because of it's creator's love of pure motorsport.

But then something remarkable happened. GPL's authenticity attracted a band of enthusiastic followers, and the internet allowed them to get together and share experiences. With some inside co-operation a band of enthusiasts created a method of linking up computers for racing online against other humans (VROC), the dream of all sim addicts since the beginning. Others became interested in how the tracks were made, figured out the method and began to produce tracks of their own to a very high standard. Others worked on the graphics and the car shapes, improving both almost beyond all recognition of the original version. And all of this was freely shared with all members of the rapidly growing community.

At first races were run on an ad hoc arrangement, you simply logged in and joined whichever race took your fancy. But this was rather chaotic due to varying skill levels, ignorance of who you were driving against, as well as some simply anarchistic individuals who preferred causing mayhem to serious competition. So over time people drew together and leagues were formed. You'd race against the same 16 or so people once a week say over a full season of races for championship points.

I currently race in the MARA series (Middle-Aged Racers Association) in both their European and North American series. That means that twice a week I get to link up and race in real time with a fine band of people from the UK, America, Canada, Norway, Holland, South Africa, it's truly international.

So now, three years on, we have incredibly detailed and accurate versions of the cars, new classic tracks such as Le Mans, Solitude, Bremgarten, Reims as well as many English club circuits, Goodwood, Snetterton, Crystal Palace etc to race on. Boy, it's a lot of fun . . .

[This was written and posted in January 2005]


My road to GPL