Development towards going online . . .

I always wanted to be a racing driver, I just never got the chance in the ‘real world’. At school I remember listening to the radio from Le Mans in the 50’s when Jaguar were doing their thing, and to the British Grand Prix in 57 when Stirling Moss won in the Vanwall to everyone’s patriotic fervour. Goodwood was our local circuit and from 1955 when I was 12 I think we went to pretty much every meeting until the circuit finally closed. I always had this hidden feeling that was where I belonged. But either I didn’t have the ambition needed or just felt there was no way to achieve it so nothing ever came of it. I was studying photography at the time so whenever I got to go to a race I concentrated on that instead. Foreign camping holidays were planned to coincide with the GP at Monaco or Monza. Oddly enough, two of my contemporaries from what was a rather small seaside town, (Bognor Regis, Sussex, UK) did make it into Formula One for brief periods. These were David Purley, who is best remembered for trying to pull Roger Williamson out of his burning car in the Dutch GP at Zandvoort in 1973, and Derek Bell who though unsuccessful in F1 went on to become one of the great sportscar drivers.

About twenty years ago, a friend brought over to my house a device called an ‘Intellivision’, a primitive computer games console that plugged into the TV. It had a racing game, aerial view splitscreen of two dinky little blobs rushing along a scrolling track. We had enormous fun with it, but the main thing I remember is him saying (he worked in a computer shop so knew about these things) 'One day you’ll be able to sit in the car on the computer and drive as you really see it.' This I scoffed at a bit, but it lodged away within me. My first computer car game was (I blush) ‘Outrun’ on the Atari. I kept buying dire game after dire game in the hope that somewhere there would be some gold among the dross. Then came the original ‘Grand Prix’ which changed everything.

The most profoundly important thing was you could now turn the car round and drive in the opposite direction. Sounds flippant, but it meant you were operating in a 3d environment, not just having pixellated graphics run past you on a rolling road. For doing that I’ll be eternally grateful to Geoff Crammond - though not for much else as IMO they’ve significantly failed to develop anything since, and GP3 looks to be no better. However, I don’t think I went out for about six months, I would run Grand Prix after Grand Prix, totally absorbed in the experience of getting a small insight into being a racing driver. All with a joystick of course, steering wheels still being something that was some years into the future, and little realising that I was so good at it not because of my talent but because it was basically so easy, with built in steering help (this was the Atari version, before the PC one).

Then came IndyCar Racing. They provided the graphics - Grand Prix had coloured cars, but no sponsors decals etc, no overlaid graphics - better physics, infinitely better replay, cranked the whole thing to another level, and Geoff Crammond was dead, long live David Kaemmer. That was when I was first on the Web, as I remember car sets soon became available, as only a few cars and drivers were licensed. The web slowly opened up a whole new aspect, of being able to download enhancements for the game as well as communicate with like minded people. It was on rec.autos.simulators that I saw a brief posting which simply said Papyrus were planning a 67 Grand Prix simulation. Must have been five, six years ago now. I scratched my head and pondered - nahh, not possible, Lotus 49’s, Ferrari 312B, Eagle-Weslake, different cars, visible suspension, Nurburgring, not possible,- and dismissed it. How wrong I was! About a year later, news began to filter through, for a long time Papyrus had three little screenshots on their webpage. Scouring the internet for screenshots became my hobby. Probably still got them somewhere, one of a Brabham with one locked wheel - Oooh, look, a locked wheel!!! (it wasn’t possible to lock one wheel with previous simpler sims). Oooh, look, is that Zandvoort?? Great fun.

I downloaded the demo on the day it was released. It was HUGE for the time, 12-13MB I think, I remember it took 4 hours to download. But I installed it, and it worked. I’ll never forget plonking myself into the Lotus and driving out onto Watkins Glen. Straight away it was obviously totally different. I spun at almost every corner, but was so delighted it was of no concern. Indeed, had I got round the corners, then I would have dismissed it as unrealistic. But it’s a shame that in the demo, when you pulled in the clutch and put it into gear the engine revs would drop, but that didn’t happen in the release version. For weeks and months I pounded round Watkins Glen in this evil handling beast, then round Monza, where I was much happier, when it came out as well.

9th October 1998. A red letter day. The box I carried home from the computer store didn’t just contain a CD and manual, it contained the Nurburgring, it contained Monaco, it contained the Ferrari 312B, my personal favourite of all the Grand Prix cars of all time. It contained a whole new world. And boy, did it live up to expectations. Mainly I drove on my own to begin with, learning the circuits. The AI didn’t impress me much, they seemed fast at places where they shouldn’t be, and unreasonably slow at others. Papyrus’ AI have never been of the best, in my opinion, they never collide with each other and breakdowns occur in unusual ways. It’s one area where the Grand Prix series were superior. But that was a small price to pay compared to the magnificence of the circuits and the sound the Ferrari made. Within a month I’d upgraded from a P166 to a P400 simply to run GPL better. Or more accurately, simply to run it at all!

I read the bit in Steve Smith’s ‘Four Wheel Drift’ about online racing, I’d long held a wish for competing against humans, noted Alison Hine’s name on the beta testers - I’d been visiting her website regularly - but for a while I thought that it was all beyond me and my little modem over here in England, this was one of those things that was going on in America where you all had instant high speed access!

Then I found VROC.

It was a seminal moment in my life, I still remember it vividly, when I first pulled out of the pits at Monza in an online race. Thank you John Simmons, wherever you may be, playing Nascar4 probably, if I remember what I learned of your tastes. He was the host, there were around ten or twelve racers, all the cars wobbled unmercifully, but it was just all so exciting and fulfilling. These cars were being driven by real people. This was a whole new ball game. I was hooked, and have been ever since.

[This was written and posted in October 2001]