Racing David Coulthard

It was virtual versus reality in what was being billed as the world’s biggest race, but just how did David Coulthard get on?


So this is it, virtual versus reality in the world’s biggest race. In one corner David Coulthard, 13 times Formula One race winner and current commentary box sidekick to Martin Brundle. His weapon: a Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG. His task: to set the fastest lap possible around a “mystery” UK circuit in a 15-minute time slot.

His opponents are many and varied. In fact, with the race open to anybody around the world with a Playstation 3, a copy of Gran Turismo 5 and an internet connection, the scope is enormous. For my part, I’ll be joining six competition winners at Mercedes-Benz World in Surrey. Our job is to take on DC in real-time, setting the fastest lap we can manage in a virtual version of the SLS AMG, on a virtual version of the same track.

To add a little more pressure the whole thing is being broadcast as a live webcast on a number of major sites, including Whoever sets the fastest lap will win, but whether that will be the real or virtual is anyone’s guess.

As it turns out, the location of the circuit isn’t much of a mystery at all. In fact, with gamers told that it was one of GT5’s two UK circuits and Boris Johnson unlikely to have closed Piccadilly Circus so that Mercedes could race around a real version of the game’s London track, it was almost certainly going to be the other option: the Top Gear test track in Surrey.

Sure enough, on the morning of the race Coulthard, along with Brundle, who would be presenting the action on the live webcast, could be found tearing around such well-known corners as Hammerhead, the Follow-through and Gambon in a very red SLS, getting the hang of what is a pretty tricky circuit.

“The real difficulty is that there are no reference points,” says DC as he sips a cup of tea between stints in the car. “And it’s a lot faster than it looks on Top Gear.”

So that he may prove his point I’m ushered into the passenger seat for a couple of hot laps with the Scottish driver who, despite having left the Red Bull team in 2008, still has the impossibly healthy glow and lean physique of somebody who races at the pinnacle of motorsport. Or perhaps that’s just what happens when you live in Monaco.

Without further ado DC buries the loud pedal, which in the V8-powered SLS more than lives up to its billing. It takes all of about three seconds to realise that this is an extremely fast track, but also one that punishes brakes and tyres, especially on a 1,620kg car such as this. It’s a point that hasn’t escaped DC’s attention.

“I’m concerned about burning up the brakes and the tyres as the run goes on. The car’s just going to get slower and slower. The challenge is to get in my fastest lap as early as possible,” is his verdict.

As if to demonstrate his point, by midway through our second lap the rear tyres are struggling to transfer the engine’s 563bhp to the road, the back of the car determined to pick its own line around the corner rather than follow the front.

So what are the chances of the real driver winning today? In truth, nobody knows, least of all Coulthard, who is driving around Dunsfold for the first time. Has he not tried it on the computer though?

“I think I’ve got a Playstation 3 but I’ve never opened the box. Between commentating on F1 and racing in the DTM [German touring car championship] I just don’t have time to play computer games,” he says.

To assist my own efforts today/gain some inside knowledge, I’ve taken the liberty of recording DC’s lap times during this warm-up. OK, so it was only two laps, but the fact that they were both 1min19.4 suggests that he is not only consistent, but also at the limit of what the car can do. Will that be enough to beat the gamers?

To find out I make the short blast up the A3 to Mercedes-Benz World, where a crowd of people are gathered around a dozen GT5 “pods” (each contains a race seat, steering wheel, pedals and screen) preparing to watch six talented finalists and a few hopeless journalists attempt their fastest times possible as DC does the same for real 25 miles down the road.

To level the playing field we’ve all had to select road tyres for our virtual versions of the Mercedes SLS, just as Coulthard has on his real one. Traction control is turned down and the racing line indicator switched off.

And then we’re off, Brundle dropping the flag at Dunsfold and us pressing the start button, our efforts over the next 15 minutes live on the internet for all to see. Like a complete amateur I’m off the track left, right and centre, taking more than half of the session to put in a clean lap. It turns out to be my best too at 1min21.123, half a second quicker than the Stig managed (albeit with a rolling start). Today, though, it’s a long way from being good enough.

Over in pod one Jason Birt is putting his day off work to good use, posting an unbeatable 1min16.868. Try as they might nobody can get close. Nobody that is, apart from DC.

Over at the Top Gear test track his tactic has paid off. One gentle warm-up lap and then exploit the fresh tyres for one all-out, qualifying-style attempt. It was high risk: make a mistake and the tyres would be too hot to put in another really quick lap, handing victory to the gamers. Only F1 drivers don’t get paid millions because they make mistakes. Sure enough, on his first hot lap DC nails a 1min16.320. It’s more than a second quicker than he’s gone all morning. Astonishing doesn’t even come close. The real world, for now at least, still beats the virtual one.

With the tyres well past their best, DC spends the rest of the session trying to keep the car on the track. That he failed on one occasion, spinning amateurishly onto the infield, at least proves that we had one thing in common. And as the technicians from Mercedes will no doubt testify, virtual grass stains are so much easier to clean off the paintwork.

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