20 years is a lifetime to some, just a chapter to others. For some it feels like the elapsed time since this blog was last updated with an article.
They’d be wrong, of course, for only 2 small years have languorously rolled by since the halls of RAVSim were strolled; if that period of lassitude makes you feel old then what is to come may have you reaching for your medication.
Grand Prix Legends is 20 years old this year. There, I said it, it’s happened, it cannot now be unsaid. For anyone reading this who can remember that day around Halloween in the vivacious year of 1998 when they went to a real shop and bought a real box with a real manual and a real CD-ROM of a video game that changed their life, the phrase “Grand Prix Legends is 20 years old this year” will strike profoundly. For those reading this who cannot remember that day, those that may have been teeny-tiny children at the time, it will strike rather less of a chord.
You see, for someone that is celebrating their 21st birthday in the Autumn of 2018 the concept that a video game is 20 years old is not new; but for those of us that were deep into the trench of living a grown-up life in the Autumn of 1998, complete with Nokia 6110, Fiat Bravo and enormous B&O 28 inch TV, video games were a new and exciting thing. Each new release of just about any video game, let alone racing sim, was a technological step. To imagine what a world it was to live in one need only compare the physics and graphical complexity of 1978’s Night Driver on the Atari 2600 to Grand Prix Legends. 20 years is a long time for technology.
I was 21 in 1998, a fact that will allow the mathematically savvy amongst us to calculate how deeply old and decrepit I have become. When I was 21 I was obsessed with motor racing, and had been for most of my life. For years I had sat with my father watching Senna, Prost, Piquet and Mansell go at one-another on track, and ever since many failed attempts with REVS during the late 80’s I had sought a way to reproduce those battles on the family PC.
By ‘98 I had moved out, I was living in my own place and working to make ends meet. I had a PC of my own and at times booted up either Crammonds Grand Prix 2 or Papyrus IndyCar Racing 2 but it was not a focus in my life; the pursuit of fast cars, pretty ladies and as-yet undefined levels of weekend drunkenness were. Any gaming was on the Playstation, with more friends around the place than chairs, late night Tekken tournaments, Worms marathons and endless-endless-two player battles on Gran Turismo.
The PC gathered dust. Keeping up with new graphics cards or CPU technologies was too far beyond my price range when real petrol had to be bought, real late-night kebabs had to be ingested.
But I remained in the loop, and in quiet moments at work (broadband was not a thing yet at home, and dial-up was far too labourious for all but the most crucial of matters) I would head to the newsgroups and see the discourse on rec.autos.simulators (RAS), the place to be if you wanted to be on the forefront of racing sim news. There would be the regulars, with an almost daily discussion comparing the revolutionary physics within the simulators of Geoff Crammond and David Kaemmer, talk of various open source projects and usually some spirited discussion about the work of the West Brothers (you had to be there). 20 years ago this newsgroup was the simracing community, and some of those regulars (of which I guess I was one!) are people I have close friendships with today. Some have moved on to heroic work, some are simracing developers, some, sadly, have passed away. But all of them were there and crazy about racing sims in the 1990’s.
In 1998 there was talk of something new from Papyrus, not just another NASCAR sim, but something with a new and reworked physics engine. The talk was about SODA Off Road Racing, which was the first game using this new engine, and it was only released in the US. I made it a vital task to try to obtain the demo. I was able to download it from work, then split it across some floppy disks, then take it home, then re-merge the floppies onto my hard disk, then run the installer (things were simpler back then). At some point later that evening I was driving. I was initially somewhat crestfallen as the pristine photorealistic graphics that SODA offered were too much for my ageing machine, and keyboard control was exceptionally difficult. But with trial and effort I started to feel something special deep within the handling of my off-road truck, something almost mechanical. What I felt there and then took me back to the newsgroup, where I reeled off exciting paragraph after paragraph. “Just you wait…” said one of the old guard of RAS “…for GPL.”
I was going to need a new PC.
The hands of time passed, and no new PC came. A heavy workload left the PC once again gathering dust until issue 60 of PC Gamer found its way into my hands which headlined, alongside a polygonal Lara Croft: “Can Grand Prix Legends snatch pole position from Grand Prix 2?” I read every word of their preview, over and over. Before long there was a playable demo, this time on a magazine cover disk, the install was done… But I still had a terrible PC.
I played the demo using a CH joystick with the graphics on minimum. It was near unbearable but I could still feel something special beneath. This new physics engine not only modeled every individual wheel speed (many earlier sims had only modeled the front and rear axle, assuming that right and left wheels were matched on speed), every suspension component and even the drive train. For the first time we had to think about where we were changing gear, where we were braking, and what the track beneath us was doing. The demo dealt us Watkins Glen, but not the ‘Glen we’d enjoyed in Papyrus’ NASCAR titles to date, but rather the Glen from 1967. Crown in the road, terrifying inclines and sweeping turns; it was just a shame I couldn’t see where I was going.
It wasn’t until mid-1999 that I was able to upgrade to a new PC, what with a new job and accompanying pay increase. I start to wonder, looking back, how much of my motivation to change jobs and bring in more cash was driven by my need to make GPL playable; to really understand what everyone on RAS was saying. I’d bought the full game and read through the comprehensive “Four Wheel-Drift” drivers manual written by Steve Smith, I was positively aching to drive the sim in a meaningful way. When the time came, and with it a new machine (including a 3DFX card and a Microsoft Sidewinder Precision Racing Wheel), I was living the dream.
What, of course, followed was a missive about crashing lots of virtual cars, or being overwhelmed by cars so difficult to handle on such unforgiving tracks. The sort of stuff that every GPL retrospective has said for years. But GPL was so much more than that; it was a step back in time to Grand Prix racing as it was well before I was born; it was a simulation of history as much as of racing cars. The atmosphere afforded by the evocative sounds of the cars, the grey hessian tracks and the retro user interface was something a sim of modern cars could never create, and the performance of the cars when you got it right was so satisfying that it pushed you on and on to get it right every time.
RAS was suddenly devoid of arguments as the community of simracers the world over could all agree one thing: This sim was the one; what we’d all been waiting for, the one sim to rule them all!
We were all learning so much, about how to drive with a practiced finesse, about how these old circuits came to be, about the heroes that drove these fearsome cars. RAS would feature regular posts from excited simmers about what they had been researching, be it Hewland gearboxes, the Honda RA300’s exhaust design, I even remember someone typed out almost a full chapter on driving craft from Piero Taruffi’s The Technique of Motor Racing. A year before I didn’t know what any of these things were. What we’d been waiting for was such a simple thing back then; it was for a sim that really felt like driving a car, and that fired our imagination to learn more and more about a pastime that was rapidly becoming our passion.
It changed everything, and it changed my life. I would spend unreasonable amounts of hours driving the sim, my neighbour baffled at the strange noises from my back room. One lap of 1.23 felt special around Kyalami, until the next night I did a low 1.22, then a week later I was pumping out 1.20s. As the pace grew so did an almost trance like state as my interaction with the virtual car through my hands on the wheel and feet on the pedals became instinctive. Weekends became race weekends; calling in pizza, friends be damned!
But it had barely begun. In 2000 the cable operator threw in a 512Kbps “broadband” constant internet connection and those friends from RAS were all around me as various sites were popping up with forums to discuss GPL, and of course Virtual Racers Online Connection (VROC) arrived.
VROC put me into a chat channel with all those guys from RAS (and now other forums), and then out on track with them. Largely allowing me to realise that I needed to get much faster! Racing online like this had been a dream for us all for years, now we were doing it. Online simracing…
This was a seminal time. In the late ‘90’s video games were a thing you did for fun but your Dad always told you that grown-ups didn’t do it. Yet here we were, living grown-up lives where we played video games. The first generation of kids to grow up with video games in the home were becoming the first generation of young adults playing video games with each-other online. We were passionate about simracing, as it had become termed, I remember nights where I raced on VROC for half an hour but talked with everyone in chat the whole night. Sharing setup tips, talking about races, reading people eulogising in depth about the fabulous cars this game gave us.
Largely the passion of this relatively small group of enthusiastic individuals led us onward to create the community as it has become. Tim Wheatley founded Legends Central which then became Race Sim Central, before moving to the US to work for both iRacing and ISI; Dom Duhan formed the legendary virtual racing team Team Redline; Greger Huttu would win in VROC and then become multiple iRacing world champion… The list goes on…
In 2005 Alex Martini created AutoSimSport, an online magazine covering the developing simracing community. I joined as a writer and the magazine ran until 2011 as we covered everything we could. Months of our lives ensued where our “real jobs” took a sideline to frantic editorial meetings and deadlines. Almost every day of my life involved meeting or talking to various people about racing sims, be they industry insiders, hardware creators, software developers, publishers or people that ran news or league sites. We would talk endlessly about what was coming next, about complexities of vehicle dynamics or tyre modelling. I learned all about Hans Pacejka, about ground effect aerodynamics, and about how dampers work.
Simracing became indelibly stamped upon my life with GPL in 1998, and when I talk to all the friends I made online at the time, friends now for 20 years, they all tell the same story.
Today so much has changed. The world inexorably marches on in its quest, and the people that we are take on their own quest. My eldest nephew, born in 1998, is a keen simracer but is only vaguely aware that GPL ever existed; to him it appears as aged and weak as the arcade cabinet of Night Driver may have appeared to me in my youth. He will never know the experience of a sim that doesn’t quite feel like driving a car but does a bit, he will never know the crippling pain of driving a 78 lap Monaco grand prix using the keyboard. Today Max Verstappen wins real Grand Prix having grown up enjoying rFactor and iRacing in a plush simracing rig, all the while online communities have grown to become vast and barely manageable.
In 1998 there wasn’t such a thing as “online friends”, the internet was young, simracing didn’t really exist, and the idea that a video game could be 20 years old seemed impossible.
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