24 Hours of Le Mans – of sorts…

Paaaaaaarp! Paaaaaaarp! When you’ve only gone to bed two hours previously and have been suffering from a mild cold in the previous week, it’s safe to assume you do not want to be woken at 4am on a Saturday morning. Certainly not with the dulcet tones of a klaxon in any case. Dazed, confused and above all furious, I shot bolt upright in the dark, grabbed a heavy book, and prepared to hurl it with all my might at whoever was disturbing my sleep. Then I remembered it was the sound of the alarm on my phone. I’d chosen the loudest and most aggressive alarm because I had an engagement I couldn’t be late for.

Twenty minutes later I found myself under the white hot heat of the shower. A further ten minutes later I was standing in my kitchen, swilling down hot buttered toast with orange juice. And another ten minutes after that I was leaving the flat, carrying a box of mini-muffins, a sack of tangerines and a large china cup full of boiling hot coffee – because that’s not a strange thing to be carrying around the streets of Edinburgh at ten to five in the morning. I was ready to take on the worst the circuit could throw at me.

Truth is, I wasn’t going anywhere near a racing car that day. In one of the biggest geek-fests known to humankind, myself and some of the good folk from Edinburgh University Motorsport Club had decided to take on the 24 Hours of Le Mans on Gran Turismo 4 on the PlayStation. In real time. In the pub a few days before, Matt and I had been allocated the graveyard slot of 5am-10am on account of the fact we were ‘good at getting up early’. This nearly proved to be a bad move as both of us ended up sprinting in order to arrive at the flat on time, but with a few minutes to spare we managed to catch our breath and rouse Adam from his slumber to let us in.

The living room was not a pretty sight. Pizza boxes and Autosport magazines littered the floor, empty glasses rolled around on the table, and the air carried the stale aroma that can only be the trademark of a small space occupied by a number of males without access to any ventilation. The only thing that mattered, though, was the bright screen on which the bonnet of a car proceeded relentlessly over some digital tarmac. The television was wired into a humming black box, out of which protruded a long black cable with a sweaty joypad on the end, which in turn was connected to Richard Crozier. Without taking his eyes off the screen, Richard removed one hand from the controller and thrust it into a styrofoam tray of cold chips. He nonchalantly munched on the past-their-best potato snacks as the car proceeded down the PlayStation’s representation of the Mulsanne straight, finishing the mouthful just in time to take Arnage in second gear. He muttered something to the effect that he would be pitting soon, and that eating the cold chips was, on hindsight, a desperate and regrettable action.

On the other sofa, meanwhile, Calum was struggling to stay awake. Since the start of the race at 3pm the previous day, he’d ventured no further than the toilet from the console, and despite setting the fastest lap of the race by breaking the three-minute barrier he was rapidly losing energy. The sight of Adam resting his head against the wall and the sound of Richard skidding across the gravel and biffing a wall due to a momentary lapse in concentration confirmed that it was definitely time for some fresh blood to take over. With the virtual mechanics putting four fresh digital tyres on the car and a good sixty-five polygons worth of fuel in the tank, Matt took the reins and prepared to take the car out on track for its fourteenth hour.

Apparently Matt had never played Gran Turismo 4 before, but it didn’t show. Our car, the Minolta Toyota 88C-V, was an absolute pig to drive at the best of times and predictably tramlined on at the first corner with Matt at the wheel straight into the tyre barriers. After reverse had been engaged and the car returned to the track, though, the first of the zombie shift drivers set about putting in some seriously solid laps. Thanks to the pace of the turbocharged Toyota, we were making up barrelloads of time on the Sarthe circuit’s long, fast straights, and by the start of the fourteenth hour we found ourselves three laps ahead of the second-placed vehicle.

The hour before I took to the wheel passed exceptionally quickly, aided no doubt by the massive mug of coffee and the big tub of chocolate chip muffins I was working my way through. Before I knew it I found myself perched in one of the driving locations and being handed the controller. I pressed the ‘X’ button to end the fuelling and made my way out of the pits. I cautiously started to key myself into the car and the circuit, braking early for corners and being careful not to be too heavy-handed with the throttle on the exits. We had a good lead, I reasoned, so there was no point in going off and I could instead start gently and work the pace up.

About four laps into my stint, however, I had an epiphany. Two weeks previous, the guy at the end of the radio channel in F1 2009 had told me I was ‘driving like a rally driver’. At the time I was angry and just a little bit insulted by the CPU’s evaluation of my driving, but now I realised exactly what he meant. Whereas the other EUMSC drivers stood on the brakes one hundred metres before the tight right-hander at Arnage, turned the car once and then stepped on the gas to power off down the next straight, my approach was somewhat different. For a start I braked in three stages, dabbing the brakes once two hundred metres before the corner, a second time one hundred metres before, and a third time just before the apex for good measure. At the same time, I was also flicking the wheel left and right in order to unbalance the car and make it more willing to turn in. And then, once the nose of the car was pointing in the direction I wanted to go in, I tentatively blipped the throttle until I was sure the rear tyres had gripped the road and that I wouldn’t go off. In short, I was driving in a manner that would have been more suitable for the Crychan stage on Wales Rally GB. Never in the history of motorsport had a Scandinavian flick been considered an appropriate technique for getting round Maison Blanche – until now.

Despite the unconventional driving technique, I was setting some decent lap times. This, coupled with the excellent work from my fellow graveyard slot pilot, prompted Adam to declare the race was “in safe hands” and head to bed for a few hours. Richard – who shared overnight driving duties with fellow nocturnal gamer Calum – similarly took Matt and I’s lack of drama as a cue to head home for some rest (however, he was spotted posting on the EUMSC message board an hour and a half later). Even Calum nodded off on the settee as the early risers continued their non-stop charge round the Sarthe countryside, distracting the racers with a brief period of snoring.

It was somewhere during my second hour that my Le Mans experience became somewhat more realistic, if a great deal less comfortable. The large mug of coffee and two pints of water I had downed earlier had done their job in waking me up before my stint, but now they had served their purpose and my body decided they were no longer necessary. It was only ten minutes into my second hour-long shift, and I desperately, desperately needed to pee. I struggled to retain concentration as my energies were diverted into keeping the liquid inside me, and a series of sketchy moments followed (for the car in the game, that is, not for me). Thankfully no rivers, waterfalls or sea views are visible from the Le Mans circuit, and once I had focused my concentration back onto the race I was able to put another lap on the Mazda to increase our lead to four laps. There was good news all round when Adam returned to the living room – he was delighted that we’d increased the gap between us and the other cars to a point that even Scott wouldn’t be able to mess it up, and I was absolutely ecstatic to be able to go to the bathroom.

The gradual sunrise outside stimulated a rather more critical discussion on the aesthetics of Gran Turismo. We’d been racing for eighteen and a bit hours, and yet the clouds in the sky hadn’t moved one millimetre. It hadn’t got any lighter or darker, nor had any rain fallen. In stark contrast to Ridge Racer on the first PlayStation, where day lasted half a lap and darkness descended for all of forty seconds, it seemed that days in GT land lasted significantly longer than those on Planet Earth. Further, our driving must have been pretty scary, because the trackside marshals were frozen in position for the full twenty-four hours. How come they didn’t need to go to the toilet?

“Yay! Only five hours to go!” announced Adam as the race timer ticked over to nineteen hours, perhaps the only time the words ‘only’ and ‘five hours’ would ever be heard together in a video game context. With the nighttime drivers now rested up and back in the land of the living, it was time for my spell on the controls to come to an end. We’d done a pretty fine job, nearly doubling our team’s lead and filling in the most difficult time for students, the five-hour void that’s just to late for those that stay up late and just too early for those that like a wee lie in on a Saturday morning. We hadn’t run out of fuel or glitched through a wall into the scenery, and only a power failure or horrific blunder from one of the other gamers – the smart money was on Scott running the tank dry in the last half hour – during the morning would prevent us from completing one of the most difficult gaming tasks ever.

For the record, we did it with a four-lap margin, completing more than four hundred laps of the digital representation of La Sarthe in the process without anyone running out of petrol. I was at the top of Arthur’s Seat when I found out we’d done it, my phone vibrating with a short text as I took photos of the sunset. I do firmly believe there’s a point at which computer games lose their point and start being punishing rather than fun – and the 24-hour races in Gran Turismo definitely cross that line – and yet our squad of crack and not-so-crack drivers had managed to turn it into a reasonably entertaining social event. It may have been a five year-old computer game (and it wasn’t even my save file) but for the first time in a while I felt just a tiny bit proud to be part of EUMSC. Now, who’s up for the Nurburgring 24?


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