Rallying on screen and for real
The 1990s arcade classic 'Sega Rally' is back. Simon Usborne takes it for a test drive, but can the computer game compare with the white-knuckle thrills of a genuine World Rally car?
I'm sitting behind the controls of a turbocharged Subaru Impreza rally car. To my left is the World Rally Championship driver Guy Wilks. "Keep your line," he barks over the din of the 300bhp engine as I enter a slide, steering the bonnet of the pristine machine perilously close to the base of a jagged cliff.
"Easy on the throttle," he says as I approach the next bend a tad too fast. I try to listen to his advice, but my focus on the road is blocking out his words as I grapple with the steering wheel.
After completing six laps of the dirt track like the Looney Tunes Road-Runner wearing a blindfold, I come in with a pathetic time and swap the controls of the wayward Subaru for a glass of chilled Cerveza. For Wilks and I are not tearing round the Spanish stage of a real rally - if we were, we would have met a grisly end several miles earlier - we are sitting in a hotel bar in front of a television.
We're playing the eagerly awaited video game Sega Rally. Developed by Sega's new British-based Racing Studios, where a crack team of bleary-eyed physicists, designers and gaming nerds have spent years replicating every grain of gravel and moment of torque that features in the real thing, Sega hopes that its new title, released last month, will repeat the success of its cult original 1995 arcade game.
"I used to be addicted to that," says Wilks, 26, of the arcade classic. "If I couldn't complete it in two goes, I'd walk away - two pounds was a lot of money to a 15-year-old back then."
Wilks says those hours spent in a Darlington arcade partly inspired him, aged 19, to quit a burgeoning career as a county cricketer and take up rally driving for real. But surely this kind of driving experience via pixels and tinny speakers - however advanced the "next-gen" Sega Rally game is - bears no resemblance to the dust and petrol fumes of the real road?
"The handling in the game is actually very good," Wilks says. "If you keep on a clean line, the second time you go round the car goes faster and has more grip - and that's definitely the case with the real deal."
But one thing no game will ever replicate is the element of danger. "Apart from throwing your controls at your pal if he beats you, it's hard to hurt yourself on a computer game," Wilks says. "You can take a corner flat out and see how you go, but in real life you can't take that risk."
To find out just how the element of danger separates real rallying from virtual, I have joined Wilks at the Ascari Race Resort, a private track built by Klaas Zwart, a millionaire Dutch oil tycoon and petrolhead. The facility is hailed by many drivers as the best in the world.
Crossing the 26-corner black ribbon that winds around a parched valley just outside the Andalucian town of Ronda, we arrive at the rather less pristine rally circuit. My ride for the morning is a very fast car with a big engine and a cool spoiler - specifically, a four-wheel-drive, turbocharged, 2.0-litre, 285bhp, Mitsubishi Evo 6.
Helmeted and strapped into the Recaro racing seat, the first thing I notice in the stripped-down interior is the lingering smell of petrol. Then, having never handled anything more powerful than a 1.6-litre Mk II Ford Orion, I instinctively drop the clutch with a jerk and floor the throttle. The car lurches and stalls, as Wilks looks on from the luxury trackside gazebo.
A few laps in, my feet have developed a lighter touch and I'm starting to improve as Ralph, my instructor from the UK-based firm Extreme Rally, calmly talks me around each bend via in-helmet microphones.
I soon learn that the sensation of sliding, rather than steering, a car round a corner at breakneck speed is a thrill like no other. Just yards short of a 90-degree left turn, at what feels like - and probably is - 40mph, a gentle stab on the brake pedal and a sharp left flick of the wheel sends the Mitsubishi into a slide. By coaxing the engine with the throttle and gently applying opposite-lock steering, it's surprisingly easy - not to mention exhilarating - to guide the car back on to the straight ready to tackle the next bend.
Back at base, my T-shirt dripping with sweat, I hobble towards Wilks and show him a "rally blister" on my left thumb. "You pen-pusher!" he says. It's time for Wilks and his calloused hands to show me how the pros do it. "Are you sure this is the same course," I shout down the microphone from the passenger seat as we hurtle towards the first bend.
And then I stop talking. It is the same course - the same bends, the same surface - but rather than gripping the wheel with white knuckles, constantly swinging it left and right as perspiration drips down his chin, Wilks makes driving round the track seem like a Saturday morning sortie to Sainsbury's. In his hands, an almost imperceptible flick of the wheel combined with a delicate dance across the accelerator and brake pedals is enough to glide the snarling Mitsubishi around the course with impressive grace. Not a single drop of sweat springs from his brow.
"I love sharing the experience of rally driving with people who maybe haven't ever got into a rally car before," says Wilks back at the gazebo. "And if a game can give people a little taste of what it's like, that's great. Once people's eyes are opened to the sport, they're hooked before they know it." He's right - I'm already planning my next fix.