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Sims and spins: a history of virtual racing on MSV circuits

Thursday, December 27 2012

With the circuits closed over the Christmas break, what better way is there of getting a motorsport fix by picking up a controller, or more likely a steering wheel and pedals, and racing around a virtual world? The holiday is a traditional time for receiving games, consoles and computers and the thought left a few of us at MSV reminiscing on our childhoods.....

Pitstop II

Those of us longer in both memory and tooth immediately thought of the early days of the digital revolution, and the first games when the player got a driver's eye view of the action, or at least from just behind the car. Looking a bit like a modern-day Sat Nav, Pitstop II on the Commodore 64 featured Brands Hatch, after all it was a regular feature on the Grand Prix calendar in the early 1908s. However a quick game reminded us just how far things had moved on. For some reason the start line was by Pilgrim's Drop, and Paddock Hill was flat - not just in speed but topography! The two-player split-screen head-to-head mode and pitstop feature where you got to refuel the car in true early 1980s Brabham style was good fun however....

Chequered Flag

Pitstop was a fun arcade game, but serious simulations were on the rise too. Those with Sinclair Spectrums will fondly recall Chequered Flag with its primitive cockpit and animated tyres, following a snaking ribbon of black road on a green background but with no opponents to compete against, just the clock.

Revs

Owners of the more serious BBC Microcomputer weren't often the envy of gamers but they had Revs, which put the player in the cockpit of a Formula 3 car around the UK's tracks. Primitive AI gave a range of cars to actually race and some undulation was even employed, useful for when a track pack was released with Brands Hatch and Oulton Park. Snetterton was also simulated and a year later Commodore 64 owners could join in the fun but controlling the car with anything other than an analogue joystick was rather tricky.

Grand Prix 2

Computing power doubled during the mid 1980s with the advent of 16-bit machines and Revs author Geoff Crammond revisited his earlier game, now at Formula 1 level. Grand Prix featured all the cars and circuits and spawned a sequel that could be updated with unofficial expansion packs. Version two covered the 1994 season but with the addition of an extra disk, players could compete on the Brands Hatch Grand Prix circuit. Ten years on from Revs, the difference was incredible, with a circuit that was starting to resemble the experience of lapping the venue, but being unofficial it was limited by the game's pre-constructed images of stands and scenery that bore no relation to the Paddock Hill Grandstand, for example.

TOCA Touring Cars

However just a short while later the first TOCA Touring Car game provided the first official and semi-realistic version of the track on a PC or Playstation. Being able to barge around the Indy circuit was great fun too, just as it was in the sequel. Being based on the BTCC series meant that Oulton Park and Snetterton were also included and TOCA Race Driver, the third in the series, added the Brands Hatch GP circuit and a range of cars from other series'.

Grand Prix Legends

Back on the serious simulation front PC game Grand Prix Legends went back in time to the 1967 season, when the powerful 3 litre-engined cars were yet to sprout wings. This made the game very difficult but with add-on packs gamers could race around a sixties version of Brands Hatch and pretend they were James Garner in 'Grand Prix', or perhaps Yves Montand, because the Ferrari engine note really was something else!

RFactor

RFactor in the middle of the last decade expanded on the open format of Grand Prix and Grand Prix Legends, with websites featured tracks from around the globe as well as a whole range of cars. Gamers could now race a 1988 McLaren MP4/4 turbo around Cadwell Park if they so wished and drivers would often sample the track on their computer before a trackday or race.

Now anyone can brag about their laptime at Brands Hatch, Oulton Park, Snetterton, Cadwell Park or even Bedford Autodrome, driven with a steering wheel, pedals and even the choice of paddle, sequential or good old H-gate gearbox and clutch. And in the case of iRacing, lap a realistically laser-modelled Brands Hatch or Oulton Park. But there's something magical about those primitive first virtual laps of a favourite circuit, even if revisiting the experience isn't quite the same.

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