x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Virtual v reality: David Coulthard takes on Gran Turismo 5 gamers

Former F1 racer David Coulthard defends the real world in a race against Jeremy Hart and 24 of the best online video gamers. Are pixels supplanting horsepower?

David Coulthard laps the Dunsfold Aerodrome in a Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG
David Coulthard laps the Dunsfold Aerodrome in a Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG

For David Coulthard, former star of Formula One, this is the biggest race he's ever competed in. But not that you'd know sitting on the grid - there's only one car. A red Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG; a 571hp gull-winged machine bristling with pent-up energy. It's idling noisily on track and Coulthard is strapped up tightly inside, waiting for the start of the race.

He's the only one on the track at the Dunsfold Aerodrome in Surrey, UK, a track you'd recognise if you've ever watched an episode of the BBC show Top Gear. And, apparently, he's nervous. Perhaps he should be; he'll be going up against thousands of video gamers from all over Europe, virtual drivers piloting pixels online in Gran Turismo 5 (GT5) on Sony PlayStations. Every one of them is determined to demonstrate that 13 grand prix wins is no substitute for time spent alone in dark basements with a games console. The prize? Pride, and an all-expenses-paid trip to the Brazilian Grand Prix. Coulthard is only interested in the former.

Irrelevant? Not one bit. The games console has become as useful a tool for racing drivers as it has been a means for children everywhere to limit interaction with their parents. What better way to learn the basics of a track than via your television, phone or computer? Even F1 drivers use these video games during the season.

In fact, the incredible realism of games such as Gran Turismo 5 has raised the question of whether these virtual racers have what it takes to race in reality. The answer is yes. Not in all cases, obviously, but Lucas Ordonez, a man who this year stepped on the podium at the 24 Hours of Le Mans - perhaps one of the world's most gruelling races - won his first real drive thanks to a Gran Turismo competition.

"I'm quite jealous, I largely missed the world of computers in Formula One," admits Coulthard earlier. "I've never felt that comfortable in simulators as a result. I miss the seat-of-the-pants feel. Doing this is my chance to hit back for the analogue world in the digital age and I'm feeling the fear which is going to put some vulnerability in my driving. If I lose, I'll be gutted."

Twenty-four of the best gamers are a few kilometres away at Mercedes-Benz World, a flagship driving and exhibitions centre for the brand that sponsored the event last month. Giving up their couches and bedrooms for game consoles with proper racing seats, steering wheels and pedals, these virtual pilots are all convinced they've got what it takes to beat Coulthard. I'll be joining them, too. We'll each have 15 minutes to try and beat Coulthard's best time.

The Scot, 40, hung up his F1 helmet a few years back, but he looks better than your average retiree. He's still racing in the German DTM series, and commentating on F1 races alongside fellow former racer Martin Brundle on television. His realty will be competing with my virtual reality but, in typical racing-driver style, he's getting his excuses in early. "If there is more than half a second between us, then something has gone wrong," he says.

Really? Yes, he affirms. In terms of like-for-like imitation, the virtual racing world is now expected to model the real one very closely. But what about the physical side of the race?

Here, surprisingly, Coulthard thinks the race would also be close. "Even driving the fastest road car expends nothing like the physical energy of an F1 race car," he says before the race. "Driving a race car puts 5Gs of pressure through your internal organs." (That's why modern F1 drivers have not only extremely high cardiovascular fitness; they also do a lot of strength training.) Here, it wouldn't be needed. "This will be all nervous energy," says Coulthard.

Nervous or not, to measure exactly what's going on before the race began we both strapped on Suunto heart rate monitors. They would measure our average heart rate over the race, our maximum heart rate, and the calories we used while racing.

Coulthard says to expect the highest heart rate reading before the race begins. "My heart rate would hit 160 beats per minute [bpm] just sitting on the grid before an F1 race."

As it transpired, my heart rate peaked at a rather different point.

And the race begins. GT5 is a very realistic racing game, in the sense that it is unforgiving, difficult and extremely frustrating. As Coulthard laps Dunsfold, putting in times of about 1 minute 16 seconds, I oversteer, understeer and crunch virtual gears all the way round the virtual track, bellowing curses with increasing volume.

My heart rate, usually around 65bpm, runs at an average of 92bpm during the race. It peaks at 113bpm at a point during my sixth lap, when I miss the same braking point for the sixth successive time and, through a noisy tantrum, hitting the PlayStation steering wheel with my fists. It is not so much nervous energy as toddler rage.

Watching Coulthard on the track, there is no trepidation or tantrums with his driving. He reckons he can learn any track in 10 laps, but bystanders agree it's more like five as the red sports car appears to follow the same racing line with monotonous regularity. Brundle, who's there to commentate for the live streaming, adds: "TV doesn't do this track justice. It's really tricky to drive because there are no reference points."

Coulthard was always known for being a smooth driver in a grand prix car and he reckons that pays dividends in heavier, less powerful road models. "I've got the traction control and electronic aids switched on because you don't want the rear sliding," he's saying on the radio during his laps. "It might look good but, in my experience, it loses you heaps of time."

Coulthard's calmness is demonstrated by his heart rate readings. He runs an average heart rate of 97bpm, peaking at 127bpm. Driving the real SLS is undoubtedly harder than the virtual version, but I am fairly sure it is not as frustrating.

By the end of the race, our comparative calorie count is interesting, too. Coulthard expended 184 calories in his 15 minutes of racing; I managed 101 calories. But it is instructive that you can burn 400 calories an hour just playing a computer game. Do it for 70 minutes and you'd have burned off the equivalent of a Big Mac. A valid measure, and encouraging for today's fast-food-obsessed youth.

As it turned out, then, there was rather more than half a second difference in my race. My best virtual lap of Dunsfold is 1 minute, 34 seconds; Coulthard was a good 22 seconds faster than that. Something had gone wrong, then, but it was something rather simple. I am rubbish at computer games.

Londoner Jason Birt isn't. His lap time stands out with a one minute, 16.868 seconds, though he's still half a second slower than DC. The 31-year-old, who works as a driver for the National Health Service in the real world, is delighted. "I never win anything and I don't consider myself to be a lucky person," is about all he can say.

Coulthard adds: "That was the fastest time I did all day, but one lap is all it takes and, on this day in history, the real world was quicker than the virtual world."

Perhaps, but the two are stunningly closer than ever.