F10 520d SE
I knew I was going too fast as the nose of the M4 approached the apex. I was going to run out of track. In a heartbeat, cutting the corner a little more seemed the sensible thing to do. Severe of kerb and blind on the approach, I’ve driven this track enough to know what lay beyond, but even so in that moment I wasn’t sure quite how much road I would have left if this went wrong.
In the next breath, I knew I’d misjudged it. The front rode the kerb well enough without displacing the chassis more than expected, but then a thousandth of a second later, the rear hit the kerb right at its most extreme and rather than enjoying that balanced feel of front and rear in unison, just on the edge and peeking over the point of no return, it all started to unravel with the rear of the car rotating into the air, the force through the steering wheel increasing, the windscreen full of trees and not the corner which I’d just been looking at, and with said bend now coming at us through the passenger window…
Those of a certain age and a gaming inclination will recall the earliest days of the driving sim, and those halcyon days of the mid-‘90s, by when the earliest games (impressive but hampered by the limitations of the hardware) had evolved into something more realistic with the dawn of the modern console era, are the starting point of the evolutionary process which has brought us to where we are today.
The likes of TOCA Touring Cars and Colin McRae Rally, plus of course Gran Turismo and later, the Microsoft Forza series laid the ingredients for the successful formula, and today’s iterations are something to behold. Virtual Reality is the latest thing in gaming. But if you’re like me, you’ll feel that sitting in a room wearing a headset and headphones which isolate you from the surrounding environment (not to mention looking like a dork) is a tad anti-social. I like to be aware of what’s around me, hence I stick to the 32-inch monitor. But games tell you they offer a realistic interpretation of the art of driving so is there any truth in that, or is it a load of tyre smoke and mirrors?
The first thing to understand, whilst I’m hacking around the Nordschleife in my virtual BMW M4 (that wasn’t an actual #BMW-M4-Coupe-F82
I was referring to at the start, do you think #BMW
had taken leave of its senses!?), is I’m not sat in one of these gaming rigs which wouldn’t look out of place in McLaren F1’s R&D studio. Some people do spend thousands on these setups, but for that kind of cash I’d rather buy an actual car and do some track days. But at the same time, I’m not sat there on a cardboard box twirling a plastic plate, so some cash has been spent beyond the presence of a sturdy, reclining office leather chair…
We have a force feedback base by Thrustmaster, a TX to be precise at about 200 quid, to which is attached a 22-inch TM racing rim. Leather covered and equipped with tactile metal paddles and a solid metal centre, this adds weight and realism through avoiding feeling too plasticky or ‘light’ in your hands. And another 100 quid. Next, my feet drop onto the cool metal plate of my inverted #T3PAPRO
pedals, offering up full threepedal heel-n-toe control and a socalled canonical brake pedal mod, which allows proper resistance to be felt underfoot and hence, the judging of braking effort up to the point of lockup. Thrustmaster will relieve you of £150 for those.
The last item of what I consider the essential equipment without resorting to one of those rigs (and discounting the obvious requirement for a decent television or monitor, in my case a 32- inch HD 1080p LG bought used off eBay for 50 notes) is the TH8A shifter, again by Thrustmaster, and again fostering realism through allowing full manual gear changes when combined with the aforementioned pedal set.
Seven-speed capable, cool to the touch at least at the start of a gaming session and with an exposed gate, it’s a beautifully tactile addition and really sets the rest of the kit off a treat. And another 120 quid or so.
The total cost is somewhere around £570, to which we need to add around 50 quid for a decent set of headphones. With other sundries, we’re at 600 quid before factoring in the cost of the actual console. Xbox One bought new upon release, we’re at nearly a grand for the whole lot. Barmy, but still less than the £3.5k and up for one of those rigs. So, in short, it’d better be worth it…
Back to the Hohe Acht turn-in around the latter half of the ‘Ring (on a rise, blind entry, falling camber on the exit, the fella who drew this place had a really sick sense of humour). I’d gone in far too fast, clipped the kerbs and immediately sent the inside rear into the air… Travelling too quickly on increasing opposite lock and with the outside wheel scrubbing the surface, lifting off now would spell disaster. Split-second analysis of the decision (hindsight is a wonderful thing) resulted in a little more power being deployed, and in a nanosecond we’re broadside on the track as the inside rear regains its useless purchase on the Tarmac. And Wippermann is now looming in the side windows. Hmm…
At least it’s a right-hander, just about. As was the last corner, so we’re heading in vaguely the right direction. What to do? Drop anchor and hope enough speed is lost before the passenger side smashes into the Armco, or try to drive out of it? How to even try to drive out of it? Figuring that if this goes pear-shaped all I’ll lose is my pride and I won’t actually die, I work the situation. Modulating the power (coughs and crackles audible from the exhaust) but fighting the steering all the time, I twirl the wheel with such force my bottle of (thankfully, unopened) Dr Pepper falls off the table whilst I whoop far too loudly. The outside kerb of Wippermann is almost upon us but a combination of lost speed, reduced torque and a shallower steering angle scamper us around in a manner which almost implies pre-planning. My heart-rate says different. My wife looks up briefly from what she’s doing, shakes her head in amusement at my “THIS IS AWESOME” exclamation and returns to her task.
The M4, with not a mark anywhere on it, continues on its way up the road. The next lap (still with the tyre marks showing on the surface through Hohe Acht – a nice touch) is a good deal less eventful and by the end of the second lap, the tyres are shot and we need fuel too. But my mind tells me that was epic and a very realistic modelling of an M4’s behaviour in extremis.
But all this is supposition unless one has some actual real-world experience of the Nordschleife, not to mention your chosen wheels. So what are my credentials? An E46 320d which was collected new as a company car in Brussels years ago, and handed back two years later with 100km on the clock and decidedly second hand, gave me a few tastes of life around the ‘Ring. White-knuckled runs (bearing in mind company cars weren’t allowed to do such things if one listened to HR) and some interesting tussles with a muppet in an Opel Manta convinced me to get out whilst the going was good. So after four or five visits over a 12 month period, never once visiting the Armco, witnessing the increasing madness of some people and stringing together a circa ten-minute lap (in an E46 #BMW-320d-E46
, don’t forget) I declared the place ticked off my bucket list and haven’t been back since.
Not physically anyway. But the number of virtual miles I’ve completed around that track would likely run into thousands, and it’s now gotten to the point that I can replay a lap in my head, every corner entry point, clipping point and track position on the exit logged in my brain on a virtual, rotating 3D image of the place. Whether that ever translates into a decent actual lap, I’m not sure I want to try and find out.
And the M4? Well okay there’s some artistic licence at play here because I’ve not actually driven an #BMW-M4
as yet (and if anybody from BMW is reading this, I’d be more than happy to remedy the situation, and we don’t even have to go to the Nordschleife either). But time spent in an F80 M3 last year represents the next best thing, and whilst the ‘Ring wasn’t the stage for that experience, the noise, the feel and response and the gusto in evidence during the miles I drove the car on the public roads have stuck in my mind.
I can therefore declare that Assetto Corsa, the game in question, is very realistic. Sound-wise, the game is spot on. Oh I know the M3 and M4 pairing have received a load of stick in the press for not sounding as good as the E90 generation, but that’s like criticising the Euro Fighter for not sounding quite as evil as the Vulcan bomber. Doesn’t mean it’s any less capable of ruining your day should the need arise.
So the virtual M4 sounds pretty good, at least in terms of matching the real version. The creators have even successfully managed to model the interior, although as usual the lack of a HUD frustrates (other cars in the game get one). As for the handling, the one thing the game doesn’t model is weather beyond a little mist or fog, so the M4’s supposed spiky handling on the limit in damp conditions can’t be explored (a pity, one may have been able to learn to a certain extent, and in controlled conditions, how to drive around it).
We can still comment on the dry handling though. So get the chassis loaded-up in a turn, now adjust the balance with a little more throttle, feel the rear start to slip. No need for corrective lock, at this point the rear is turning the car with the fronts pointing at zero degrees. Hold this attitude for as long as the corner lasts and the M4 arcs around gracefully; a mournful wail from the tyres filling your world. Allow some more power and the feeling of balance remains (remembering we are using a force feedback wheel, which accurately mimics steering and chassis loading, even if the fixed seat doesn’t) whilst the rear now slides out a little. This is where the simulation really starts to tell. One has to know exactly how much corrective lock to apply. Too little and the car will slide further outwards until it runs out of road and you crash into the barriers on the inside of the turn. Too much and the slide ends abruptly. From there it’s almost inevitable that you’ll nose it at speed into the opposite barriers on the outside of the turn. Get it wrong and you’ll tut-tut, press restart and try over. Get it right and you’re convinced you’ll never get it wrong, and you’re off to try it again at the next corner…
Perhaps you can’t afford an M3. Or an M4. Or a 1M which is also modelled in the game and unnervingly accurate with its wailing straight-six and spin-in-its-own-length handling. I know I can’t. So for many, the possibilities offered up by a good driving sim are intriguing, and if you’ve not tried it, I urge you to do so.
As for the 520d, no I wouldn’t dare attempt to take this one around the ‘Ring because it’s my own car! We’ve been to North Wales again this month though, and hacking across country from Shrewsbury and then out into the sticks up the A5 with the heated seats and wheels going full blast and -3°C outside (it was -7°C the following morning!), plus some decent toons on the hi-fi was a very pleasurable experience. I’ve said before that travelling at night in the F10 is a very pleasurable way of putting distance behind you and that doesn’t change with familiarity. One assumes the same sense of well-being will be evident in the G30 when it arrives. We spent a pleasant couple of days in Betws-y-Coed, nosing around the local shops and generally having a good time, and I spent far too much money in the model railway place.
Again. Then the time came to leave and as night approached we scampered south back along the A5, the sun setting rapidly to our right as night crept over the hills, turning the landscape from green, through husky greys to darker browns before blackness and night enveloped us silently. Mercifully free of traffic, and hence cracking on whenever I had the chance, we made good time on the return trip and the nigh-on 40mpg returned by the B47 despite the aforementioned heated occupants proves that modern engines, for all their efficiency and as I alluded to last month, are better with more demanding usage than just crawling around town.
MILEAGE THIS MONTH: 897
TOTAL MILEAGE: 12,775
MPG THIS MONTH: 39.6
COST THIS MONTH: Nil