“Driving a GT-R is like a video game”, they say. We’ll see about that…
I drove my first Nissan GT-R when I was about 14 years old. Not a real one of course – a pixellated, virtual depiction, around Grand Valley or Deep Forest Raceway in Gran Turismo 2.
I’m now driving another Nissan GT-R – and the way I’m controlling it isn’t a great deal different to that first R33 or R34 Skyline I piloted on the PlayStation. Only if I stick this one into the barriers, the car won’t bounce harmlessly off and continue on its merry way.
That’s because today’s GT-R isn’t virtual at all. It’s a real R35-generation Nissan GT-R (hailing from 2011), running on a real circuit, and it’s controlled remotely – by me – from a PS4 joypad from a chase car.
The Qashqai I’m sitting in will probably be fine for today’s activities, though GT Academy winner and now professional racing driver Jann Mardenborough’s recent 1:17 lap around Silverstone’s National circuit in this very car required a helicopter to keep pace. It hit 131mph on that lap.
I hit about… well, 30mph or so. To be fair, it’s quite difficult. Built by JLB Design Ltd, the GT-R/C (as it’s known) uses four robots inside the cabin, operating the steering, transmission, throttle and brakes, with a series of computers to monitor inputs at a rate of 100 times per second.
Remarkably, JLB has then hooked up a microprocessor that interprests the remote signals of a standard PS4 DualShock 4 controller and translates the movement of its buttons into movements in the actual car. So the left analog stick handles steering, the right and left trigger buttons handle acceleration and braking respectively, and the up and down directional buttons are used to select drive and reverse.
It’s seriously sensitive. I know Jann is good, both in a real car and on a PlayStation, but how he managed to negotiate Silverstone from a helicopter is beyond me – I was just about capable of trundling the car along at 30mph, braking without coming to a full emergency stop each time, and turning in a vaguely smooth motion around a simple coned course.
To be fair to myself, it’s a difficult concept to get your head around. Partly because you’re constantly aware that the GT-R is running full power and isn’t “geo-fenced” – i.e. there’s no electronic shut-off keeping it from accelerating towards the horizon. There is a bloke in the back of the Qashqai with a kill switch, but the potential for chaos is still high.
And driving one car remotely from another is quite tricky. Your instinct is to respond to the movements you’re feeling in the chase car to operate the GT-R/C, and you don’t realise how much perspective plays a part too. In a typical racing game your view is always fixed, either in, on or behind the car, while in normal radio-control racing you’re typically standing still and observing from a distance. This feels a bit more like one of those videogame missions where you’re shooting a moving target from a moving vehicle and having to account for your own movements as well as those ahead of you.
It takes a lap or two to get the hang of things, but reverse-parking the GT-R from a distance into a coned garage throws more perspective changes into the mix. It’s a neat trick, and I manage to park the car perfectly in three attempts, but this only serves to illustrate just how clever the remote parking features in cars like the current BMW 7-series are. Let owners do it themselves from outside the car and you’d have driverless cars plunging from multi-storeys in no time.
Anyway, I managed not to crash. Nor pull a full emergency stop in front of the Qashqai, nor pitch the car into a remote-controlled slide, which I’m sure would have looked cool but turns the guys from JLB white with terror.
But the next time someone tells me driving a Nissan GT-R is like playing a videogame, I’m going to tell them to sod off. The real GT-R feels like a Caterham Seven after trying to drive one with a joypad…