hafriz-shah-column

Have you gotten your Super License yet? You know what I’m taking about – in Gran Turismo 6. Apologies. Reality has never been my strongest suit. Three months of driving around New Zealand’s picturesque roads in a V8-powered coupe seemed real enough, true. And then? I had to return the rental car, I got cold turkey and the PlayStation and I got very serious indeed.

You guessed it: Gran Turismo was my first boot. Quick arcade mode. Holden Monaro CV8, around Trial Mountain Circuit. Real or not, it hardly mattered.

In my entertainment room, sawing away at a Logitech wheel, GT replicates the Monaro impeccably. I think. But I can’t be sure. On the road, out in the real world, I harpooned the Holden through the gears, redlined it time and time again and revelled in a beguiling mix of hardheaded noise and absolute mechanical implacability.

Yet, I never got it really sideways to watch the world go by through the side windows. Never turned in hard against the brakes to flick the back out. Never. And it wasn’t even my own car.

Wimp? Me? You try this in on public roads, amid speed limits and cameras, blind corners, blind drivers, brave buses and bonkers cabbies. No can do, not out in the real world. But safe inside GT, bottle in my hand, I’m rarely in a straight line, even when the road is.

So which is the most authentic experience for an end-user steeped in car culture? Real, living and breathing machine or virtual, pre-programmed on PlayStation? Which iteration replicates the other, given that I do not have absolute confirmation that the real car will hold a slide progressively?

In truth, each one is equally enjoyable, equally wieldy, equally consistent – and precisely fulfils the wishes of the eight-year-old living in each of us.

Car culture, then, is so broad and diverse, that we might now have to go to a point where actual driving, all the bum-on-seat, wind-in-hair, bug-in-teeth tradly-dadly stuff we were weaned on is peripheral. You can blame the AES or all manners of traffic-calming aphemera. So what? Times change.

Being a music lover has never implied that you must play an instrument. Why then, should driving be central to a passion for cars? The first time I saw a Ferrari when I was a kid, blippity-blipping in traffic in Bangsar, remains a profound memory. That was enough for me.

I’ve never driven a Ferrari in public roads – never wanted to, in truth. As a child I’ve tried one in Sega’s OutRun and it confirmed all my nastier preconceptions about big uncontrollable power and skittish handling through the simple expedient of shoving a token into an arcade slot.

Don’t think video games as schoolboy skive-accessories. A driving video game is, today, your entry-level car experience. Many racing drivers today started off not in karts, but at gaming consoles. And between race weekends, they’re busy in the team simulators, which are essentially advanced racing games.

Did you fall in love with your first car? Today, it’s easier to adore a fast, snorty, high-tech Japanese supercar than to get your head around the idea that a clapped-out Perodua Kelisa is the first stage to motoring nirvana.

Earlier this year I visited a Formula 1 race at Silverstone. Spent the morning out in the stands, drank in the support races and watched the F1 cars drive out on to the track. Then, with too much sun, too little excitement, I headed back to the Paddock Club to catch the full race shrink-wrapped live through a television.

From the stands, I monitored the shape of the race – relative positions of cars, gaps between competitors, the occasional off-beat racing line. Broad swathes of the big picture. Through the telly I was submerged in beguilingly irrelevant detail: cameras on-car, close-ups, zoom and a frantic commentary duo compelled to remind me that the competition was brilliant.

It wasn’t. The actual wheel-to-wheel racing, be it 100 metres away on the track or across a 55-inch Samsung flatscreen, was drab. Real Silverstone was three cappuccinos and a soggy egg sandwich; TV Silverstone was technology over content, style over substance, a slick demonstration of the state-of-the-possible in live sportscasting. But I loved every minute of it. The racing was, in truth, irrelevant.

So again, which was the most legitimate experience? The answer, of course, is that the answer doesn’t matter. Car culture provides a framework from which to enjoy the automobile. Playing a racing video game or watching motorsport on the screen simply reminds how great cars are – and they should be lauded for that, if nothing else.

The breadth of car culture is, in an era of manic motorcyclists, inconsiderate cabbers and a government in which traffic-choked bottleneck roads are used as the inspiration for cack-handed transport policies, the strongest suit we car fans have.

Before, subsidiary support for a fascination with cars came from precious copies of auto magazines, a collection of car posters and a stash of Hot Wheels. Today all that has changed to daily visits to paultan.org, free subscription to Driven+ Magazine and a virtual dream garage in a PlayStation or Xbox.

The times, they are a-changin’. Don’t get left behind.