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I played video games to train for racing at Le Mans

And I wasn't very good at it

Max Earey / Aston Martin

This is The Harper Spin, a weekly column from seasoned auto critic Jason H. Harper. He’s raced at Le Mans, crushed a car in a 50-ton tank, and now, he’s bringing his unique style to The Verge.

Last year at this time, I was preparing to race at Le Mans. And I was pretty much quaking in my fireproof suit.

My race wasn’t the grand 24-hour event, just a 45-minute sprint race scheduled beforehand. But when it comes to the infamous Circuit de la Sarthe, there is no "just." The course is one of the most challenging and dangerous in all of motorsport; a 8.5-mile coil around the French town of Le Mans, of which almost six miles take place on public roads closed for the event.

Imagine driving 200 miles an hour down a narrow road with a dividing line...

Why is it so tricky? Take the notorious Mulsanne Straight. Any other time of year it is a 3.7-mile, two-lane rural road that ambles through the forested countryside, home to puttering Renaults and tipsy motorbikes. But early every summer — the 18th and 19th of June this year — that all changes. Imagine driving 200 miles an hour down a narrow road with a dividing line, bumps and fences alongside. At night, in the rain.

My car was an Aston Martin GT12, a blunt English hammer with nearly 600 horsepower. The race was an exhibition of modern Aston Martins against one another, and was coined the Michelin Aston Martin Le Mans Festival. There would be more than 200,000 fans watching.

How do you learn a track as complicated as Le Mans? In truth, the full "track" doesn’t exist at all, except this one time of year when they close the roads. So you can’t just pop over and practice throughout the year. We would get two short sessions the Wednesday and Thursday before. Helpful, but not enough to learn all of the twists and turns.

...at night, in the rain

So I, like so many other competitors, had but one recourse: a video game. Forza Motorsport features the Circuit de la Sarthe, and it’s reproduced faithfully enough that you can learn the sequence of turns and the braking points. My plan was to get an Xbox One and learn the track.

There was one more problem. I really, really suck at video games. Especially driving ones.

My video game education was a truncated one. I was a child of the 1970s. My hand-eye coordination was poor and someone convinced my parents that an Atari 2600, one of the few video game consoles of the time, would be a help. I got one for Christmas and it was a very big deal. I remember hours of River Raid and Pitfall, Pong and Missile Command. Good times — and my coordination did improve. But by middle school, the console was shelved. I ignored all the ensuing consoles — the Game Boys and PlayStations, Nintendos, Xboxes. I ended up focusing on other stereotypical teenager things, like girls and parties and even studying.

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(Max Earey / Aston Martin)

And, for the last 15-plus years, there have been race tracks. Real ones. I wasn’t very good at first, and then I got better. I took courses and was taught by masters, some who have raced and won at Le Mans. The dynamics of a car at speed began to make sense. I learned to interpret the sensation of rear tires losing traction underneath me; the G forces on my body when I’m braking just short of ABS; the stubborn feeling of wash that comes with understeer; and the happy sensation when a car is turning perfectly, as if it is pivoting around your hips. My own body is the barometer by which I interpret a car’s movements.

None of that stuff works in a video game. It’s just the piped-in sound and the perspective outside the front window and maybe some faint feedback from a steering wheel. Over the years people have prodded me into showing off my driving skills on a video game. Hilarity ensues. Any 10-year-old with a few hours playing the game will beat me as I run into one wall after another.

Nonetheless, I sourced an Xbox One and Forza Motorsport 5 and a car seat with a feedback-yielding steering wheel and pedal set, and I slowly assembled all the stuff together. I learned that you couldn’t just plug in the damn Xbox and play like my Atari of yore. You have to connect to the net and make a profile. At various times during the process I’d get annoyed and bored and go do something in the real world. But time was ticking and the race approaching.

Any 10-year-old with a few hours playing the game will beat me as I run into one wall after another

The good news was that when I drove a track I knew well, like Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, the course was perfect, and the cars reacted like they really should. So I knew that the Circuit de la Sarthe would be fairly faithful. (I watched in-car videos, also, to compare.) This verisimilitude would be critical for places on the track like the Mulsanne Straight, where you are traveling long periods of time, at high speeds, and need to learn where to brake in relation to passing buildings and telephone poles.

Slowly, the course came into focus. The start line past the spectator stands, the hill up to the Dunlop Bridge. The Mulsanne’s twin chicanes seemed pretty straightforward, except that you enter the first from the right and the second from the left. (Screw that up and you’ll wreck.) The end of the straight terminates at a terrifying right hand turn that is sharper than 90 degrees. Screw that up and you crash. And eventually the highly challenging Porsche Curves, which have tight walls and are deceptive and are another really likely place to crash. Sense a theme developing?

I was racing at the behest of Aston Martin, and my teammate with whom I would share racing duties was Andy Palmer, the company CEO. (Nice guy, and a good man behind the wheel, as it would turn out.) So days before I arrived in France, I was ushered to a facility with a racing simulator outside of Cambridge, England. I expected something with hydraulics, that would feel more like the real thing. But no, it was basically the cockpit of a car in front of a massive pixelated screen. It ran a different racing program, but was basically the same. A few technicians watched from a control room as I drove around and around, occasionally crashing.

Wonderful, I thought. I’m terrible at this and I’ve got spectators.

A few technicians watched from a control room as I drove around and around, occasionally crashing

Then one of the workers at the facility, perhaps in his late teens, clambered into the "car" and said he’d show me how it was done. And he was fast — in the video game. But he was running heedlessly over curbs and on the sides of the roads. I asked him if he’d ever driven at Le Mans or any real track at all fact. No, he told me. And I shook my head. Try that shit on a real track and you’ll end up slipping on debris and crashing into a wall.

"Video games are bullshit," I thought to myself.

And three days later, I really was at Le Mans, and about to race. I was in a lineup of dozens of Aston Martins and we swept toward the starting line and the crowds were packed with fans and all of the drivers pretty much lost their minds. All of the preparation that we all did seemed to vanish in an instant. Cars came into the first corners four abreast, which is lunacy. I knew if there was a crash it would be a very real one. Sure enough, as I got to the first chicane on the Mulsanne, there was smoke and debris and parts littered across the track, and I drove around them.

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(Max Earey / Aston Martin)

Then, coming out of the Ford Chicane, I spun myself and went into the gravel. I got out and resumed the race, trailing rocks behind me. There was another wreck and then another. Finally the race was "red flagged" — one of the wrecks was so big and serious that they needed to fix one of the catch fences, so the race was officially stopped.

The video game was essential, as it turned out. I was truly thankful to have a tool that so faithfully reproduced the lefts and rights, the dips and curbing. But there’s simply no way to prepare for the reality of racing at Le Mans. The size and scope of the place, the pressure of other cars bearing down on you and the constant threat of crashing. And all those fans.

You might be really good at driving video games. Nissan even puts on the GT Academy for the best Gran Turismo players and puts them in real cars, and some have gone on to become winners.

As for me, though? Nissan probably would’ve tossed me out of the first round.