When the world’s 16 best drivers lined up for the final on stage as the Monaco national anthem rang out across the arena, I felt a shiver run down my spine. It reminded me of the prelude to a soccer world cup final when the players line up and sing along with their respective national anthems. But here in Monaco, the home of F1, these racers have not come to compete on the famous street circuit. They are here to sit in front of a game console and battle it out on real roads, that have been meticulously recreating in Gran Turismo–the world’s biggest selling driving simulation game, for the title of GT Sport’s National Cup world champion and Manufacturer’s Series champion.
When the driver’s title was finally won by 20-year old Brazilian ace, Igor Fraga, several racing commentators in the audience could not help but liken his looks, driving style and meteoric rise to the legendary triple F1 champion Ayrton Senna.
To make it to Monaco, participants have had to beat thousands of applicants from around the world in three major finals staged in Japan, Spain and the U.S.A., racing each other on a variety of tracks and in a mixed selection of race cars. Here, over a 3-day period, on this stage, drivers will compete in a virtual tournament that is the first-ever FIA certified racing game. That’s right, Gran Turismo is the first driving game to be recognized as a real-world motorsport by the world’s motorsport governing body—the FIA.
Okay, so what does that mean, in the real world, I hear you say. Well, apart from official FIA stewards being on hand to judge any on-track incidents or overzealous driving using slow-motion replays and then handing out instant drive-through penalties, the world champions (of the driver’s title and team’s title) will receive their trophies at an official FIA ceremony on the same stage as F1’s champion Lewis Hamilton in St Petersburg, Russia on December 7. You can’t get any more real-world than that.
Speaking of winners, every sport needs its stars, charismatic players who capture the audience’s attention. And Gran Turismo is no different. Stars like soccer’s Christiano Ronaldo or tennis’ Roger Federer. In Monaco, a star was crowned and his name is Igor Fraga. And the way the young Brazilian won his world title could not have been better choreographed. Even 5-time F1 world champion Lewis Hamilton, who as Gran Turismo “maestro,” showed up in person to give the drivers a pep talk, nodded in agreement that he had witnessed the birth of a champion. Winning the first race from pole position around the newly created Tokyo Expressway circuit, Fraga immediately shot to the top of the points table.
In the second race at Brazil’s Interlagos Circuit, Fraga fought nose to tail with Japan’s Tomoaki Yamanaka at the head of the pack, eventually losing out to the Japanese driver in the race’s last minute. In the third at Italy’s famed Monza racetrack, Fraga lost his rhythm and his tire strategy backfired, allowing Yamanaka to claim victory again, quickly moving him to the top of the leaderboard. Fraga plummeted to 10th place in the points standings and seemingly out of contention.
Then the young Brazilian showed us what he was made of. Grit and talent. Prodigious talent. In the final race 9-lap race at Le Mans legendary Sarthe Circuit, Fraga, starting from 10th place on the grid, put in the drive of his life to pass car after car and eventually find himself in the top 3 fighting for a podium. His choice to opt for soft tires in the last stint and superior high-speed cornering technique gave him the edge he needed to overtake Yamanaka, Australian Cody Nikola Latkovski and German driver Mikhail Hizal in the second last lap. It was the double points he scored from this win that allowed him to overtake Yamanaka in the points table and be crowned inaugural Nations Cup World Champion. Hizal came in second and Latkovski finished in third place.
Altogether, 66 drivers gathered in Monaco for the GT Sport World Final, which is comprised of two championships; the Nation’s Cup for individual drivers and the Manufacturers Series for teams. In the latter tournament, 16 teams comprising of 3 drivers per team competed in an endurance race at Germany’s famed Nurburgring. The manufacturers included Mercedes Benz, BMW, Audi, Toyota, Nissan, Honda, Ford, GM, Hyundai, Aston Martin, and Jaguar, just to name a few.
After a monumental battle in which the lead changed hands several times, Lexus passed Nissan on the final lap to capture the lead and the championship. Toyota came second and Aston Martin picked up third place.
These drivers might have been competing in the virtual world final but the atmosphere was very real and addictive. For people who don’t play games, it may be difficult to grasp the skill and training required to compete at this world level. The graphics and physics engines of Gran Turismo are so realistic that you have to pinch yourself sometimes to prove that you are watching a virtually generated race. That is essentially why the FIA agreed to certify this simulator game. Because of its level of realism and accuracy as well as the new dimension it brings to racing. “As we have developed motorsport over the last several years, we have noticed the impact that video games has on the younger audience, using simulators like Gran Turismo, which of course is of a quality that professional drivers actually use to train. So for us, it was a natural progression to acknowledge the contributions that Gran Turismo had made to motorsport, and through this globally recognized platform we plan to appeal to a wider, younger audience,” commented FIA head of brand and licensing, Stephane Fillastre.
The 16 Nations Cup drivers might have been sitting in front of their 16 consoles mounted in a staggered formation atop a stage inside the Monte Carlo Bay Hotel, but for the audience watching them drive in real time and seeing their efforts relayed in real time in shocking accuracy and clarity onto a mammoth screen, the race experience was complete. Unlike real-world racing, you actually felt like you were sitting in the cars, with the drivers, speeding down the Le Mans track at 300km/h.
“I was very impressed with their driving technique, and the way they approached their tire and fuel strategies, well this is real motor racing,” said FIA’s Deputy President for World Motor Sport, Graham Stoker. Gran Turismo creator and president, Kazunori Yamauchi, said “we signed the agreement with the FIA 6 years ago, so it’s been a long process to get to this stage—selecting the race tracks to be used, the cars in which the drivers will compete and how we would organize the actual championship itself. But with the support of the FIA and the intense enthusiasm and devotion of the drivers, we were able to achieve today’s result.”
Gran Turismo’s crossover from virtual to real-world will be complete when Igor Fraga receives his trophy on the same stage as F1 champ Lewis Hamilton in Russia on December 7.