Does learning a racetrack on a game console make you better at driving around the real thing? Alistair Charlton took to the Top Gear Test Track in Forza Motorsport 5, and then drove around it for real to find out.
After a firm stab of the brakes, I turn left into the first corner. The gutless Kia Cee'd I'm piloting steps unexpectedly out of line, the tail swinging round like a pendulum and forcing me to correct with an armful of opposite lock. Avoiding an embarrassing first-lap trip across the grass, I collect the car and head to the next corner, but it's no good. My lap time will be ruined.
I hit the pause button and restart the game.
Video games are supposed to make the mundane more exciting, but I wasn't expecting the so-called 'reasonably priced car' from the BBC's cash cow Top Gear to step out of line quite so violently.
You join me in a cold hanger on a former World War Two airfield near Guildford, Surrey. I'm learning the Top Gear track with the aid of Forza Motorsport 5, an Xbox One, and a highly sensitive MadCatz steering wheel. The track is just as I remember it from playing Gran Turismo 5 at home, while I'll put the car's lurid handling down to Forza being more of a fun, slidey arcade game than the serious simulator of GT5.
After more practice, and with my lap times gradually falling, it was time to don a fetching hairnet and helmet - the former drooping to my chin and doing an excellent impression of a fake Father Christmas beard - and have a go at the real thing.
A contextual reset
I've played racing games for as long as I can remember and did a fair bit of karting at university, but having never driven a car on a racetrack I wouldn't say the vast open space of an airfield on a rainy November morning is an ideal starting point. Yes, there is so much run-off space you'll have passed through several postcodes before hitting anything, but the lack of curbs, walls, distance markers and other reference points found scattered across regular racetracks, turns Dunsfold Aerodrome into a confusing blur of grey sky merged with grey runway.
Turning onto the access road which makes up the start/finish straight for the first time is akin to what I imagine making a very poorly judged turn at Heathrow must feel like. With the reassuring boundaries of nearside and offside curbs gone, driving on a runway (or even its access road) is a very strange sensation; the vast open space sucks away the context and sense of scale you subconsciously develop when driving on public roads.
You could be travelling at 30 miles per hour, or 70, and you wouldn't really know the difference - I was sorely missing the on-screen mini-map that all racing games bless you with, because without it, it's surprisingly easy to feel very lost indeed.
But I was here to drive quickly, and after a sighting lap confirms video games give you superhuman eyesight to go with your head-up display, I was ready to put my foot down. Where accelerating, changing gear, steering, braking and correcting any problems had become second-nature to me in almost any racing game, I was suddenly relying on every word my instructor was telling me.
Lost without an HD map
"Stay flat, stay flat, stay flat," my co-driver repeated reassuringly. Peering through the dirty windscreen and increasing rain, I knew the Hammerhead - a left kink followed by a long right - was coming up, but without the precious map and crystal-clear HD image of the road ahead I was relying almost entirely on the "brake" command to get me around it.
As a keen driver, writing that sentence is embarrassing, but where jumping into a video game is a walk in the park, I was fast learning that one sighting lap of a track I thought I knew well was nowhere near enough.
But I hadn't much time to dwell on this, because where the straight sections on Forza can be driven while checking your phone or reaching for a drink thanks to the complete lack of concentration - or control input - required, the straights of the real track seemed to be swallowed up far more quickly.
A gear change later I arrive at the Follow-Through, which is a flat-out right, followed by a flat left where the key is to get as close to the tyres on the right as you dare, before swinging across and clipping the joint where runway meets access road on the left.
Threading a needle at 100mph
Despite being the fastest section of the track, this felt the most familiar. Perhaps only now, more than a minute into the lap and after a few seconds of relative relaxation, was my brain making good use of the countless times I've been here virtually. Up next is the second-to-last corner, Bacharach, regularly described by Clarkson and his cronies as "threading a needle at 100mph" - and that isn't far from the truth.
Where distance boards counting down 50 meter intervals would appear to the right on a proper racetrack, here my only marker is a single orange cone on the apex of the corner. I keep the accelerator flat and listen to my instructor calmly change his commands from "stay flat" to "brake". In the game I'd know exactly where to drop anchor - when markings on the runway change - but here all I could focus on was that cone.
I turned in far too aggressively, lost speed, under-steered wide and unsettled the car; by the time I was positioned ready for the final corner, a tight left-hander, I was past my braking point. I slowed as best I could, turned in (by far too much, again), missed the apex by at least a car's width and aimed for the finish line, leaning forward to try and get there more quickly.
Adrenalin flowing and my brain finally tuned to this strange new world, it was time to return to the car park. My one timed lap was over, and boy was it a scruffy one.
I've played racing games since I was about eight-years-old and I've done lots of karting, including four 24-hour races, but taking a car to a track in the real world for the first time was an eye-opening experience.
Playing the Top Gear track virtually had no doubt helped me learn the layout, and years of playing simulators and watching motorsport means I probably have a better understanding of car control than some, but drawing on these experiences when it's needed and reacting instinctively requires far more than a single timed lap to achieve.