Wheels: Gran Illusion

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Three Ford Motor Co. test-drivers, car guys who burn rubber and inhale exhaust fumes for a living, are mesmerized by the image on an 8-inch LCD screen. Tom Chapman, chassis systems supervisor, is a Level 4 driver, a designation that Ford bestows only to employees with the greatest amount of driving experience and training. (Only Level 4 drivers can perform tests above 150 mph.) Andy Slankard, Ford SVT Focus program manager, who is also a Level 4 driver, is a former instructor at the Jim Russell Racing Drivers School. Kevin Markham is the technical coordinator here at the Dearborn Proving Ground’s Product Review Center, where engineers let new Ford vehicles loose on a curvy 1.1-mile track to test such variables as suspension setups, lateral adhesion, and in-turn braking. Today, however, they are evaluating a toy—one designed to enthrall 12-year-old boys—and they couldn’t be having a better time.

The graying gearheads’ eyes are fixed on Gran Turismo 4: Prologue, the prototype version of Gran Turismo 4, a PlayStation 2 racing game scheduled for release this summer. On the screen, a blue-and-white 2005 Ford GT, which closely resembles the black-and-silver model parked outside the Product Review Center, slashes through the narrow streets of an imaginary Italian town. Kazunori Yamauchi, the game’s creator and president of Polyphony Digital, a 70-person team of programmers and designers based in Tokyo, is operating the GT with a handheld controller. The car’s brake rotors glow red, sunlight glints off the windshield, and the wheels of the Ford continue to turn even when it catches air over a crest in the road. Markham turns to Slankard and asks, “Is this freakin’ real or what? The graphics are un-be-leevable!”

After the exhibition, Slankard pulls Yamauchi aside, hands him a copy of Gran Turismo 3, the previous edition in the series, and asks for his autograph. Yamauchi gladly obliges, but his thoughts are elsewhere. He realizes that driving the Ford in the game does not feel quite the same as driving the latest version of the actual GT, which a half hour earlier he had piloted for the first time with Neil Hannemann, the car’s chief program engineer, riding shotgun. The video version will require a significant update before it is ready for store shelves. Consequently, the following day, an eight-person Polyphony Digital team will take hundreds of photos of the GT, record its engine sounds, and capture its exhaust notes. They will make the 2005 GT come to life in pixels for the salable version of Gran Turismo 4.

The Gran Turismo franchise is Sony Computer Entertainment’s most successful gaming title ever. Combined, the original Gran Turismo, GT2, and GT3 have sold more than 32 million copies worldwide. GT4 will offer players a selection of more than 500 cars, including exotic machines such as the Ford GT, the Mercedes-Benz SL55, and the Dodge Viper. In addition to fictional landscapes, players can operate the cars in Manhattan, Laguna Seca, and other locations.

The target audience of GT4 comprises males ages 12 through 30, ranging from casual gamers to hard-core enthusiasts who play for hours at a time. They represent a demographic that Jan Valentic, Ford’s vice president of global marketing, finds challenging to reach through traditional media. “The young audience is more elusive,” Valentic says. “Young men aren’t watching TV.”

Instead, some are playing video games in which they drive the GT, Aston Martin Vanquish, and other Ford products and rave about the vehicles to their friends and parents. “A 13-year-old kid can see one of our cars on the street and say, ‘Dad, that’s an Aston Martin!’ ” says Cristina Bruzzi, Aston Martin’s communications and marketing manager. “They can say that because they’ve been playing that game for three hours straight.”

Most automakers had trouble grasping this concept when Yamauchi was developing the initial version of Gran Turismo. Polyphony Digital asked car companies to make their vehicles available for shoots, but other than some Japanese manufacturers, the companies declined. On this December day in Dearborn, Mich., however, Ford is ushering Yamauchi’s team and its cameras into the usually photo-prohibited Special Vehicle Team (SVT) garage in the Roush Industries facility, where they will photograph exclusive vehicles such as the GT, the Model T, and the Boss Mustang, a 1994 SVT Mustang Cobra with an 855 hp, 10.0-liter V-8 crammed under its hood.

Valentic acknowledges that most GT4 players will not have the means to purchase a Ford GT; in many cases, they will not even be old enough to drive. However, she sees a number of benefits from Ford’s presence in GT4. For instance, young gamers, Ford’s potential future customers, who might otherwise know nothing about the GT, could spend hours driving the 500 hp car and winning races.

More significant, however, is the possibility of games  eventually altering the traditional car-buying process. Sony refers to GT4 as a driving simulator because every car in the game is created to perform exactly as the actual model does on the street. Last year, for example, after completing a Honda S2000 for Gran Turismo 4, Polyphony Digital hired a professional driver to test the actual car on the Tsukuba Circuit in Japan. The driver’s lap time was only 0.8 seconds off the time that the game’s S2000 posted on the simulated Tsukuba course. Tire-kicking will always be integral to a car purchase, but a game such as GT4 might represent an embryonic stage of virtual test-driving that would make vehicles accessible to customers without them having to visit the showroom. “In the future, we might sell vehicles through a different experience than we do today,” Valentic says. “They may not physically come to Dearborn to experience the GT on the track but test it in the game.”

When Yamauchi, who owns a Mercedes-Benz SL55 and a Porsche GT3, first sees the Ford GT in person, he is as captivated as the Ford test-drivers were by his game. Taku Imasaki, Sony Computer Entertainment America’s U.S producer, serves as Yamauchi’s translator while the Gran Turismo creator asks Ford’s Hannemann about the car’s supercharger, curb weight, weight distribution, and spring ratio. Hannemann opens the car’s clamshell hood, allowing Yamauchi to point his Panasonic camera at the GT’s engine.

Unfortunately, it is raining when Yamauchi takes the car onto the track, preventing him from approaching the GT’s maximum capabilities. Through the translator, Hannemann encourages Yamauchi to ease the throttle around the course. Yamauchi drives slowly his first two times around the circuit. By the third lap, however, Yamauchi hastens his pace, hitting all the correct lines on the track. “Steki desu,” he says after the test. “It’s special. I have enjoyed a very special occasion. It was beyond my expectations.” He removes his helmet and stands next to the driver’s door as Imasaki takes his picture. “Buy now!” he says in English, to the amusement of the Ford onlookers.

To Yamauchi, the Ford GT is a seminal car. In 1967, Yamauchi was born in Kashiwa, Japan. That year, the GT40, the car that served as the inspiration for the 2005 model, was at its peak. It had bested Ferrari and conquered Le Mans, establishing itself as the benchmark sports car of the day. Given the year of its dominance, Yamauchi has always felt a strong connection to the GT40, which he considers one of the top midship-engine sports cars ever built. His opinion of the 2005 GT is just as high.

The team of Polyphony Digital technicians working in the SVT garage is well aware of the affection their boss has for the car, so they take special care to capture its every detail. As they do with every vehicle that will appear in the game, they shoot approximately 300 photos of the GT—long-distance shots as well as close-ups of the wheels, lamps, interior, and even the undercarriage, using reflective panels that they have slid beneath the car.

When the photo session is complete, two engineers record the car’s sounds. As a Ford technician revs the GT, one engineer captures the engine noise at different rpm levels while the other stands with a laptop and DAT recorder. They repeat the process with the microphone held at the car’s pipes to record the GT’s exhaust notes.

The images and sounds will be downloaded onto computers at Polyphony Digital’s Tokyo office, where programmers will assemble the data and put it into the physics engine, which is the heart of GT4’s software and the mechanism at the core of every video game. The physics engine will transform this data and the performance specifications into the video game version of the Ford GT. Yamauchi will apply the final touches to the car, tweaking the program as he recalls how the GT felt from his test-drive.

As Yamauchi’s team collects its data, around the corner in a conference room at the Roush Industries office, Chapman, the Ford chassis systems supervisor, is testing his driving skills on the streets of Manhattan in a Starlight Black 1964 Pontiac GTO. “Sucker!” Chapman yells as he rockets past a Corvette Stingray. The Pontiac leads at Columbus Circle, but farther down Broadway, the Corvette catches up, nudges Chapman’s Pontiac aside, and speeds past it to win the race. Chapman’s coworkers shower him with lighthearted ridicule while jostling for the next game.

Yamauchi believes the sense of realism that even the most jaded test-drivers find convincing helps to establish Gran Turismo 4 as far more than a game. He views it as a compendium of automotive history that an enthusiast can use to learn about cars he rarely sees and seldom, if ever, has a chance to drive. “For young people, there is no way to explain history,” he says. “There are books and movies, but nothing like this. We are introducing cars to the younger generation.” While that may be so, Yamauchi and company could also be introducing video games to an older generation of car guys.

Artistic License

While Gran Turismo 4 has an arcade setting with which you can drive the car of your choice against your friends, the game’s most popular feature is the career mode. You begin by purchasing an inexpensive car (the only kind you can afford at the beginning of your driving career) and entering races against the computer competition. As you post victories, you earn virtual money, with which you can purchase upgrades to your car, such as a turbocharger or stiffer shocks, to improve your chances in the races that follow.

Once you have earned enough money, you can replace your current vehicle with a better one. Thus, you can purchase exclusive cars such as the Ford GT or Mercedes-Benz SL55 only after you have recorded a significant number of victories. After each race, you can view replays that follow your car from different angles, enabling you to determine how you were able to outrun the AI (artificial intelligence, the term gamers use for computer-controlled competition) or why you failed to do so. Gran Turismo creator Kazunori Yamauchi says the AI-driven cars will react more realistically in Gran Turismo 4; they will ride along different lines and will bump back if you give them a nudge.

Compared with Gran Turismo 3, which has sold 4.3 million copies in North America, GT4 has a more advanced physics engine. This enables Polyphony Digital to cram additional data into the game, such as the aerodynamic effects of wind friction and car height. GT4 will also include an online component with which gamers around the world can race against each other, chat, and learn about cars. For example, a group of friends can create their own tournament and go online every Friday night to race each other at Laguna Seca. For most players, GT4 will be the only way to enjoy the magic of the track’s famous Corkscrew.

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