Going up against a legend again in Gran Turismo Sport
Get in there Lewis.
Stop me if you've heard this one before - and I'm sure you have, as it's the only claim to fame I've got - but back in the early 90s I had a brief, unsuccessful and only mildly remarkable career as a young racing driver. It was remarkable mostly for who I raced alongside, because the kart tracks back then were the proving grounds of what would become a golden age of British talent. There were the likes of Dan Wheldon, Jenson Button, Justin Wilson, Anthony Davidson and Mike Conway to name a few, though to say I went wheel to wheel with them might be overstating it a bit. I'm not sure any of them ever noticed me while I toiled at the tail-end.
There was one driver I got to properly race against, though, just as he was starting out. We were novice drivers, racing - as the rules dictated - at the back of the field, which would soon prove to be my natural habitat. Still, I came in to the race in Rye House's winter series off the back of a class win, so I was as confident as I'd ever been - confident enough to be taken aback at the young kid who outbraked me heading into The Esses in the dying moments of the final to take this particular class win. As a veteran of some three races I went to go and offer congratulations and some sage advice after the race. "You'll do alright," I patronisingly said as I shook his hand and his dad packed their kart away in the background.
You've probably already guessed, but that kid was Lewis Hamilton, who went on to become one of F1's all-time greats. I liked Lewis back then - he was sweet and humble and from a more modest background than most drivers at the time - and while we've not met since that one encounter back at Rye House I like him even more now. His six world titles don't tell half the story, really, his achievements unsullied by the unsavoury tactics often employed by Senna and Schumacher, and all done in the face of persistent prejudice.
All of which might explain why the Lewis Hamilton challenges that cropped up in Gran Turismo Sport late last year have become an obsession these past few weeks. It's a cute bit of DLC that manages to leverage the star appeal of one of the world's most recognisable sportspeople, and it presents a pretty sizable challenge at that. The premise is simple: Lewis has laid down some laps, and all you've got to do is beat them. Or at least come within a couple of seconds of them.
It might not be the most elaborate of add-ons - it sounds like Lewis recorded his lines when he was in a rush to get elsewhere - but it does have that veneer of authenticity that's always been one of Gran Turismo's strengths, and it plays to a part of driving games that's always appealed to me. If you want to get to the heart of any driving game, just take one car, one track and a ticking clock. The rest, quite often, is magic.
The challenge put up by Lewis Hamilton's times in Gran Turismo Sport puts all that into sharp focus. This guy is seriously quick, and I've spent every spare moment I can the past week flailing in the shadow of his ghost as it tears around Brands Hatch's GP circuit. I've not come too close, but I've learnt an awful lot along the way - indeed, despite having run countless laps around the Kent circuit before, across various games as well as over half-a-dozen or so track days in the past this is the first time I've been really pushed to learn Brands Hatch. And it confirms the suspicions I've had all these years that this really is a special circuit.
It's a place where most apexes are hidden just beyond the crest of a hill, where the run-offs are just as often blind and where nailing any given section feels so damn good. There are corners in this world, and then there are the likes of Paddock Hill, Hawthorn, Sheenes and Surtees - fizzing blends of camber and undulation that still find ways to surprise and unnerve no matter how many times you've run them. Gran Turismo Sport is so beautifully faithful to all this, and to the challenge they present.
And so I'm chasing down Lewis and learning so much. Like how much speed you can really take into Paddock Hill and Hawthorn, how greedy you can be with the exit run-off at Graham Hill, how to lean into the camber of Stirling's and how to finally make sense of Surtees, the left hander that curves out of sight as it leads out into the woods and the Grand Prix Loop. But still, I'm nowhere near him.
I look for help elsewhere, meeting up with a friend who's become similarly obsessed. We go for lunch at Lewis' recently opened meat-free restaurant Neat Burger on Regent Street - of course - where he tells me about trail-braking, about famed driver coach Rob Wilson and his flat car theory. Those principles help - that night I pull the racing seat out again and spend another hour or so shaving away tenths, inching closer and closer to Hamilton's ghost.
I still haven't quite caught up with him, but it's made me appreciate Gran Turismo Sport that little bit more - appreciate how effectively it's blurred the edges between the real and the virtual, how its handling embraces all-comers while allowing the application of some hard-edged racing principles, and most of all how it's allowed me to face off against one of motor racing's all-time greats. And it's made me appreciate that Lewis Hamilton is very, very good at driving cars. At least I got one thing right all those years ago. He ended up doing just fine.