Getting real with Gran Turismo and a Mazda Roadster in Japan

Did you know that one of Gran Turismo's most grueling events is based on a real race? We head to Tsukuba to do it IRL.

Tim Stevens/Roadshow

I've been playing driving and racing games of some color for virtually my entire life. I believe the first was called Night Driver, a title where the goal was simply to keep an ever-accelerating car centered between two strings of white boxes, icons meant to represent the edges of the road. Visually, it was hardly compelling, but it made the most of best of the hardware the late '70s had to offer.

All video games have made radical progress since those days, but the progression within the racing genre is truly something to behold. That stationary shape traversing white dots has evolved into comprehensive driving simulators, near photorealistic visuals mixed with world-class physics engines good enough to train the pros.

But there's always the lingering question: Just how real are they? Is it possible to practice for an event in the digital world and then go compete in the real? Or, are gaming addicts just talking these titles up to justify the squandering of their free time? I made the trip of a lifetime to Japan to find out.

Gran Turismo

While there are certainly more realistic driving games out there, no driving simulator has achieved more fame and exposure than Gran Turismo. First launched in 1997, it almost single-handedly kicked off the "JDM" enthusiast craze that dominated American streets through much of the 2000s.

Gran Turismo had a massive impact on me. Yes, I'd played plenty of other racers before, and I've played plenty more since, but GT will always have a fond place in my heart. It was the first game where I actually practiced to get better, the first game where I'd spend hours just tinkering with setups to improve my lap times. It became an institution at my school, my dorm-mates and I spending hours and hours racing. While we certainly did plenty of competitive races, we'd often team up to tackle one of the game's many grueling endurance races together.

One of the series' most notoriously difficult events was the Roadster Endurance race. Introduced in Gran Turismo 3: A-Spec, the Roadster Endurance event is a four-hour race featuring only various flavors of the MX-5 Miata, called the Roadster in Japan. Four hours behind the wheel of anything can be a bit mentally draining, but the extra challenge here came from an inability to tune your way to the win. Besting this challenge meant doing it with skill -- and maybe the occasional bit of bump-drafting.

When I first completed that in-game challenge in 2001 I had no idea it was based on a real-life event, and I certainly never dreamed I'd get to do it for real.

The Mazda Media 4 Hour Endurance Race

2019 marked the 30th anniversary of the iconic Mazda MX-5. It also marked the 30th anniversary of the real four-hour endurance race. Yes, Mazda has hosted a one-make, one-model event to highlight the trackability inherent within the company's little Roadster since its inception. Though the rules have changed over the years, the challenge has remained the same.

Racing anything around a track for four hours is a great test of both human and mechanical endurance, but in recent years the race has become a test of something else: efficiency. For the 2019 running of the race, each of the 24 teams received just 60 liters of fuel. That translates to 15.8 US gallons of gas -- barely more than a full tank's worth.

Driving four hours on that little fuel can be a bit of a challenge even if you're just cruising down the highway. Four hours of racing competitively around Tsukuba Circuit? That's going to require some special tactics.

Lift and coast

In a shorter race, usually called a sprint, drivers push their cars to the absolute limit, burning fuel as fast and as hard as their engines can pull it into the combustion chambers. In endurance racing, strategy often shifts to the more tactical decisions of when to use fuel and when to save it.

In Mazda's endurance race, the answer is easy: always be saving. Yes, a few teams may play the rabbit and go running, opting to go especially slowly later in the race, but saving fuel early means potentially creating a bit of a buffer later.

Saving fuel means avoiding two particularly inefficient situations. The first is high revs. A given car's engine at a given load will generally be more efficient spinning at a lower rpm. In a race, that means shifting earlier than you might otherwise, keeping revs low and maximizing momentum through corners.

The second situation is high drag, which just keeps getting worse the faster you go. At high speed, slight increases in velocity mean major increases in drag. Avoiding a similar increase in fuel consumption requires straightforward, but mentally challenging, behavior: coast into the braking zones when you'd normally want to have your foot flat on the accelerator.

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Hey, that's my name!

Tim Stevens/Roadshow

The car

The only reason it's even possible for us to actually race for that long while burning that little fuel is thanks to the efficiency of the Mazda Roadster. My car featured the standard 1.5-liter engine, which isn't available in the US -- a configuration that not only saves fuel but also weight. This has a double impact on efficiency and, frankly, makes for a more lively car on the tight Tsukuba Circuit.

Allowed modifications are extremely limited, handled by Mazda to ensure identical machinery. Stripped interiors featured a bolted-in cage, along with a lovely Bride racing seat of the sort that would make everyone envious at your next Cars & Coffee. Brake pads and tires were replaced with units more suitable for the track. Under the hood, a front strut tower bar added a little more rigidity to offset the extra stiffness the cage offers at the rear, a catch-can kept oil out of the intake and a healthy set of safety wires and zip-ties ensured that nothing came loose before it's supposed to.

And that's it. Other than the safety equipment, these cars are almost entirely stock.

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The pits inside Tsukuba were jammed with Roadsters and fans.

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Practice

If you're going to practice a race made famous by Gran Turismo, where better to practice than at Gran Turismo headquarters in Tokyo? I was given the rare opportunity to stop by Polyphony Digital's secret new digs in an unmarked building tucked within the sprawling megalopolis, and it was there I got to meet my teammates.

Tamihiro Izumi is a veteran racer at Tsukuba and a previous MX-5 sprint race winner. Satoshi Saito is a Japanese automotive journalist and Nurburgring 24-hour racer. Kazuki Yamada is the hot shoe, the 2012 Gran Turismo Asian Champion and now employee at Polyphony Digital, working on the Gran Turismo series. Anthony Winston works at Sega by day but, for this weekend, would be the voice of reason from the pit wall, calling out instructions and, mostly, telling us to slow down and save fuel.

And then there was Peter Lyon, an Australian journalist and television host living in Japan. It was Peter who kindly invited me to join his team and Peter who worked tirelessly for months to pull together all the necessary sponsors and logistics to make all this happen. Without his efforts, I'd have instead been playing Gran Turismo on my couch.

At Polyphony Digital's headquarters, under the watchful eye of series creator Kaz Yamauchi, I got down to running some laps. I'd earlier been told that average race lap times would be in the 1-minute, 16-second range, so I was quite delighted to soon be running down in the 1:14s. After about a half-hour behind the wheel I was down in the low 1:11s.

Looking across the other simulator setups in the room I was very glad to see this made me second fastest, just behind GT Asia Champion Yamada. It was then, however, that I was told how we would all actually have to drive, and I realized that such flying lap heroics had no place in the real race.

The first rule of endurance racing the Roadster: Never go above 5,000 rpm unless given permission. Second rule: Coast into all the major braking zones and, if possible, don't brake. Third rule: Never use second gear unless absolutely necessary to make a pass.

We all gathered around Yamada, who ran a half-dozen demonstration laps to show where to lift and coast and how to modify our lines to maximize this new approach to driving. Implementing those rules is challenging enough, but doing so without becoming sitting ducks to the competition required a fair bit of finesse. Finesse that, as it turns out, Yamada had in spades. Using this approach, he was able to consistently run laps in the high 1:15s to low 1:16s.

With a whole new directive in mind I got back behind the virtual wheel and started running laps and immediately struggled. My times were in the high 1:18s to start, way off the pace. But after a few minutes I started to get the rhythm down and finally started to crack into the 1:16s. My best in fuel-saving mode was a 1:16.2.

This, then, would be my target for the race.

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Slightly more spartan than the road-going machine.

Tim Stevens/Roadshow

Game time

Tsukuba Circuit on a Saturday in early September was a humid scorcher, with temperatures threatening 35 degrees Celsius (95 Fahrenheit) and humidity hovering solidly in disgusting territory. These are exactly the sorts of conditions that make you thankful for modern luxuries like air conditioning -- which, of course, we'd not be able to run in the race.

Since I was the lone team member who'd never actually turned a lap around the circuit in the real, I was given the privilege of breaking the car in on the circuit for the first time of the weekend, on the lone, 30-minute practice session the morning before the race.

And so, with visions of putting the car into one of the many walls at Tsukuba that lurk just off the racing line, ruining the entire team's race weekend, I made my way onto the track and into traffic for the first time.

With Anton in my ear providing feedback on pace and, generally, moral support, I started the process of getting up to speed on a track that, weirdly, I knew very well despite never having seen it before. There was the squat, white tower sitting just inside the final turn. There, a half-lap away, loomed the Dunlop bridge and, on every apex, the extensive tire marks left by so many drifters over the years. I even spotted the little bit of colored wall on the inside of the fast, final turn, which in the game was my visual cue to jump on the throttle and wrangle the car onto the front straight.

It was all so very familiar, but the feel of course was remarkably different. Now I had on a helmet that limited my vision and impaired my breathing, a helmet that rattled off the roll cage on each of the circuit's (blissfully few) left-hand corners. Now my hands and arms were far more cramped by the seat bolsters and by the wheel's position. And, most problematically, now I had a brake pedal that responded completely unlike that in the simulator I'd spent so much time practicing.

A good set of pedals for a driving simulator, a really good set, can cost you upwards of $1,000. That's more than most people would spend on an entire wheel and pedals setup, but out here on the track I was getting a lesson on why that might be money well-spent. I was braking at the same points I had in the game and with what I thought was the same intensity. Now, though, the car was absolutely standing on its nose and slowing far more abruptly than I wanted or needed.

I spent most of the practice session revising my braking points again and again, but I was still a long way from where I needed to be. I couldn't break below a 1:18 and, after just five familiarity laps, Anton called me in. I'd have to find the rest of my pace in the race itself.

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Kazuki Yamada getting congratulations after an excellent qualifying session.

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The race

We'd start the race in third, Yamada-san putting down an incredibly quick 1:11.475 in qualifying. He went even faster but was blocked on his second flying lap. Peter Lyon took the first race stint, working and driving hard and, most importantly, keeping the car out of trouble amid a swarm of other Roadsters driven by people who seemed to have forgotten this was an endurance event.

Peter had to pull in to take an agonizing 1-minute penalty, 60 seconds spent stationary in the pits for no other reason than his teams in previous years were ultra-competitive. That dropped us back to 15th position, and that's where we'd be when I took the wheel.

Getting strapped in to a race car in the middle of a race was a bit of a surreal moment, but it was over in a blink and I was out on the track, thrown to the proverbial wolves, a complete rookie mixing it up with drivers already well into their stints, many of whom have been racing here for decades.

The car felt like a furnace and after a few laps I realized I was struggling to catch my breath. It was approaching 100 degrees out there and, with the windows up, there was actually very little airflow through the cockpit. It was so hot that the day's only injury would be a track marshal who passed out from heat stroke.

The longer I spent in the car the better I felt, and the faster I got. Soon I was making my own passes, usually in to or out of one of Tsukuba's two tight hairpins. Given every car had exactly the same power, if you didn't get the pass done when braking into the corner there's a good chance it wouldn't happen on the way back out.

There was plenty of traffic all the time, and the barrage of blue passing flags meant I rarely got a clean lap, but my times started to creep down into acceptable territory. I was getting into my groove, right about when Anton got on the radio and told me to come in. When I pitted, we were in 14th position, one higher than when I went out. For a complete rookie, I was pretty pleased, but mostly I was exhausted and dehydrated and very happy to sit in front of a fan with a cool towel over my head for awhile.

While I recovered, Satoshi Saito took over, driving the Roadster late into the day. As the sun began to set many teams flipped on strips of LEDs they'd earlier deployed around their cars, making the race look like something of a motorsports carnival. But there was a practical purpose: helping everyone identify their car in the middle of the night.

There was another light, though, that was more problematic: the fuel light. That coming on meant the end of Saito-san's stint, pulling in for our lone fuel stop and handing the car over to Tamihiro Izumi. When Izumi pulled out, he quickly realized there was a problem. Our trip meter had been reset during the stop, throwing off all our calculations.

Normally, teams in a race like this would use highly precise means of measuring fuel consumption, making it relatively easy to calculate remaining range. We weren't allowed to use something like that, so the team had developed a complex series of spreadsheets and formulas to estimate remaining fuel based on the Roadster's trip computer readouts. With that reset, we were now nearly flying blind.

Kazuki Yamada, our Gran Turismo Champion, took the last stint as anchor. When he entered the pits we were in 12th place but, despite being ordered to shift earlier and earlier, at one point at just 4,000 rpm, he was making short work of the competition. He quickly had us up to eighth thanks to both skill and some early retirements from overeager drivers.

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The racing stayed close well after the sun went down.

Tim Stevens/Roadshow

Sadly, it was one of those retirements that would ruin our chances at a last-minute run to the podium. One of the on-track cars ran out of fuel and was coasting around the track slowly. Yamada was deemed to have passed the car under a yellow flag and we were given a drive-through penalty, having to run the entire length of the pits at just 40 kilometers per hour. In the pits we were livid, not knowing that this drive-through had actually saved our race.

We were running dangerously low on fuel, warning light winking on and off at first, then staying on. With laps to go the engine started sputtering on some turns, threatening to end everything. Finally, coming out of the last hairpin on the last lap, the car went silent. We were out of fuel with nearly a third of a lap to go.

Thankfully, Yamada quickly got the car into neutral. We had just enough momentum to carry us through the last turn and over the finish line, the car coming to a stop on the main straight outside of our pit wall. Despite losing our ad-hoc telemetry midway through the race, the team's fuel calculations had been almost perfect.

Our final position was eighth out of 24 starters after a hard-fought and well-calculated four hours of racing. Not bad considering two unnecessary trips to the pits.

And how about me? Though I was absolutely quicker in the game, my fastest lap time on the track -- while short-shifting and coasting and doing everything else necessary to save fuel -- was 1:17 flat. In the game, when I was employing the same strategies, I managed 1:16.2. Less than a second off seems quite fair to me, especially considering the extra pressure of the event plus the heat and whatever other excuses I'm forgetting at the moment.

So the time was close, and more importantly it was a remarkable experience, really racing around a circuit that I'd virtually lapped so many times before. I was left with even more respect for Gran Turismo and all the work that the team at Polyphony Digital puts into each (eventual) release, but I was also even more convinced that there's still absolutely nothing like the real thing.


Racing as you know can be quite expensive, and I wanted to take a moment to thank the team sponsors.


Editors' note: Travel costs related to this story were covered by the manufacturer, which is common in the auto industry. The judgments and opinions of Roadshow's staff are our own and we do not accept paid editorial content.