"It was the longest half-second of my life. One moment I was on the track, and the next I was in a wall. All I thought to myself was 'relax, and brace yourself'. Then I hit it." That's how Sarah Harley, a race car driver of 12 years, recounts her most serious accident, when, in 2010, when she plouged the Mini Cooper S race car she was driving into a wall at 170kph. She walked away with no injuries, but said that anyone who wants to race competitively these days could do with a bit of time on a race game first.
Sarah has known racing from birth. Her father was a driver and she grew up learning racing techniques from a young age, including how and when to change gears for the best speed and where to come in on a corner which is also known as racing lines.
Like all great drivers, Sarah started racing karts, and in 2006 she decided to move up to Formula 4 racing. She was a breath of fresh air in a sport dominated by men. Today, she identifies herself as a production car driver, but she's driven everything from a Lotus Exiege S in the most recent Bathurst 12-hour endurance race with teammate Christian Klien, through to the Mini Cooper S she drove on that fateful day in 2010.
Mercifully, Sarah walked out of that incident with nothing but a few scratches and an incredible story. I caught up with her as she played Forza: Horizon at the Sydney International Motor Show, and she talked about her accident.
"When you get it wrong in real life, it's just the worst feeling. You hurtle towards a wall knowing you can't stop. You think that the next thing you know you are going to be in that wall, you are going to be upside down, and worst of all, you don't know how much you're going to hurt on the other side.
"All you can do is wait to hit it. And it's a long half-second," Sarah tells with a stone-cold look on her face.
We chat some more before she challenges me to a round of Forza: Horizon. We're both in the insanely beautiful Lamborghini Gallardo, racing around a course that is a mixture of dirt and tarmac. Sarah trounces me by a mile as I am left skidding around the dirt sections like my wheels are on sideways, and as I limp across the finish line with my dignity as battered as the tyre walls, I ask her how it equates to real racing.
Surprisingly, she says, it's actually pretty close.
"Racing in a game will enable you to get a feel for how a car accelerates, how it behaves when it brakes and what you do when you do those at the same time. That inertia? It felt true to life. I definitely felt that trialling these cars.
"In real life, if you were to hurtle towards a corner like you do in the game and try to jump on the brakes while travelling at those speeds, you are going to hit the wall that fast. It's quite realistic in that sense, only it comes without the drama, the expense or the injury. It's a really good way to learn how to become a driver and figure out how to control a race car. In theory."
In theory. Those words resonate pretty clearly in my brain as I think back to her accident. Watching it on YouTube later on, I discover the darker side of racing. The sickening, metal-twisting crashes.
Sarah's accident was the second in two days on exactly the same corner. The first accident came the day before, when the same model of car skipped the track barriers entirely and flipped into the crowd, injuring two onlookers. Her following crash wasn't as dramatic for the fans, but it was still just as serious for her.
She hit the wall while travelling at 170kph off a straight. No big deal if you're doing that in Forza: Horizon, but Sarah said she felt every millisecond like it was an age as the wall kept filling up her windscreen.
Can you really keep yourself out of a wall on a racetrack just from playing a video game though? In a race car, you're wearing a full-face helmet, and sitting in a cramped, hot environment with a roll-cage doing its best to beat you senseless as you round corners. How can a game possibly be true to life? Sarah says it's all about the theory behind racing.
"You get on here, look at the setup available look at the gear ratios of a car and if you're proficient at driving an Xbox console with the controller, then you can learn what this car does and how it behaves and how it responds, so that when you get in the car yourself, you have an appreciation for it.
"Also, our brains don't always understand the difference between reality and simulation. I often, for myself, will watch YouTube or I'll imagine a track that I have been to, and when you're doing it on a game console, you're doing the same thing. You're running through a race track and your brain thinks you're really doing it, so that when you get into a real race car on a real track, you trick your brain into thinking you've done it before."
Putting It Into Practice...
So how does racing in Forza Horizon from the comfort of a faux bucket seat in the comfort of the Sydney International Motor Show compare to getting in the passenger seat of a $750,000 Lexus LFA supercar, for example? To find out, I put on a dopey helmet and my best-looking brave face and strapped in. The driver? None other than former F1 champion, Alan Jones.
Jones is no stranger to fast, exotic cars. The Australian-born speed demon dominated the F1 scene back in the 1970s and -80s with 12 wins and 23 podium finishes under his jumpsuit. He's here today to put me through my paces.
I don't take my camera in the car for fear of putting Alan off his game. The last thing I want to do is drop my Canon in his lap as he pulls it through the top bend. I'm not nearly as tough as Sarah when it comes to sudden stops in exotic racers.
Jones hits the track in the LFA like he's stolen it. Out of the pit lane, we're already up to over 100kph. The bends are dispatched with ease at speeds ranging from 70kph right up to over 150kph, and on the home straight, the car tops 242kph — the fastest I have ever travelled on four wheels.
As we round the first bend again for the flying lap, I get my pen and notepad ready to take notes on what it's really like being in a racer going around a track. After the first bend, I don't remember a thing until I dropped back into the pit lane. I returned with a blank piece of paper, and a look of excited terror tattooed onto my face.
I thanked Alan profusely for the experience, before hearing Sarah's words in my head. The car was cramped, hot, noisy, fast and terrifyingly exhilarating. It's also expensive, time-consuming, but it's still true to the game. The racing lines are exactly where they ought to be for this track, and the specifications of the LFA supercar are pitch perfect.
Any idiot can pick up a controller and punt a Lamborghini, Ferrari or Lexus into a corner on Forza: Horizon, but if you turn off all the nonsense and focus purely on the drive, you find an experience that may be as close as you'll ever get to a real race, with theory that you can take to the track should you ever want to level up.