Gran Turismo Sport review: As close to a real racetrack as you can get

Since 1997 Gran Turismo has been one of the world's top car racing video games.

But just how close is the virtual world compared with the real thing?

That was my mission at the launch of Gran Turismo Sport, the seventh generation in the long running franchise that these days attracts the attention of car makers and racers as much as the armchair racers who popularised it.

Behind the wheel

First step: settling in.

There's a stubby steering wheel and two pedals as well as a proper car seat.

But settling into the 'cockpit' is nothing like the real car. There are no doors to slam and no real instruments and buttons to adjust.

That said, you feel like you're ready to drive. The major controls are where you want them and a sizeable display gives a decent view of the track.

Fast, then faster

My first choice is a Porsche 911 GT3 RS.

The virtual 911 is brisk, judging on how quickly I manage to fire it into the wall without trying too hard.

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Thankfully, the repair job is little more than few seconds of flashing on the screen before I'm under way again.

Clearly a computer game is never going to faithfully replicate the ramifications of a mistake as well as the real thing.

The engine note nicely mimics that of the real deal, but it lacks the raucous shriek as that boxer engine sails towards its 9000rpm cutout.

Taking it easy

A brief blast in a Toyota 86 yielded the expected result; it's a big step down in speed.

But, as it does on a track, trying something slower forces you to think more about the racing lines and put together a clean lap.

Go too slowly through a corner, for example, and you'll be that slow again all the way down the next straight.

That's one of the beauties of GT Sport. It teaches you the importance of lines, braking points and getting the basics right.

Less pronounced are the finer points, such as car balance or transitioning from understeer (when the front wheels run wide) to oversteer (a rear-wheel slide) and no brake-feel.

From gamer to racer

That's something gamer-turned-racer Matt Simmons acknowledges.

The 28-year-old Queenslander won the GT Academy competition in 2015, something that has taken him around the world racing real race cars like the Nismo GT-R GT3.

For Simmons, Gran Turismo complements his preparation.

"I think it's important to try new things on the sim because you know there's no relative risk," says Simmons. "For us it's experimenting new lines, could be new entries, new exits, try to gain an extra tenth."

It's a familiar theme among professional racers, all the way up to Formula 1.

The ability to (cheaply) practice on a track in the virtual world cuts out lots of the expensive learning in the real world.

Real versus virtual

But once it comes to the tenths or hundredths of a second, the real world will have the final say.

It could be something as simple as the sun heating the track, in turn reducing traction.

Or parameters that can be tweaked as running changes on a race car but not on the road.

"It's always hard to get it exactly right because [tyre] compounds in real life are actually different," says Simmons, who adds that running the same setup can yield a time "within a second" of the digital world.

Getting better

Like most computer games there are levels to accommodate varying skills.

I started in Beginner; while it's good to be able to string together some laps without making many mistakes, the novelty soon wears off.

In some ways it was like sitting in the passenger seat, rather than having full control.

In Advanced there were no such aids and it took a few brushes with the wall for me to focus my concentration and realise there was no safety net.

Even then, though, there's never the feeling like you're on the ragged edge and the car is about to spit you off or around.

Immersive experience

Most people will buy GT Sport and run it through their TV or computer screen.

But there's a $500 virtual reality headset – and, wow, what a difference it makes!

Strap on the chunky futuristic looking goggles and you feel like you're sitting in the car.

Admire the cabin or check your mirrors – all the detail is there.

Those goggles make it a more immersive experience, like you're sitting in the car rather than on it.

Somehow it also managed to trick my mind, on some occasions making it feel like the seat was moving.

A new player enters

My final blast was in a McLaren 650S.

By now I was getting a little used to the quirks of race gaming, playing with the throttle to get the car dancing through corners.

Unsurprisingly, there were fewer mistakes.

Not that it ever really feels like the real thing.

Rushing up to a tight corner at 200km/h, for example, you never get the impression you're travelling quickly.

That said, GT Sport gives an amazing insight into some of the world's most desirable and expensive cars – and the ability to travel the world virtually to experience them.

But wait, there's more

My brief blast was only a teaser into the vast world of GT Sport.

Various menus gave an insight into just how much there is to muck around with, from car setup to unlocking new machines and modifications.

You could spend weeks – months, even – learning the finer points of a game that has evolved into a seriously impressive racing simulator.