This will likely appear to be a paid commercial for a video game. Sorry for that, but I assure you, it isn't. Rather, I beg your indulgence to consider one of the best ways to keep your mind racing while the sport is on its long hiatus. As I sit to write this, the game is at least a year-and-a-half old, and it was probably considered outdated when I started playing it just under a year ago. I insist that you trust me: this is much more than simply a video game with which you can avoid reality and otherwise escape being productive.
Tourist Trophy was a product developed, in conjunction with the last generation of Gran Turismo for the PlayStation 2 platform. GT4, like its predecessors, was the best vehicle dynamics simulation available (prior to PS3 and GT5) without a race team contract or a manufacturer's super-computer. This point alone, could be labored over for an entire column, and certainly has been elsewhere, so I will not do that here. Suffice to say, Tourist Trophy picks up in the GT4 world with a physical model for motorcycles that hasn't existed anywhere in the public. Said another way: to be any good at this, you must actually know how to ride and race at a rather cerebral level.
If you are already familiar with Gran Turismo, then I don't have to sell you any more than this. Better yet, if you are familiar with GT4, then you are already prepared for much of the circuits you will see in Tourist Trophy. And, if you are already a veteran - or even a novice - of TT, please read on and consider if there isn't more to do.
In the simplest of overviews, you begin the game with choices of "Arcade Mode", which I have never tried, and "Simulation Mode". Simulation Mode gives you choices of a "Garage" to choose a bike to ride or race and look more closely at settings for your bike and rider, a virtual rider's wardrobe, "Challenge" races where you try to win more bikes to race, racing series for competition against computerized opponents, and a "Photo Lab" where you can create surprisingly interesting JPEGs for populating your screensaver or sharing with friends or posting on a Web board, and studying just how much detail was put into the artwork of this game.
How does this enhance your viewing of the MotoGP races when they start next Spring? To advance in this game, it seems to me, you have to have, or acquire, some fundamental understandings of motorcycles and Physics. I brought with me a considerable number of hours playing GT4 and am a road rider who has been to racing school. It took me a painfully long time to adjust my mind to the concept of controlling a motorcycle with a game controller. This is much less difficult in an auto racing simulation, since steering wheel controls abound and are easily adapted to. Since they did not develop this game with a handle-bar controller, I grudgingly logged countless hours just trying to incorporate the basics into my instincts while struggling to pass the licensing tests which allow advancement in the game and the acquisition of better equipment. As tiresome and seemingly fruitless as this appears while going through it, it is a necessary and rewarding foundation.
Once you begin to develop competence with the game, pass license tests, acquire better equipment, and win races, you begin to grasp what kind of mental discipline it would take to be really great in this sport (to say nothing of the physical demands and talent requirements). You can begin to feel what it might be like when Rossi says "...after a few laps, I take my reethym and have good pace...". If you have any musical inclinations, you can begin to feel like each circuit has a song and each lap is a verse; that straight-aways build to a certain exact pitch and then drop and sustain, or build again through corners, and each track has its own precise melody. With longer races, you need to consider taking care of your tires and make adjustments to that rhythm accordingly. You can imagine what Stoner feels like to back off just a bit too much and make mistakes almost as costly as those from being over-aggressive. You can realize that once you have the "song" right for your feel of a certain bike on a certain track, relatively small departures can be disastrous.
Naturally, some corners are more forgiving than others, and this provides you the other great insight into the beauty of motorcycle racing: multiple racing lines. In great contrast to automobile racing, where a car often uses up all the physical space in a corner, motorcycles use considerably less, so racing circuits can often "feel" much bigger. This opens up a rich palette for artistic interpretations of a corner that can be tailored for your preferences, the behavior of the bike you're riding, and the activities of a virtual competitor that needs to be passed.
As you progress further in the game, you arrive at the "Racing Modified" versions of bikes you've already seen, or even pure race-bred machines like the TZ250. Once on machines like these, another more intellectual set of features in the game opens up: suspension settings and gearing, among other things. In real-life racing, this is where the communication between rider and engineer is so important. Trying both aspects of this on your own should help appreciate just what must be going on in the pit garages during testing and practice. You may also be able to appreciate how a setup just right for one rider may be torture for another.
Amidst all this, you will eventually be riding around highly accurate renditions of 3 of the circuits currently on the MotoGP schedule, plus a couple from the recent past, and a couple more that figure prominently in auto racing. Spending time on these circuits pays invaluable rewards when you watch the on-bike shots during real race broadcasts. You will find that you already have an instinctive feel for what comes next on the track and how well the rider is going. You develop a feel for just how demanding Laguna and Suzuka are, and how insufferable Motegi is. You can instantly relate to riders' comments about Valencia being almost all 2nd and 3rd gear corners, and get a sense of just how other-worldly the last corner must be. Of course, there are other games that would offer this particular insight for all the circuits in the series, but none are this realistic.
As I began playing this game, while grappling with learning the controls, I was completely intimidated by the prospect of going up against the likes of a Ducati 999 and being embarrassed by a series of programmed electrons. Later I began to toll for hours just to gain another .002 seconds in a license test so that I could get past "Silver" and qualify for the "Gold" status. Eventually, I arrived at the point where I simply could not lose to the computerized opponents without making a tragic mistake of my own. My latest experiments have me racing in the superbike series events with the slowest bike I think I can win with. (Individual races are one thing, a whole points series is quite another!) All the while, I spend countless hours pouring over virtual still shots the game offers after each race; looking at whether the bike and rider look right in each corner, and saving my favorites to populate my screensaver.
So, if you don't already have a PlayStation 2 and the TT game, and if you have the discretionary income and - more importantly - the time for a new addiction, I implore you to make the investment. If you want to advance to the "next level" of being a fan of motorcycle racing, buy Tourist Trophy. Since this game is not new, it can be had at a very reasonable price. And, while you're logging countless hours in front of your television playing a game, you will not be out spending money on other, more expensive things.
Why write this article? First, for all the reasons listed above. Second, to offer a little insight into me and the kinds of perspectives I will share. Third, seriously, 5 months is a long time to wait and only daydream about the greatest sport on Earth. And Fourth, I'm wondering - if not hoping - if there's enough interest to even start a a thread in the Forum where we can discuss things like best lap times on each track, strategies for setups, and sharing the wildest pictures. But even if not, I still hope that I've planted some seeds to ponder over the dark, quiet months of Winter.