We’re going to race one-on-one with an Alfa Romeo F1 driver

Is it just me, or has every driver wondered at some point how they would handle a real race car driver? Having spent years of my childhood – and more years than I care to admit as an adult – on driving simulators playing Gran Turismo and Forza MotorsportI always thought the match-up could be closer than expected.

Sure, Formula 1 drivers and the like spend a lot of time honing their craft on purpose-built driving simulators, but throw them into a session of a more beginner-friendly game like Gran Turismo and I think that would be a fairer fight. Especially when using a gamepad rather than a steering wheel.

Well, I had the chance to test this for real this week before the Australian Grand Prix 2022.

Alfa Romeo F1 Team sent its two new pilots, Valtteri Bottas and Zhou Guanyuto the Hitmaker Studios in Melbourne to see how they would fare against a ragtag group of journalists.

As with many of these launch activations, the invites sent out were shy with details, so I didn’t know what to expect upon entering. Was our race going to take place on the Albert Park circuit? No, the Albert Park circuit is very difficult to find on racing games. What racing game will it be? I have experience with Forza Motorsportbut i did not try Gran Turismo in years. What cars would we drive? Surely it’s some kind of current generation Julia or Stelvio.

These thoughts might seem like a bit of a stretch for what was supposed to be a fun activity – but I take it seriously. Imagine the weight I could pull saying I beat a Formula 1 driver on the track.

Arriving at the studio, answers were revealed. We were playing the new Gran Turismo 7 on PlayStation 5. An all-new Alfa Romeo Giulia QV 2022 and Alfa Romeo Stelvio QV 2022 were positioned inside the room for the driver and I to use as a cockpit, but we were playing on a controller. I could also see on the spotlight that the track of choice was the Monza GP circuit and we’d be driving a 1995 Alfa Romeo 155 V6 Ti – cool.

Our race layout involved an F1 driver setting a time while I sat next to them try to push them away asking them questions. Then it would be my turn to try and beat their time around Monza.

With naturally busy schedules, both riders arrived ready to go. I was paired with F1 rookie Zhou Guanyu who seemed much more relaxed than me. Arrogant, a lot?

Seriously, he was fun to meet and very involved in what we were doing – which meant it would be all the more heartbreaking when I beat him at his own game.

He and I were new to Gran Turismo 7, but Zhou had the benefit of extra practice laps (racing against other media) before I jumped into the hot seat for my lap. It would be my only exit, if I lost.

We both had two laps to set the fastest time. Sitting next to Zhou as he concentrated on the race, I was impressed with how he picked up on his little mistakes as soon as he made them and how they affect his lap time. He mentioned that a bad run at the Parabolica would impact his time by a few tenths, and lo and behold, once he crossed the finish line, his lap was much slower than his next best.

As expected, Zhou’s turn was quick with no obvious mistakes. His best time was 1:54.454. Could I manage to do better?

I was handed the controller and left. No practice, no warm-up. But I was ready. Zhou said he wouldn’t think I’d beat him, which pushed me even more to put in a super time.

It didn’t take long to figure things out and I was quietly shocked that I managed to keep him out of the kitty litter in the turn one chicane. In fact, my entire first lap was mostly clean and I clocked a time of 1:55.766. Not too bad to be about 1.5 seconds off the pace of an F1 driver, straight out of the gates.

With a practice lap below, my second lap was sure to be better. Zhou’s ghost car taunting me was very close in front, prompting me to hit every peak perfectly.

Everything was fine until turn five where I cut too much of a curb, sending me airborne into the gravel. Zhou’s ghost car sped away as I tried to get back onto the race track, and I knew my chance to beat him was over.

My second time was a blast of 1:57.549. Still half decent, but my first lap was definitely the better of the two. Not too bad to be within two seconds of a Formula 1 driver.

Anyway, I was happy to be the third fastest driver of the day behind Zhou Guanyu and Valtteri Bottas. At least I finished ahead of all the other reporters. Surprisingly, that wasn’t enough to warrant a champagne-spraying podium celebration.

I didn’t think I was an overly competitive person, but this experience makes me want to hone my skills even further – if only I could get my hands on the new PlayStation 5 that was running out of supply.

Well, I expect my call-up to be a reserve driver for the 2022 season in the mail.

Tom started out in the automotive industry exploiting his talents as a photographer, but quickly learned that journalists got the best out of the business. He started with CarAdvice in 2014, left in 2017 to join Bauer Media titles including Wheels and WhichCar, then returned to CarAdvice in early 2021 as it transitioned to Drive. As part of the Drive content team, Tom covers automotive news, car reviews, tips and has a particular interest in feature films. He understands that every car shopper is unique and has different requirements when it comes to buying a new car, but there’s also a loyal subset of the Drive audience who enjoy entertaining enthusiast content. Tom has a deep respect for all things automotive, regardless of model, priding himself on noticing the subtle things that make every car tick. Not a day goes by that he doesn’t learn something new in an ever-changing industry, which then gets passed on to the Drive reader base.

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