Like most colonies, Australia was built from its coasts inward. If you go inland from Sydney, you can’t get very far without bumping into the Blue Mountains. But just beyond the Blue Mountains, settlers discovered an expanse of arable land called Bathurst Plains, watered by Australia’s largest river system. To open the way from Sydney, a hundred-mile road was built through the mountains, ending at the newly founded town of Bathurst in 1815. It was Australia’s first inland colony.
Today, 37,000 people live in Bathurst. South of the town is a 400-foot rise called Mount Panorama, because you can stand on it and get a nice view of the town. The town spray painted the words MOUNT PANORAMA on the slope, in bright white capital letters. Not quite as showy as erecting giant wooden letters over Hollywood, but the sensibility is the same. Five times a year, the streets in the southern part of Bathurst are closed off for racing through town, up the slope of Mount Panorama, and back down into town. This is where I went for today’s rivals event in Project Cars 3. And this is where I discovered one of my new favorite things in racing.
Racing games can trick you into the feeling of cornering. When you turn in a videogame, you can’t feel the lateral G’s. But there are effective ways to trick your eyes. Sound effects of squealing tires can trick your ears. Sometimes a rumbling controller can trick your fingertips. It all works well enough to make your brain think, ‘whoa, lateral G’s!’ But games have a harder time with elevation. In the real world, when you’re going up or down a hill, your inner ear knows. It tells you. When you come over a rise, there’s no mistaking that delightful tickle in your stomach as you lurch toward zero-G. But videogames are stumped when it comes to tricking you in this dimension. It’s one reason flight simulators are such a shallow approximation, because up and down is a fundamental part of flight. Left and right is relatively easy, but up and down is inextricably threaded into our biology. Short of strapping on a VR headset, we can’t be sufficiently tricked with our eyes.
So one of the underappreciated aspects of videogame racing and driving, especially among casual players like me, is elevation. It took me a long time to internalize that coming over a hill means a considerable loss of traction as the car’s mass continues its upwards trajectory, pulling the tires off the road. If you play enough rally games, you will learn this one way or another. But serious track racing games are more conservative with elevation. In fact, they’re so conservative, that when they aren’t, you’ll notice. Probably the first track feature I ever learned was the corkscrew at Laguna Seca, as unmistakable as the ping of an M1 Garand’s clip, as game changing as the introduction of a trebuchet, as dramatic as the German counterattack in the Ardennes. It’s one of those real-world details you’ll absorb when you play videogames.
In today’s rivals event, on the slopes of Mount Panorama, I discovered something even more confounding, challenging, and ultimately exciting than Laguna Seca’s corkscrew.
The track in Bathurst is named after Mount Panorama, but you never really get a good look at the sign on the slope as you’re racing. If you look to your left as you’re approaching the finish line, you might catch a glimpse of it. Then you turn into the first straightaway, and if you lift your eyes off the road and peer into the distance between the trees, you can make out the letters M and PA. Soon enough, you’re ascending a series of gratifying curves that are easier to navigate because your car is pressed into the road and readily converting torque into traction. Once you reach the top and you’re cruising along the ridge, if you look to your left, you’ll get a view of Bathurst.
Well, where Bathhurst would be. Microsoft Flight Simulator this ain’t. You can see the Blue Mountains in the distance. You’d never really know from the Project Cars 3 graphics engine, which does racetracks just fine and scenery only passably, but much of the track consists of the road in front of people’s houses. You’re going right past their driveways at a hundred miles an hour. Here’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it attempt to communicate that:
In fact, this structure of the track is half town and half mountain. The town is two long satisfying straightaways, connected at right angles to a short length of road. Think of it as a two-pronged fork, with the finish line in the middle of the base, where the fork’s handle would be. The fork’s tines are stuck into Mount Panorama, and this is where the fun starts. First the climb, and then the scenic ridge. Sadly, a concrete barricade blocks the view. But as any runner will tell you, the thing about running up a hill is that you’re going to eventually get to run down the hill. And this is where Mount Panorama is unique among the tracks I’ve driven in Project Cars 3. There are a series of esses that stand out when you look at a track diagram:
Starting from Skyline and going to Forrest’s Elbow, you can tell it’s going to be a wild ride. But what you can’t tell is that it’s a steep decline the entire time. If you brake for these esses, you’re going to be putting all your car’s weight on the front left or right tire. Ideally you want to work out a line that lets you cruise gently through them, accelerating when you can to pull a little weight to the back of your car. There are similarly wiggly bits on plenty of tracks, but not many on an incline. The fictional Mojave track has a jaunty little ess on an incline. But you’re going uphill, which has a whole different feel.
The Mount Panorama esses are similar to the famous ess on Laguna Seca called the Corkscrew. But the Corkscrew is just a once-and-done challenge, and you can’t even see it coming. It’s a blind left over a crest, straight down a sixty-foot drop, then into a right turn. It feels out of place, as if they built the track and forgot to smooth that part of the terrain. So, just for fun, they draped a couple of turns over it, because why not? But it’s over quickly and then you’re back on the part of Laguna Seca that feels like it was actually made for racing.
But the downward slope of Mount Panorama keeps going. It’s eight curves, all told, and you can see them all unfurl before you because you’re driving downhill. They’ll loom large in whatever windshield you’re looking through. And it feels completely unforced. This is the way the mountain wants you to go, not some anomaly an engineer forgot to smooth out. This is the way, rocking back and forth like waves, or a crib, or a slow dance at your prom. Today’s rivals event uses a powerful racing Porsche, so my first few attempts were just rolling down the curves, getting a feel for them, watching the ghost cars screw up completely, and contributing my own screw-ups to future ghost cars. But the more I learned them, the more I delighted in them. Eight curves, gravity assisted, one after the other, a break from racing to gambol down a mountain. It’s enough to make you wiggle your hips as you drive.
The last bend is the cherry on top of the shimmy sundae. It was known as Devil’s Elbow until 1947, when a daring motorcycle racer named Jack Forrest crashed coming around the bend during practice for a race. He injured his elbow so severely he had to modify his motorcycle’s handlebars so he could reach them for the actual race. One of his rivals dubbed the turn Forrest’s Elbow and the name stuck. In an article about Forrest, a writer describes the turn as a “severely downhill and adverse camber left hander”. I can’t follow all that fancy technical talk, but I know what it’s like to come down from Mount Panorama, clear that “adverse camber left hander”, and then mash the accelerator to come roaring back into Bathurst, ultimately to come back around and do it again. When I come down from Laguna Seca’s Corkscrew, I’m thinking, “Whew, I didn’t screw it up”. But when I come down from Mount Panorama, I’m thinking, “Can we ride it again please, please, please, can we?”