Kazunori Yamauchi on Gran Turismo Sport
“We could have called it Gran Turismo 7, but it’s about turning GT into an official FIA motorsport.”
Kazunori Yamauchi is a living legend, a game designer who doesn’t just recreate cars inside Gran Turismo, but actually invents them. He is responsible for some of the most beautiful, most advanced and most high-tech concept car designs in the world. Mercedes designed the AMG Vision Gran Turismo for him, a car that looks like Princess Amidala’s Nubian Royal Starship in Star Wars. And he personally sketched the first design of the Red Bull X2010, the fastest ever car in any Gran Turismo with a top speed of 311 miles per hour.
“I sat down with some friends and we joked around that idea of a street car, that could compete with one from Formula One,” remembers Yamauchi-san, when we sit down with him at a preview event for Gran Turismo Sport at Nürburgring in Germany. Luckily his friends happened to be four times World Champion Sebastian Vettel and his chief technical officer Adrian Newey, who designs and builds F1 cars for a living.
“At the end of the day we are all just a bunch of car nerds,” Yamauchi throws in quite casually. This might sound a tad forced, like a Hollywood movie director suddenly professing to be a huge comic book fan the moment they’re hired by Marvel Films, except that Yamauchi is not just the creative director of Gran Turismo Sport and CEO of Polyphony Digital, but an actual race driver with Team BMW himself. He means it.
“I am a huge fan of the typical Formula One wing design, which you normally don’t have in a normal ride like a Lamborghini, Koenigsegg or Porsche,” he says, though he actually owns eight sport cars at the moment as well. “And I love enclosed wheels. On the other hand Adrian was very fascinated by the idea of bringing back a superior version of the fan car technology, that was used back in the good old days of legends like the Brabham BT46B. The Red Bull X2010 pulls out air from underneath the car, creating an area of low pressure, so the car get’s pressed to the ground, producing downforce. That way you can go into a corner, with much more speed.” It worked, test driving the virtual RB X2010, Sebastian Vettel indeed was 20 seconds faster on Suzuka Circuit in Gran Turismo 5 than with his real F1 car on the real track.
“That was good fun," Yamauchi shows a satisfied smile. “It’s still the fastest and best car of any Gran Turismo, but unfortunately it’s not possible to build it for the real world, which makes me a little bit sad. According to our metrics at top speed the car would produce 8G in G-Force. Now if I remember correctly, a F-16 fighter jet is electronically limited to 9G. So that would be a little bit tough on a pilot, but certainly a good ride.”
Real supercars, designed and built for Gran Turismo
Regardless, Kazunori Yamauchi is one of the only game designers in the world that real car manufacturers listen to for inspiration. When going hands-on with Gran Turismo Sport two days before the famous 24h Race at Nürburgring, our first obvious choice is the Bugatti Vision Gran Turismo. It’s the fastest sports car ever built for the real world with 1650 horsepower, the second fastest of any GT and the fastest ride of Gran Turismo Sport.
Granted, you never know what kind of surprises Yamauchi has in store. Just to put things into perspective: the BMW racing car Yamauchi used for the 24h Race at Nürburgring is a heavily tuned BMW M6 GT3 with 585 horsepower. If you’ve ever driven such a car, we’re talking about a top speed of 218mph (350kph). Eye watering, except that the BMW would get eaten for lunch by the Bugatti Vision Gran Turismo, which has a top speed in the virtual and the real world of 273mph (439kph).
“I love the design of the car, with the very classy, kinda angry looking ‘eyes’,” says Yamauchi. “And obviously the sound, such a 16v, is just music to my ears.” The Bugatti Vision GT indeed sounds great in the game, but it could be more punchy, a little bit more aggressive. Sound design has been a major focus for GT Sport and Polyphony Digital have made a ton of new recordings, but the engines still don’t roar like a lion, which is a pity. Yamauchi admits that GT Sport actually is still in a very early stage. Even the graphics are not even close to final. “They are roughly at 50 to 60 percent of what we want to achieve on PS4.”
While visuals will be a major focus until launch, it feels like for Yamauchi, at least, that it’s much more important to create some sort of driving magic, that is very tough to achieve in the real world. “First a Bugatti is extremely expensive, I actually don’t know a ton of people owning one. Do you have a friend, driving a Bugatti?”
Erm, no, we admit sheepishly.
“And then there are not many tracks out there where you can accelerate to 270mph (434kph). I know they’ve done that with the Veyron Super Sport at Kennedy Space Center, where they have a large runway for space shuttles. I don’t know though, if you can rent that place. So if you are not among the super rich, it’s always nice to have a safe haven to try out the most exotic cars of this planet – and this year it’s called Gran Turismo Sport,” he laughs.
Racing game or landmark simulator? Why not both?
Listening to Kazunori Yamauchi is fascinating, because most features we take for granted in Gran Turismo exist because he is a jack-of-all-trades. He’s not just into cars, but also art and photography. That’s why Gran Turismo Sport features the most powerful picture editor, we’ve ever seen in a game, and we’ve played both GTA V and Uncharted 4.
“If you like to shoot cars, you might know about the challenges you face all the time. First, the lighting conditions need to be perfect. Second, people hanging around are a bit annoying and destroy the composition of your picture. And sometimes they just don’t let you drive anywhere for the perfect shot. Try to park your Mercedes AMG in front of St. Peter’s Basilica and police will ruin your art. We needed a solution for that.”
That’s not what you’d expect to find at the top of the To Do list for the creators of most driving sims, but that’s how Yamauchi rolls. He hired the best photographers he knows and sent them on a quest around the world to capture 1,000 beautiful pictures of all the famous locations you can think of.
“It’s a little bit like Photoshop, but smarter,” explains Yamauchi. “Every picture contains spatial and light information, so whenever you move a car around in the environment, all shadows are adjusted in real-time. And what’s probably my favourite, you can actually let the car drive. Like you can let it pass the Royal Palace of Tokyo or the Guggenheim Museum in New York and it looks like a real shot.”
He’s right: you are now able to create the perfect staged shot for every car in 1,000 environments to make your friends on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram a little bit more jealous. It’s very tough to distinguish between a real picture and one from Gran Turismo Sport, rendered at 4K resolution, which might be a hint of what’s to come (Sony actually politely asked us before the interview not to ask about a possible upgraded PS4K, that according to multiple sources of Kotaku, Polygon and Eurogamer is set to launch this year with double the graphics power of the current PS4).
Making GT an official motorsport
But forget photography, Kazunori Yamauchi, says. He has one goal that tops them all: he’s made it his personal quest to turn Gran Turismo into an official Motorsport. “We already bridged the gap between virtual and real worlds with GT Academy, which is maybe the proudest project I’ve ever worked on with all these fantastic people at Sony.”
With GT Academy the best of the best GT pilots get a chance to earn a real race driving license and a contract with a real racing team. “When we were first throwing around that idea, we weren’t sure, if it would really work. But we gave it a shot and it worked so, so well. To be honest, we kinda let these guys go through hell, drilled by instructors of the Special Air Service (SAS). They train these guys, like they would train elite soldiers. I always feel bad, when they let them romp through mud, run across the entire Silverstone circuit multiple times and really bring them to their limits.”
He isn’t exaggerating here: we attended the GT Academy finals two years ago, where SAS would wake up their “recruits” with a flashbang and loud screams in the middle of the night and let them run the Silverstone circuit under heavy rain. “But it’s necessary, they need to be up for the job. Being a race driver is not just about your personal fitness level, it’s about following stall orders and working in a team. Today former candidates like Lucas Ordóñez are driving in the Super GT series and even at the 24h Race in Le Mans, which makes me incredibly proud.”
With GT Sport Yamauchi wants to close the last gap between real motorsports and Gran Turismo. “We are now talking with the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile, the FIA, for about three years, to implement the official ruling book. GT Sport is going to be the first game ever in history where you can get granted your very own FIA racing license.“
Just to make things clear here: once you have this digital license, you can apply for a real FIA driving license to actually take part in official races. Well, if you have half a million for a racing car plus cash for technical staff and equipment. “Just a couple of months ago the World Motor Sport Council allowed the start of this massive project. Getting accepted will not be easy and not be fast. The license is only granted once you go through a variety of different subjects that cover safety issues, your manner on the track and many more aspects, that will be closely monitored and evaluated by both Polyphony Digital, the FIA and Formula One race director Charlie Whiting.”
Oh and if you live in the UK, you are lucky: the Motor Sports Association (MSA), the official governing body for all things motorsports, has already agreed to the Gran Turismo FIA Digital License. And to crown it all, there is a World Championship in Gran Turismo Sport too. If you happen to win the big tournament, you will get your trophy at the official FIA Gala alongside Daniel Ricciardo, Lewis Hamilton or whoever happens to win Formula One in 2017.
“I’ll be there too, clapping,” Yamuachi adds. If that’s not incentive to play Gran Turismo Sport, we don’t know what is. See you on the track.