Top Gear on: Ice-Rallying vs. DiRT3
Palms are sweaty. Brow is furrowed. Lips are tensed in a determined but utterly non-frightening grimace. I have dumped my bumper unceremoniously in a pile of snow and feel, remarkably, tranquil.
I'm sitting in a rally-spec Mitsubishi Evo, and my 360-degree donut into the white stuff was immediately preceded by a most righteous ‘watch this' followed closely by over-corrective steering input and suddenly bottling it on the throttle. My photographer is not impressed. She laughs.
But our undignified marriage to a lump of frozen water has its roots in something other than Top Gear's eternal search for driving crabwise: it's almost scientific. In a couple of months, Codemasters is set to release the hotly anticipated Dirt3 rally game. In Dirt3, there are some ice stages. You see where we're going with this?
On a frozen ice lake far, far away (from most civilisation), there exists a small outfit carved from the rock of Making Petrolheads Happy. It is ‘Extreme Rally', and its purpose is to help exuberant-but-utterly-useless wannabe racers (step forward, your TG man) overwhelmingly rag the nuts off a rally car in the hope of teaching them extreme drifting in an arena utterly devoid of consequence.
So off we went, ego and swagger safely tucked away in the overhead storage compartment, to Sweden, where Extreme Rally operates its ‘Winter Rally' school. On a frozen lake in North Loten, our instructor Martin gives us the skinny: the lake's owner, Roger - a man who apparently enjoys "killing things" (there's a dead wolf strung up in the club house) - works tirelessly to carve out a track from snow. He painstakingly blows the snow from the surface to build the hairpins, straights and sweeping curves, instead of ploughing it to the side.
This means there's only ever a small amount of the white stuff to dive into should your lack of talent get the better of you. And believe me, it will.
There's no messing around with instructor laps first though; Martin's lovely assistant Laura straps my essentials into the race seat and we're off for a slow tour of the circuit. Oh yes, did I mention he only uses Group N-spec rally cars?
We tried the Impreza first and found the throttle was a bit laggy: burying the loud pedal once you're in the bend is already too late, and reaction time needed a kick up the fender. So we switched to the Evo (razor-sharp response) and things were altogether more... slidey.
The studs on the rear were slightly shorter than the front to help get it sideways. "Get up to speed, lift off - which will pitch the car forwards and loosen the back slightly - turn in sharply, wait for the tail to kick out and then get on the power," Martin harrumphs through the mic.
Unfortunately, the snow was, erm, uneven, and the gloriously luminous sky provided scant protection from our largest star, in its stride and reflecting shiny things right into my face. I nearly sprained my eye.
Plus, Roger, or Duke Nukem, was busy piloting his mini helicopter around the lake, flying so close to the car's roof I could see his socks. So my initial attempts were punctuated with manic screams from Martin, along the lines of ‘power, power, POWER', before inevitably skidding to a halt into a snow wall.
Thanks to the lack of squashy-death-consequence though, you quickly get the confidence to keep on the power, and soon, well...
The rabid turbo'd four-pot issued a majestic Scandinavian howl and - now confident that you cannot break it - I ploughed straight into the corner, waited for the tail to hang out and buried the throttle. Cue splendiferous four-wheel-drive drift, plumes of snow dust for added Driving God effect and even a high-five from Martin.
"Don't be afraid", explained Martin. "That's why we practice out here on the lake. If you overcook it, all you'll do is drive into snow."
Pride safely intact, we decamped to the hotel for an exclusive drive of Dirt3's ice stages, to see if it could compare to the sweaty-palmed sideways lunacy of the day.
In a word, no.
Dirt3 cannot offer you the same squeaky-cheeked, adrenaline-filled, raucous, visceral and utterly bombastic rush that piloting a Group N spec rally car capable of 0-62mph in 4.5 seconds can. To be fair though, no game can.
But what it can do is teach you the essentials of rallying. Applying Martin's techniques - with a spot of handbrake turning thrown in for good measure - Dirt3 does offer an excellent way of learning how to slide over ice, and I was massively impressed with the driving dynamics.
You'll be pleased to know Top Gear spent a few hours thoroughly testing the game - all in the name of science, of course - to find it's a fantastic rally sim. Power off, turn in, slide and then bury the throttle button and you pirouette like Loeb. Obviously, a lack of actual physical death doesn't haunt your every steering input, so you end up carrying far more speed into the game's corners.
But with over 50 cars spanning nearly 60 years and 100 routes across eight locations (Norway, Kenya, Finland, LA, Michigan, Smelter, Monaco and Aspen), it has the history, the visuals, sound and playability to give you a digital lesson in rallying.
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