What it's like to drive a Nissan GT-R with a PlayStation controller

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For the decade the Nissan GT-R has been on sale, I’ve railed against haters dismissing it as a PlayStation car. Sure, it leans heavily on technology its reputation for acceleration stats and straight-line performance (still impressive after all these years). What people don’t seem to appreciate, however, is that within the GT-R lurks a true driver’s car, rich in feedback, beautifully balanced, and hugely interactive at the limit. Call this campaign a personal mission, one I thought won now that the Porsche 911 Turbo has reversed the roles and gone all technik-uber-alles.

Until a bold and eye-catching stunt pulled by Nissan Europe rather blew my argument out of the water and confirmed all those ‘gamer car’ stereotypes. Yes, to celebrate the GT-R’s 10-year anniversary and launch of Gran Turismo Sport it has built an R35 you drive – for real – from a DualShock4 PlayStation control pad.

If you’re a graduate of the gamers-to-racers Gran Turismo Academy like Brit Jann Mardenborough, currently living the dream in Japan racing a Calsonic-liveried NISMO GT-R GT500 in Super GT, you do so round Silverstone at over 130 mph from the co-pilot’s seat of a Robinson R44 helicopter. Incredibly Mardenborough averaged 76 mph for the 1.6-mile National Circuit lap, against the 83 mph of a conventionally driven car.

Nissan GT-R playstation controller

Watch the video and you may cry fake. But the car is real. And can be driven round Silverstone remotely, exactly as depicted. How do I know? Because I’ve just done the same.

Full disclosure – the Robinson is absent and I drive from a following Nissan Rogue around a sectioned-off training circuit. But to sit in the passenger seat of a chase car, hit ‘up’ on the D-pad of a DualShock controller and see the unoccupied GT-R ahead tense into gear against the brakes is no less extraordinary.

Behind me one of the guys who built the car sits with a kill switch in hand, his colleague trackside ready with the same. There’s some controversy about the lack of a damage feature in GT Sport, but out here in the real world it’s very much enabled. And the consequences of contact with the barriers will be more serious than hitting restart. If danger threatens and they hit the button the ignition will cut, the pneumatic ram operating the brake pedal will attempt to punch it through the firewall and the GT-R will stop dead.

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I draw breath and release the L2 trigger. The taillights go out and the GT-R starts to creep forward. This is really weird. I tickle R2 and the car squats and takes off. Woah! L2! L2! The brake lights blaze and the GT-R comes to an almost immediate halt, our chase driver already taking evasive action. He’s had a day of this and is pretty frosty by now.

OK. Try again. Nudge of R2 and into the tight left hairpin before us. My attempt at a smooth turn-in descends into a mess of jerky inputs and corrections, but I stay off the brakes and trust in the GT-R’s ability to navigate a second gear corner at around 20 mph. I later learn that on Mardenborough’s lap he was hard enough on the throttle to trigger the stability control on corner exit. Suffice to say I’m a little more cautious.

The inside of the straight has a line of small wizard hat cones for visual reference. Tempting as it is to live out my Gran Turismo fantasies and take them out in a blizzard of orange plastic I’m wary of our friend in the back seat with his kill switch. My attempt at keeping it straight is more invitation to a DUI conviction than a pro racer’s confident line, but having seen previous participants trundle along at 10 mph maximum I’m determined to make our chase driver work for his lunch.

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As we chase the fast-disappearing GT-R, I tickle the brake trigger to slow it for the approaching left turn. Again the car comes to a near halt, but those years of Gran Turismo I’d once thought wasted are serving me well and my navigation of the corner gets a murmured compliment from the back seat. By this point the GT-R is crossing our bows at about 90 degrees to our direction of travel and I’m feeling pretty pleased with myself. Then I crane my neck and see it’s in fact heading straight towards the cones. The lesson here? Don’t watch where the car’s been. Check where it’s actually headed.

Full right stick saves me from embarrassment but the following to and fro corrections are messy. Nothing about this feels natural. Spatial awareness, sense of direction, appreciation of speed – they’re all totally out of kilter. Credit to the team who configured the car though, the reactions to the DualShock pad are remarkably consistent with what you experience in the game. It’s a worthy celebration of what the Nissan GT-R and Gran Turismo have achieved together, considering the influence both game and car have had on a generation of drivers virtual and real.

Building this car, taking it to Silverstone and having it lap at pace is an incredible achievement for all involved. Letting the likes of me drive it is also incredibly brave. But some laps in a GT-R controlled the old-fashioned way reassure me I was right all along. As the diffs tighten, the turbos whoosh and the GT-R arcs through Silverstone’s turns in a perfectly balanced four-wheel drift, I’m reminded why I love the R35 so much. Yes, the electronics are a great enabler. But it’s the driver’s interaction with the mechanical components, expressed in the clanks of meshing gears in the transaxle transmission, the rush of boost, the weight and feel of the hydraulically assisted steering, the ability to make it dance on the throttle and the sheer brutality of the power delivery that no videogame can convey. And why, accurately represented or not, the real GT-R should never be mistaken for a computer simulation.

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