The tension was palpable. In the immediacy of the Gran Turismo Nations Cup world final, which effectively determines the best Gran Turismo driver in 2022, no one was quite sure who’s the champion.
A grand podium celebration should have been underway, a heavy gold trophy in the hands of the winner, lights flashing and confetti falling.
But we were waiting. As presenters Julia Hardy, Tom Brooks and Jimmy Broadbent ably padded for time during a live broadcast, news flited through that it was coming down to a steward’s review.
In dramatic fashion, a full season’s racing culminated in a final lap where three drivers were separated by a hair’s breadth and incredibly, made contact with each other.
Crossing the line first, Spain’s Coque López was visibly emotional, leaning forward in his cockpit, head in hands, tears forming.
Meanwhile, Chilean rival Angel Inostroza, initially frustrated with the incidents of the last two minutes, realised that the result was open to interpretation. His body language read of someone quietly confident, assured of a title.
Takuma Miyazono was also in contention until the Japanese contender spun his highly-strung Red Bull X2019 Competition car just six corners from home.
Fellow competitors huddled around both drivers, simultaneously congratulating and commiserating, hedging their bets on the outcome. I didn’t envy those making the crucial decision.
Rewind nearly 12 months, and anyone with either a PlayStation 4 or PlayStation 5 and Gran Turismo 7 had the chance of being at Monte-Carlo Sporting event space for one of three world final races to determine the best virtual drivers.
The finals follow a year-long qualification process consisting of online races at home. The competitors from the previous season’s finals are also factored in, and in the middle of the year, there is a Showdown event, pitting newcomers against established stars.
There are three main competitions for Gran Turismo participants. The Toyota Gazoo Racing GT CUP, the Manufacturers Cup where three drivers each from a different nationality team up to represent a car brand, and the Nations Cup for individual entries, simultaneously crowning the quickest region and the best driver.
With the qualifying format splitting competitors into three main areas – Asia-Oceania, Europe/Middle East/Africa and Americas – it creates one of the most diverse line-ups in racing esports, a pivotal factor if it’s to continue its increasing relevance.
It also sees several drivers return, year after year, building their reputation within Gran Turismo circles.
“I’ve been playing the Gran Turismo since when I was a little kid, I grew up playing it,” said five-time finals competitor Igor Fraga, who is also looking for real-world Super Formula opportunities in 2023.
“It’s been part of my life. Being able to also come to an event, meet everyone, and share this moment together is very special.”
The Brazilian’s thoughts were echoed by now two-time Manufacturers Cup winner Daniel Solis.
“What keeps me coming back is being able to come out here, see all my friends, have some fun – obviously I want to win, but for me, first and foremost, it’s about having fun,” said Solis.
While the competitions have a clear and accessible entry route – which creates an aspiration to compete for a new generation of drivers – the Gran Turismo World Series is different to several other professional competitions in the burgeoning virtual competitive scene by not offering a prize pool.
Instead, each driver who qualifies receives an appearance fee. That’s for each individual competition they qualify for (90 slots in total), plus a bonus stipend for each day they are present.
It creates a platform where there isn’t a big grand prize, but every competitor leaves with something.
Much like its open entry process and defined regions, the equalisation of payment makes the World Series an outlier. When you factor in funded travel to Monaco from anywhere in the world, plus accommodation, it’s clear this is a significant investment.
Competing in the events also comes with a certain cache, which in turn could potentially be used to build a career creating online racing content.
Back to the results of the Nations Cup World Final and after an agonising wait a decision was reached – López kept the victory. The Spaniard erupted, the waterworks are well and truly switched on now, the first person from the Iberian nation to win the competition is ecstatic.
“I think we always try to give the best result for Spain and now, fortunately, we took the win,” said López.
“I’m so happy for me, for my country and for all the people who support me.
“It feels so good because before coming here, I was thinking if I didn’t get a good result, I would probably focus more on creating [Twitch] content, because in the end this is where I get the money from.
“I think I will stay here for a few more years.”
Such drama deserves a bigger live audience, and those in attendance were audibly excited. One invited automotive photographer anecdotally told me the Manufacturers Series final was the “best race I’ve ever seen.”
But it was just invited media, Sony team members, plus friends and family who were present. I believe such high production values and dramatic action could work well in front of a larger group and add even more to the atmosphere.
“I think these live events are somewhere where the family of Gran Turismo can reconvene with all the top players and all the other people involved such as the media,” said Gran Turismo series producer Kazunori Yamauchi.
“For the World Series, or the World Tour as we used to call it, the last live event was held in January of 2020 [because] they were shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“For us that had a major effect. So, we’re glad to have been able to restart the events like this, but I think you could say that we have lost some of that momentum that we had been picking up from 2018 and 2019.
“Next year, I would really like to see that we can do a bigger restart of the series.”
Compared to the 2021 YouTube viewership, this year’s English-language broadcast figures (the three main finals combined) were up by just over 80 per cent. That could be put down to various factors, the closeness of the racing or the return of an in-person event to enhance the occasion.
Within the Gran Turismo 7 game, however, an extra reason existed. An unprecedented integration of esports.
The dedicated World Series area allowed you to watch the races live, recreate the race format yourself at home with two special races and even a quiz, whereby selecting the correct race winners netted you in-game prizes, chief of which was the Ferrari Vision Gran Turismo car.
Even if players didn’t watch the full race, at least now they may be aware that they exist in the first place.
“It’s the live events and being able to travel the world,” said first-time participant Will Murdoch when asked why he decided to take part.
“Hopefully next year, if all the events are back, we’ll be able to go to places like Tokyo, New York, Sydney or the Nürburgring.”
Globetrotting to competitively race Gran Turismo? Sign me up…