With the release of Forza Horizon, the Xbox team laid on the challenge of a lifetime for a motley crue of gaming petrolheads. VVV Reporter, Cat Dow, joined them to diarise the final leg…
Last week saw me hit yet another milestone in both age and driving career: I was offered the best 30th birthday present a girl could ever be offered.
“Would you like to take a Jaguar XKR-S from London to Birmingham as part of the Escape The Grid challenge?”
I didn’t need asking twice and confirmed my attendance before asking any crucial questions: What’s Escape The Grid? What challenge? What’s going on?!
Getting over the initial excitement at the prospect of driving a pretty and very fast car, I sat down to tackle the knowledge deficit. Escape The Grid, what?! Forza, you say? Ah, makes sense now.
Over a year on from receiving the only Zonda I am ever likely to own, in a box labeled Forza 4 and realising I was only a steering wheel and set of pedals short of ‘Expert level’, I was pleased to hear about the Forza Horizon release.
Pre-release reviews had been favourable and had commented that the game followed the Forza formula less prescriptively and had, as a result, broadened its appeal to suit more casual gamers like myself.
Our very own Alan Boiston’s first-play videos provided insight into what I would consider virtual ‘Utopia’ – being a massive music junkie, festival goer and petrolhead – and left me with the hope that the Horizon Festival would transcend the pixels into the real world at some point in the future.
My wish came true sooner than I expected, at least in a fashion.
Invited to take part on the last leg of the ‘Escape The Grid’ Challenge, which was a mini Gumball-esque rally, involving participants from six nations, a journey from Paris to Birmingham and ten of the most sought-after supercars featured in the game, I could barely contain my excitement.
A latecomer to the event, my entrance did not go unnoticed, being the only female driver to take part. There was a strange sense of organised chaos, bulked out by a noxious smell swirling around the breakfast room…like the smog at the Indian Grand Prix Circuit. ‘Was it booze?’ I asked myself, searching their animated faces. It couldn’t have been. Aside from the fact they weren’t slurring their words, these lads were in charge of ten supercars! Surely they would have more sense, right?!
Well, not that much more… already one license and €750 in speeding fines down, the participants and support crew alike had been on the road three days by this point and had enjoyed the sounds of Skepta and Ms Dynamite at the dubstep-flavoured promo event at London club ‘Fabric’ the previous evening. I was expecting a garble of semi-coherent ‘hi’s, but as we were shown to our car, my co-driver and I looked at each other in amusement.
We had been offered cans of Rockstar no less than five times between 8.12am and 8.51am and like a shiny penny dropping to the bottom of your oversized savings bottle, it was clear to see these unnaturally wild-eyed individuals had consumed gallons of the stuff.
It was hard not to be infected by their caffeine-induced energy. I hadn’t slept well the night before – think: childlike feeling on Christmas Eve – such was the adrenalin coursing through my veins.
Standard issue Rockstar cans in hand and briefing done, the Jaguar growled to life at the mere press of a button and brake pedal, and with an audience of scaffolders, I extricated us from the narrow parking area in one three-point turn. Cue a round of applause from the lads with low expectations of female drivers (thanks, boys!).
Allocated my namesake Big Cat – the only car embellished with eyelashes – I immediately felt an affinity with the beautiful blue beast. Nicknamed ‘The Mistress’ by co-driver and starship navigator, James Kirk, the Jaguar XKR-S runs a supercharged, quad-cam, 5-litre V8 engine, producing a beastly 542bhp – in laywoman’s terms, that means it moves like the proverbial sh*t off a shovel.
The convoy was so special. The Netherlands, Germany, France, Italy, Spain and the UK showed their appreciation for a bit of Swedish House Mafia and at the numerous sets of lights in Shepherds Bush, I’d hit ‘mute’ on the bass-blasting Bowes and Wilkes system and we’d all gun the throttle for a second or two. The smiles of passengers, drivers and engine-appreciating pedestrians alike were wider than the English Channel the convoy had crossed a mere twelve hours earlier.
The Jaguar’s own familiar and achingly-melodic rumble was ripped apart by a snarl of spitting and popping; more than enough to send a shiver down your spine and back up again. Then I’d look up to realise I was sandwiched between a McLaren MP4-12C and an Audi R8 GT, with a Bentley Continental, Maserati GT and GTR beyond the McLaren and a BMW M5 and BMW M6 Coupe jostling for the presence in my right wing mirror. My heart soared, my smile beamed.
I was speechless (It doesn’t happen much). It had to be love. I mean, I had simply never experienced anything like this feeling before: I-…I was pulled out of my daydream as we moved onto the motorway.
I couldn’t get over the amount of torque the Jaguar had at such low revs, an experience only comparable to the response of the vehicle when I went off-roading in a Land Rover Defender. The sole of my foot was no more than creating a shadow on the accelerator and the car would launch forward with such ferocity, our smartphones, gently resting on the mid console, would take flight towards the windscreen and I felt convinced there was actually big cat, ready to pounce at the next white van man who got into ‘her’ fast lane.
At Beaconsfield Service Station, the first pitstop, we got a chance to chat with the other drivers and learned the Jaguar had been leading the ‘Escape The Grid’ challenge initially, due to the resting heartbeat of her previous French driver and her
As we neared Birmingham and the signs for the NEC started to read ’20 miles’, the playful weaving of Cat-and-Mouse with the other cars (no pun intended) came to a reluctant halt. I pulled into the slow lane, pushing a mere 65mph. I noted the other cars follow suit. The cogs of the comedown were beginning to turn and we weren’t even there yet.
Arriving at the NEC, the jaw-dropping gawps from the Top Gear Live visitors were unforgettable, the reflective grins from the young lads that would enter the spacious halls to then join us with our rides, now all clean and sparkly, as Xbox Social Media Manager, Graham Boyd announced the Maserati drivers as the winning team.
Those wide smiles belied the numbness that had transcended our bodies. Chatting happily on the outside, the unshakeable feeling of being torn from something youloved, if only for a short while, was akin to being called for tea when you were aboutto beat The Doctor in a whole new level of Sonic (pre- the days of a ‘save’ option.)
(…that is until I switch on my Xbox and whip out my copy of Forza Horizon. Join me soon to re-enact my Friday escapade and save me from the emptiness I now feel sans ‘The Mistress’, Love downcastbee1647 xx )