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An Abusive Relationship
Preston Lerner
December 29, 1997
After the author got hooked on a Formula One simulation, the real pain began
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December 29, 1997

An Abusive Relationship

After the author got hooked on a Formula One simulation, the real pain began

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My raceplan log entry for March 24, 1997, after two mechanical failures in the British Grand Prix: I'm an idiot.

April 29, after mistakenly running my cars at the Belgian Grand Prix, a low-down-force circuit, with high-down-force settings: No, I'm the world's biggest idiot.

May 27, after my two alleged drivers spin no fewer than five times at Estoril, in Portugal: For God's sake! Would somebody mind telling me what the hell is going on here?

June 13, when my one disgracefully slow but surviving car blows its engine on the last lap of the last race of the season: That's it. I quit. They can take this [expletive deleted] game and they can [many expletives deleted].

Raceplan, a play-by-mail computer simulation of Formula One racing, isn't just a game. It's an obsession. Every two weeks, the moment my Raceplan fix arrived via Royal Mail from England, I dropped whatever I was doing, breathed deeply to calm my butterflies and analyzed the latest computer-generated race results for two hours, longer than it takes to run a real Grand Prix. Over the following week I would spend at least 12 hours crunching numbers for the next race—calculating fuel mileage to plan pit stops, figuring appropriate corner speeds, etc.—agonizing over strategy and mapping out my seasonlong car-development program.

Besides keeping my Raceplan log, I filled a loose-leaf binder with race stats, freehand drawings of all the Formula One racetracks and random ruminations. (I like to think of it as my version of DaVinci's notebooks.) At least once a week, just before nodding off to sleep, I studied the 33-page Raceplan rule book (including six pages of updates and clarifications) with the fervor of a biblical scholar pondering a difficult passage of Deuteronomy. I had the bug so bad that I even wished broken limbs and debilitating illnesses on the fictitious drivers of rival teams.

For better or worse—no, make that for better and worse—I discovered Raceplan about a year ago while browsing through the classifieds of Autosport, the British racing weekly, ARMCHAIR GRAND PRIX MANAGERS WANTED! screamed the headline. CAN YOU GUIDE YOUR OWN F/1 TEAM TO WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP GLORY? Is Jacques Villeneuve French? (Actually he's French-Canadian, but you get the idea.)

Here was my chance to prove that Frank Williams, the Roger Penske of F1, had nothing on me besides means and opportunity. I promptly contacted Raceplan creator Danny McConnell, a 31-year-old computer-simulation savant who runs an empire of play-by-mail games—not only in automobile racing but also in baseball, basketball, boxing, cricket, football, rugby and soccer—in Kent, England. It didn't take long for McConnell to convince me that Raceplan was much more indeed than a warmed-over version of Rotisserie baseball.

For about $100 per 17-race season, Raceplan allows team owners—I mean players—to make nearly every important decision affecting the fate of a mythical Formula One team (short of planning the menu for the sponsor's hospitality tent). That means managing preset budgets, hiring and firing drivers, and building and developing the race cars based on 19 technical specifications that range from high-speed down force (a variable affecting traction and speed) to the compound of qualifying tires.

The game is designed for Formula One fanatics in desperate need of a real life: pale, geeky guys pretty much like, well, me. I've been following Grand Prix racing for 25 years. Dead drunk, I can recite the names of every F/1 world champion since 1950. If there were a Jeopardy! for motor sports, I would be rich. ("I'll take 'Desmodromic Valvetrains' for $2 million, Alex.")

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