If you didn't know, and you probably don't, there's a game on the horizon that lets you take control of JCB vehicles on Mars. JCB Pioneer: Mars is its name - quite appropriate really - and on a recent press trip to see it in action, I was challenged to drive a real-life JCB. Would I be up to the task? Could I really tame such a beast?
Of course, I jumped at the challenge. Who wouldn't want to take control of a thunderous industrial vehicle? To be specific, the machine I was going to be put in charge of was a JCB 457 Wastemaster. With a 249 horsepower, 8.9 litre, 6 cylinder Cummins QSL engine, and weighing in at 20,000kg, it is quite the behemoth - but inexplicably, the fine folks at JCB headquarters trusted me to drive it. They obviously hadn't seen me behind the wheel of my car.
Before I could climb inside the cabin and have my way with the beast however, safety procedures had to be adhered to. I listened intently to the supervisor's instructions, slid myself into some steel toe-capped wellies, and placed a bright red hard-hat on my head. A descent into a surprisingly well-kept quarry shortly followed.
Our intrepid hero and his partner don hi-vis jackets and hard hats, because JCBs are serious business.
Unfortunately I was the last member of our four-strong group to grapple with the Wastemaster. Still, it gave me a chance to observe the vehicle in action and the opportunity to study its numerous functions from a distance to psyche myself up for what was to come. When it was finally my turn to take control, I made my way over the muddy wastes, and using the handy rails provided, climbed not so gracefully into the cockpit. A bit of bum-crack may have been on display, just to further get into the role of the stereotypical workman - I'm not too sure.
Placing my hefty backside in the Wastemaster's seat, I was pleasantly surprised to find that it automatically adjusted to provide me with the perfect operating position. Without further ado, I reached for the seatbelt so I could get started. I was pretty sure I wasn't going to reach a speed which necessitated such a safety protocol, but rules are rules. I pulled the steering column towards me using a handy lever, then, with the engine already running, a JCB supervisor quickly took me over the controls. They sounded simple - a wheel for steering, pedals for acceleration and braking, a parking brake button, and then what's essentially a joystick for everything else. In practice, however, it was a different story.
At odds with the divine teachings of the DVLA, only one of my hands was to be in control of the steering wheel - my left hand to be exact. The other, my right hand, would be in sole control of the joystick. I disengaged the parking brake by pressing the appropriate switch mounted on the right hand pillar of the cabin, and I was ready to put the machine into gear and begin moving. Another three-point pivoted switch located on the underside of the joystick flicked the Wastemaster between drive, reverse and neutral, and so by rolling my finger upward, I awakened the vehicle from its slumber.
I was surprised to discover that the Wastemaster moved of its own accord, albeit very slowly. If I wanted to come to a halt or speed up, I'd need to use the appropriate oversized footpedal. Heading for a spot of clear land, I put my foot down. As you'd expect, there was no danger of me suffering a whiplash injury; the more I planted my foot, the more my ears were bombarded by the ferocious roar of the engine rather than my body being subjected to the sensation of speed. I wasn't going to complain though. It was a nice roar - not one that loosens the bowels; instead one that fills you with a childish joy.
I approached a mound of detritus. It was time to dig. I turned the steering wheel - one handed style, remember - like a rural gangster. Against all expectations, it was light and nimble. Though, as the front wheels turned, the articulation of the Wastemaster meant that its front end also followed before dragging the cabin along with it. Honestly, it threw me for a moment; imagine seeing your car bonnet bend to one side, just before you feel the sensation of actually turning. It doesn't feel entirely natural. I quickly overcome my disarray however; I had to, and after more manoeuvring I finally had the Wastemaster in position to do some real work: moving some pesky waste.
Here's where the shit got real. The Wastemaster's scoop, bucket, or whatever else you want to call it, was entirely controlled by moving the joystick. Pulling the joystick towards me raised the arm connected to the scoop upwards, and pushing it away moved the arm downwards. Meanwhile, moving the joystick to the left moved the scoop itself upwards, and to the right, the scoop downwards. It's utterly simple in principle. Child's play even. Manoeuvring the vehicle, the scoop and the arm it's attached to at all the same time, however, is much more of a clusterfuck for the mind.
I apprehensively moved the scoop and the arm into position, ready to charge at the offending waste like a mechanical bull. With the scoop as close as possible and parallel to the ground, I let the Wastemaster crawl forward a small distance before placing my foot firmly on the accelerator as the scoop made contact with its dormant yet sturdy adversary. The trick was to pull down and left on the joystick while accelerating to pick up as much rubble as possible. My first attempt was a disaster, failing to fill even half of the scoop's 3.5 cubic metre capacity. Still, I was a rookie. It was bound to happen, wasn't it? All I could do was learn from my mistakes.
Dumping my (unfortunately small) load a little further around from where I picked it up, I flicked the joystick hard to the left, setting the position of the scoop back to its default, and readied myself for another attempt. This time I was ready to do JCB - no, my country - proud. I'd have better control of my joystick and be more aggressive on the pedals, I told myself. I needed to go in faster, stronger and find a better angle; I didn't want to walk away feeling like I'd failed. The supervisor must have sensed my inner turmoil, and, reminiscent of a popular scene involving clay from the film Ghost, only with slightly less sexual tension, he reached over and demonstrated the ideal motion. With my sensei's knowledge taken on board, I was good to go.
I made my move, and with the determination to succeed taking over, nothing else in the world mattered for a few moments. My action was violent, yet my movement was beautiful, like a dirty backstreet ballet. With one swift motion I'd filled my scoop with a respectable magnitude of waste. I could finish up, go home and rest easy, knowing that I'd achieved something. It was a good feeling. With the joystick, I held my messy trophy aloft. The sun shined. Perhaps this JCB lark wasn’t so hard after all?
I dumped the adequately sized load on top of the paltry pile that I'd laid down earlier, I flicked the machine into neutral and engaged the parking brake. After dismissing the steering column and undoing the seatbelt, I climbed back out of the Wastemaster - this time definitely showing some bum crack - but pleased with what I'd achieved. It was small victory, but one nonetheless, and that's all we can ask for in this life: victory, no matter how small.
I'll never forget my time behind the wheel of the JCB 457 Wastemaster. It wasn't only an eye-opening experience but also a mind-expanding one. And at least now I know, that if writing no longer heeds my call, I can always hack it as a JCB operator. Well, maybe.