Nothing seems real right now, so it’s somehow fitting that motorsport offers a comforting distraction from our grim plight in a made-up dream world. What’s new, eh? Quiet at the back…
To the millions already tuned in, virtual or ‘sim’ racing was already a well-established and lucrative self-sustaining universe, but with real life on hold, it has suddenly burst into the mainstream. “How many nights does it take to be an overnight success?” as Torque Esports boss Darren Cox rhetorically puts it.
“Racing is in our DNA, so whether I’m competing for real or racing in a virtual event, I still want to win. Sebastian is now very fast on the sim and we’re very close in competition – but I certainly don’t want to let him win.
Formula 1 stars Lando Norris and Max Verstappen were catalysts for the craze when they entered a couple of sim races on the weekend when they should have been lining up on the grid for the real Australian Grand Prix. But the reality is the pair, along with an increasingly large percentage of their fellow professionals, weren’t doing anything they don’t usually do. Online racing is increasingly part of the racing driver existence, and not just for the youngsters.
Two-time Indianapolis 500 winner and seven-time F1 grand prix winner Juan Pablo Montoya, 44, has years of sim racing experience.
“It certainly keeps you sharp. Both myself and my son Sebastian use sim racing in our real-world training and preparation,” he exclusively told this publication. “The tools we have available are quite remarkable and it’s considerably cheaper than actually going testing on-track for real.
“Normally, you only get to race on weekends; with sim racing, you can be racing every day of the week.”
The burst of well publicised sim activity on the Aussie GP weekend attracted telephone-number viewing figures. And predictably, by the following weekend, when the Bahrain GP should have been happening, F1 was running its own virtual race ‘in Sakhir’, while NASCAR was also getting in on the act.
While the ‘real’ racing drivers naturally drew the interest, sim professionals more than held their own – although it was Renault Academy and Formula 2 racer Guanyu Zhou who won the first official Formula 1 GP that didn’t actually happen.
Montoya has long had respect for the racers he encounters online. “I was a coach on the World’s Fastest Gamer competition last year and was massively impressed with the talent,” he says. “Over 12 days, we put 10 gamers through all sorts of virtual and real-world tests.
“James Baldwin was the guy who came out on top [he will this year be racing in the real world for Jenson Button’s GT World Challenge Europe team], but on any given day there are a lot of gamers who have the raw skills to become real-world racing drivers.”
Not just a game
It’s hard to take the racing too seriously, especially when Norris suffered a tech problem during the formation lap for the virtual Bahrain GP that left his car running on autopilot for half the race – and he still finished in fifth place. But as Montoya points out, there’s still a link between ‘gaming’ and the serious simulator development work that every F1 team today invests so heavily in.
“When I first went to F1 with Williams [in 2001], we were just developing the sim, and then when I was at McLaren, they already did a lot of sim work,” he says. “Now all teams in professional motorsport use simulators to help move their programmes forward. The sims are so good that many of the programmes use a specific platform to develop the car, and they are the same that are used in sim racing.”