Motor racing is no stranger to the world of e-sports. We’ve already witnessed the success of GT Academy: the gamer-to-racer programme that ran in conjunction with Nissan and PlayStation and which has kickstarted a number of professional racing careers. Several major series have also staged virtual races, including Formula E and MotoGP.
And now McLaren has become the first Formula 1 outfit to embark on its own e-sports project.
Earlier this year the team launched World’s Fastest Gamer, a talent contest that will see them select a new simulator driver from a group of standout virtual racers - yes, you read that right: the winning gamer will actually get a year's contract as the F1 team's simulator driver.
The winner will come through a series of evaluations and challenges to ensure they’re the right person to support Fernando Alonso and Stoffel Vandoorne throughout the 2018 season. While the work will take place in the virtual world, the results will be seen on real grand prix circuits across the globe.
It’s no coincidence that this project has a distinct feel of GT Academy about it. World’s Fastest Gamer is a partnership between McLaren and Millennial Esports, whose chief marketing officer Darren Cox was the brains behind the original gamer-to-racer programme.
Looking for a new means to unearth virtual racing talent, Cox reached out to McLaren boss Zak Brown, who was quick to green-light the project.
Six finalists were selected for their achievements in sim racing, while a further half-dozen reached the finals through qualifying events and online races.
The chosen 12 will compete across multiple racing platforms – something Cox sees as a big step up from GT Academy, which was tied to the Gran Turismo franchise – to earn a dream contract with McLaren.
MAKING THE RIGHT CHOICE
World’s Fastest Gamer demonstrates Brown’s fresh approach to leading McLaren. The American speaks with real enthusiasm about the programme’s potential and will join Cox on the five-man panel that selects the winner.
“In any team environment you need to be a good team player so I’ll be looking for those same personality traits that I look for in an engineer, in a driver, or anyone who works here,” explains Brown.
An experienced racer himself, Brown admits that the eventual winner will face a steep learning curve.
“They haven’t had a team of engineers around them who are asking lots of questions, giving lots of feedback and wanting to try new stuff.
“And then there’s the importance of the job: this is going to be high-pressure stuff. Once the winner is decided, this person will be driving our simulator and we’ll review them just like we would any employee.”
But while they will lack some practical experience, Cox believes that a sim racer could prove to be better suited to this role than an old-school single-seater driver.
“There is a genuine requirement for people who can sit in a simulator all day every day and be professional at that job. Who says that the guy who didn’t quite make it in Formula 2 or Formula 3 is the right person, rather than somebody who’s raced in the virtual world?” says Cox.
It’s an interesting view – and one that World’s Fastest Gamer finalist Bono Huis agrees with. “I think it will be an advantage as we’ve been doing this all our lives. We’re not used to anything else,” says the Dutchman, who makes his living as a professional sim racer.
FROM GAMING TO GRAND PRIX?
It’s certainly possible that someone whose experience is solely in simulation will do a better job than a 23-year-old F2 graduate who’s itching to get back out on a circuit.
Then again, might the virtual racers be just as keen to climb out of a simulator and into a real cockpit?
Given his history, it’s no surprise that Cox views sim racing as a legitimate talent pool. GT Academy’s best-known graduate was Jann Mardenborough, who became a race-winner in GP3 and now competes in Super Formula. That is tantalisingly close to F1.
Cox reckons that the accessibility of gaming compared with traditional routes into racing make it a better proving ground.
“Why would a very small group of people that happen to have enough money to go racing in the real world be more talented than millions and millions of people racing online?” asks Cox.
“From a physicality point of view you’ve got to do the rungs on the ladder, but as a talent identifier this is better than karting, because more people are doing it.”
Huis makes no secret of the fact that his “dream is to drive a real racing car.” He’s already on the right path: the 22-year-old got a run in Formula E machinery after winning the series’ inaugural eRace earlier this year. As a self-assured youngster wearing racing overalls, there’s little to distinguish Huis from a single-seater driver of the same age.
If a standout gamer can be picked up early and developed by an F1 team, the virtual world could become a proving ground for future talents. The way young drivers are unearthed might be about to change.
EMBRACING THE FUTURE
For now, that’s not McLaren’s objective: they’re focussed on finding the best simulator driver to support their 2018 season. Given the team’s need to return to the front of the grid, the new employee will be joining at a crucial time. Fernando Alonso isn’t exactly known for his patience.
Fortunately, McLaren’s current drivers are on board with World’s Fastest Gamer. In fact, the team’s new reserve Lando Norris is a keen sim racer himself.
“Our drivers think this is great,” Brown confirms. “Stoffel and Lando are big gamers; Fernando less so, but he enjoys it. Lando lives on them – that’s what he does on a Friday night – so I think they’re excited and they want to race whoever wins.”
That 18-year-old Norris is a more avid gamer than 36-year-old Alonso is not a surprise.
There’s a generational shift taking place and McLaren – ever the innovators – have been quick to seize upon the opportunity.
The winner of World’s Fastest Gamer will be announced on Tuesday 21 November.