I spent 6 weeks battling Button, Fittipaldi and Buncombe on track
I raced in the Simsport Racing GT4 championship that took place on ACC over the past 6 weeks. Some of the names blew me away.
As a child, I was obsessed with motorsport. At any given opportunity, I would spend hours glued to the TV as cars zoomed round a racetrack somewhere on the other side of the globe. Be it Formula 1, BTCC, GT racing or even low-level club racing broadcast on an early Sunday morning, you could bet I’d be watching.
Once more, being a floaty kid that couldn’t think of anything other than motorsport, I always dreamt of competing in races against the drivers I looked up to. The likes of F1 champions Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton were both on my list of people I wanted to call rivals.
Somehow, on a Tuesday evening in early January, I found out that my impossible dream was in fact possible and would become reality. Whilst practicing for the first round of Simsport Racing’s fourth GT4 season on Assetto Corsa Competizione, I was told a group of international racing drivers would be joining our gang of mortal humans on the following evening. The list of drivers included the likes of sim racing professionals Luka Berk and Tobin Leigh and some of GT racing’s most celebrated such as Alex Buncombe and Michael O’Brien. Other than that, there was the small matter of some guy named Jenson Button. Some say he won a few races back in 2009.
How the sim racing league of a lifetime came about
To learn about how I recently made a return to sim racing, check out this link.
I think the move into simracing is a story we can all relate to after lockdown.
Since starting sim racing after the first of the world’s many lockdowns, I joined an up-and-coming community named Simsport Racing to compete in its first GT4 league on ACC. Since then, I have taken part in five of the group’s leagues and seen the community grow exponentially.
In September, the team hosted a large-scale 12-hour race in support of the Mind charity. This race attracted major names joining as part of the professional esports crew, Zansho. Jenson Button being one of them. This entry led to the setting up of a 3-hour British GT-esque event in November with the help of JB’s RJN team that timed perfectly with his Silverstone 500 participation later that month. Simsport and RJN/Zansho had therefore formed quite the relationship by the time the new year had arrived and seemingly the racing team was in need of action when our fourth season of GT4 racing began.
Whilst practicing with some of my friends and competitors on the night before the first round, news broke that a group of professionals would descend on Imola – host of the opening race – to prove themselves against the Simsport regulars.
How did the season go?
Before we get into results and performances during the course of the season, we have to go over the unique regulations seen in SSR GT4. From the second race onwards, the top 15 at the end of the previous race are reversed to form the grid for the next one. This makes it a lot harder for a single driver to dominate the standings putting a big emphasis on consistency. The first round however always features a traditional qualifying session showing where the true pace really is.
If you’re wondering why I point this out, it’s because the first round was by far my best performance behind the wheel of the mighty Camaro GT4. Managing to qualify in the top 15 out of 40-odd competitors, I ran most of the race on the fringes of the top 10. Round two at Zolder left me starting from 5th but an incident dropped me to the back of the field on lap 1. From then on, the season was a struggle to battle through to the top 15 and make the most of the reverse grid.
With the final race having taken place last night, the champion was officially crowned in professional esports racer, Luka Berk. His consistency throughout the season put him in the perfect position to claim the crown. Having missed an event due to his Extreme E commitments, Jenson wasn’t in the fight in the end, but did manage to finish the season in style with a podium at the recently released Snetterton.
What it was like to share a track with my childhood idol
Calling these guys idols or heroes is something I typically like to avoid. I’m a twenty-something student, not a six-year-old dreamer. However, to put into context just how special the past few weeks of competition have been for me, it’s important to use the correct words. Jenson is someone I looked up to as a child which makes seeing his name on a server all that more thrilling. Furthermore, to see names such as Buncombe and Priaulx that race GT cars for a living and be competitive with them, it’s a different experience to battling “cars_are_fast666”.
When focussing on getting through the race cleanly to pick up a decent result and a handful of points and one of the recognisable names are nearby, two thoughts fill your head at the same time. On the one hand, a battle with a pro driver would be exhilarating and the opportunity to one-up a previous Blancpain champion is hard to pass up. On the other hand, though, being known as the person that ended the race of someone that has practiced for days is a tag no one wants.
The combination of dread, anxiousness and excitement makes for the most powerful adrenaline rush I’ve ever experienced. For hours after each race, I would be sat in bed going over each detail of every lap with a smile on my face and the odd childish giggle bursting out from deep inside.
If noticing iconic names mid-race wasn’t enough, Simsport provides some of the best racing I’ve seen. Nose-to-tail racing involving a dozen cars are quite the common site with the GT4 races and with a single-make Ginetta series using the newly made British tracks getting underway in March, those tight encounters will only multiply. Let's end what became the motto for last year, shall we? The cars may not be real, but the racing certainly is.