Inside McLaren's World's Fastest Gamer searchby Jack Phillips on 4th September 2017
Thousands were at Silverstone on Sunday, yet no one turned up…
Silverstone had an odd weekend.
Thousands of fans were left disappointed late on Friday as the World Endurance Championship announced that it wouldn't be in Northamptonshire next April for its annual season kick-off.
Then it ended the weekend with an event watched online by thousands, as McLaren and Darren Cox found its latest finalist for the World's Fastest Gamer competition. Between times barely a crowd was drawn for GT Open’s UK round, not helped by a race card featuring just four races on Sunday for £26 a ticket.
Impressive and varied though the GT Open field might have been, including the first UK appearance of the Lexus GT3, good value it certainly was not. The sparse crowd said as much.
The evening event signalled the future for Silverstone, though, as its recent past continued to niggle. Fresh from breaking its British Grand Prix contract, it’s now losing WEC for a year at least – “the door is open, on both sides”, it says – and last weekend the MotoGP visited, but that’s an event only at Silverstone because of the Circuit of Wales mess. The agreement ends this year.
Its future looks as unclear as ever.
And so, a small invited group were at Silverstone for the evening live final, and not the typical motor sport media. But that was the point; the World's Fastest Gamer isn't the typical motor sport contest. Players from all over the world from each of the best online racing games – iRacing, rFactor, Forza, Gran Turismo, Gear.Club on mobile, even – are vying for a simulator contract at McLaren.
Ten winners will visit McLaren to take part in a week-long interview process that will of course include them racing each other – on the various games to ensure it’s fair. They’ll also take various other tests to check mechanical knowledge and their ability to work as part of a team. Your usual interview process, racing aside.
The Silverstone event set-up is impressive. The Wing garages transformed into a full professional studio for a live broadcast to thousands on McLaren's YouTube and Facebook channels.
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Commentators are on hand to guide proceedings, so too a race director, as Cox points out. Unlike the successful GT Academy project that found Lucas Ordóñez, Jann Mardenborough and Wolfgang Reip, WFG isn't on the lookout for a track star. “GT Academy did that,” Cox says, “and my proudest moment was when we won the Blancpain title.
“But when we took our Forza winner to Karun [Chandhok]'s charity event he was racing with [multiple Radical champion and kart team owner] Bradley Smith for the whole stint, always within half a second. I asked him if he'd done any karting before and he just said 'a bit back home in France, but nothing serious’.”
Instead, the WFG winner will become a fully-fledged McLaren employee with a year's contract and a flat in Woking. The project's set to run for five editions, for the time being at least. What that means for the long-term job prospects is another question…
They’ll work alongside McLaren vehicle dynamics engineer Michael Rackstraw, watching on during the evening. “It’s very odd to be watching the entire recruitment process for someone you’re going to be working with,” he says. “The closest thing I can think of is The Apprentice. It's quite odd to watch this race series knowing I'll work with one of them every day.”
The winner receives a serious job, with a tough act to follow. Rackstraw works with Oliver Turvey, who translates what he feels on the sim and considers its real-world advantages.
They’ll also be surprised that their own gaming PCs and console may look better than what the sim they nestle into at Woking.
“We’re entirely driven by trying to match reality,” explains Rackstraw. “So we’re happy to pursue something that might be more difficult to drive because it replicates what happens on track. We’re trying to gather data, so we’re not prioritising graphics or lighting engine because our resources go into modelling individual components, rather than say general suspension systems.”
McLaren is the test dummy with WFG and is using a sim-only driver to aid development of its physical race car. And by continuing to be at the forefront, having already been the first to introduce a simulator in F1, it may reap the rewards ahead of the rest.
Silverstone, meanwhile, is looking to do more with Darren Cox and WFG with its new experience centre that’s under development. What its real-world calendar will look like then is anyone’s guess.