McLaren hopes to uncover the stars of tomorrow through virtual racing – but will they cut it in the real world?
McLaren’s offer of a role as a Formula 1 simulator driver to the winner of a new esports gaming competition might smack of marketing puff, but it appears to be a real attempt to find a worthy addition to the team’s race programme.
The competition, known as the World’s Fastest Gamer, has been launched by McLaren in association with Logitech G, a sponsor of the team and a supplier of gaming accessories, racewear company Sparco and the givemesport.com website. The first winner of the competition will be chosen from 10 top gamers at the McLaren Technology Centre in September.
“This is a hugely exciting opportunity, not only within the gaming industry, but for everyone at McLaren and in motor sport in general,” said McLaren boss Zak Brown. “We’ve long witnessed the growth of online sports gaming and, right now, the parallels between the real and the virtual worlds have never been closer. The winner will genuinely be a key part of our team at McLaren.”
Darren Cox, the architect of Nissan’s GT Academy gamer-to-racer scheme, has helped put the new competition together and claimed that the skill set of a top gamer should translate to a modern F1 simulator.
“The way online gamers talk about their set-ups would shame some drivers in the junior formulae,” he said. “It
is not a very big jump to think that someone who is good at gaming could be a help to McLaren in their simulator programme.”
HOW IT WILL WORK
Cox described World’s Fastest Gamer as a “champion of champions” that will bring together the top e-sports competitors from various platforms, such as rFactor and iRacing, for the finals in September.
“Six of the 10 will be chosen from existing platforms by a panel and a further four from events that we will be organising through the summer,” he explained. “The finals won’t be so much a run-off as a job interview.”
The competition will run for multiple seasons, said Cox. He explained that in future years the selection process would become more structured, with the winners of chosen championships proceeding to the finals.
CAN IT PROVIDE A WORTHY SIMULATOR DRIVER?
That is the aim of the competition, according to Cox. He believes that advances in gaming has brought it closer to real simulation.
“It was only a minute ago that F1 teams were using rFactor as the basis of their simulators,” he said. “Now it is freely available and usable on a high-end PC costing a couple of grand.”
Aston Martin factory driver Darren Turner, who leads Base Performance Simulators in Banbury, sees no reason why a gamer couldn’t make a good simulator driver. But he stresses that there would need to be a period of education, in the same way as GT Academy winners had to build up to racing at an international level.
“There’s no doubt that you could find someone from the gaming world who could do a good job at driving the simulator,” he said. “But they are only going to be of any use to McLaren if they can give the feedback the engineers require. When they are gaming, they set up the car themselves, but in the F1 simulator programmes that’s the engineer’s job.
“There will have to be a process of education to enable them to learn more about set-up and to understand how an F1 simulator programme operates, so that they can give the engineering staff valuable feedback. But you could potentially find someone who is the perfect simulator driver because there is such a big pond of people to dip into.”
McLaren is aware of the challenges it will be facing, according to vehicle dynamics and driver development engineer Alice Rowlands, who will be working with the gamer.
“I expect a top gamer to be fast in our simulator,” she said. “However, being fast is only the first step towards becoming a successful and valuable test driver. I imagine we will draw on our previous experience developing young drivers when working with the competition winner. The difference will be that they probably won’t have driven a real single-seater car, so I’d be looking for an opportunity to get them some time in a real car, even if it were much lower performance than an F1 car.”
COULD GAMING BE AN ALTERNATIVE TO KARTING?
It could be argued that the best of the 21 GT Academy winners so far have already proved that gaming is as good a grounding in racing as more traditional routes. Lucas Ordoñez and Jann Mardenborough are now fully fledged professional racing drivers with Nissan factory contracts, while Wolfgang Reip gave the scheme additional credence when he was picked up by Bentley in 2016, admittedly on a one-year deal.
Laurence Wiltshire, project director of the GT Academy, believes that e-sports will eventually create more professional drivers competing near the top of motor sport through sheer weight of numbers.
“The premise on which the GT Academy works is by having a huge funnel into which you pour up to a million people playing Gran Turismo on their PlayStations around the world,” he explained. “It’s a good enough game that it acts as a filter to give you winners who have good raw skills and persistence, the kind of attributes you want in a racing driver.
“A fraction of the number of people taking up gaming each year begin real motor sport whether in karting or cars. In the non-virtual world, the filter isn’t only skill of the driver. It’s financial because it is not only the drivers with talent who move towards the pinnacle. The real world involves a much smaller sample and an unfair system.”
“Participation rates are rising as new simulators start up. Many of them don’t just do birthday parties and corporate events, they put on proper race meetings. These are the new karting circuits.”
Cox points out that there have been studies into the growth of the fanbase of Major League Soccer in the USA, which suggest that new supporters first become engaged in the sport through gaming.
“Research shows that the reason why the MSL has increased in popularity so quickly is through people playing FIFA on their PlayStation or Xbox,” he explained. “They start off playing the game, then they watch a match on TV and finally they kick a football. For previous generations it was the other way around.
“When I was a kid I was dragged to Brands Hatch and Oulton Park and playing a computer game came much later. Now kids start gaming and that fires their passion in motor sport.”
Wiltshire offered a similar opinion.
“The key benefit of gaming to motor sport will be that it will get more people involved,” he said. “The more people who get a taste of it through e-sports, the more who will go on to race for real. Some might not be able afford to and will go on to be involved just as fans or in other ways such as marshalling. It can only benefit the
sport as a whole.”
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