From World's Fastest Gamer to British GT winner on debut

Sports Cars

After a victory in round one, James Baldwin is aiming to win the British GT championship in his first full season of circuit racing. He tells Jake Williams-Smith how virtual success has brought real-world pace

James Baldwin, British GT Race One, Oulton Park

There is always a level of cynicism when the idea of a sim racer turning professional racing driver is brought up. It isn’t possible. They just wouldn’t be competitive. It shouldn’t happen.

James Baldwin’s debut in this year’s British GT championship has flown in the face of these preconceptions and this weekend, he’s looking for a second victory in two rounds, as the winner of the World’s Fastest Gamer (WFG) competition follows up his successful debut at Oulton Park, winning for Jenson Button’s Team Rocket RJN.

“Unbelievable, a borderline miracle to be honest,” was Baldwin’s assessment reflecting on the weekend, but it wasn’t some fluke that the 22-year-old was victorious. He and team-mate Michael O’Brien won on pace and took a respectable sixth-place finish in race two. The result means the duo leads the championship after round one.

His foray into GT racing is a result of his winning of the 2019 WFG contest and while it might have taken one or two laps to get accustomed to his new surroundings, there is a level of surefootedness that has served him well so far.

Baldwin being a part of this season’s British GT season isn’t as an also-ran, he is deadly serious about improving himself as a racing driver. His race one victory has only made him hungrier for further success and achievement.

“I don’t want it to be a one-off thing like a prize, I want it to be an opportunity to become one of the best in the world,” he told Motor Sport.

“I know Formula 1 is probably not on the cards but you can definitely be one of the best racing drivers in the world without being in Formula 1. Whether that is in GTs or prototypes, I feel like I can get somewhere in the motor sport world, hopefully somewhere quite high.”

James Baldwin, British GT Race One, Oulton Park

O’Brien takes the chequered flag for Jenson Rocket Team RJN

Lofty expectations should not be mistaken for naivety either. His confidence comes from a certain amount of experience in the face of pressure.

Oulton Park was not the first time Baldwin competed during a real-life competitive race weekend, having briefly raced Formula Ford single-seaters before bringing the drive to a premature end due to budget complications.

The real racing gave way to the virtual variety, and Baldwin made the absolute most of his hobby. In 2019, he won the WFG competition, presided over by Juan Pablo Montoya and Rubens Barrichello.

One of the aspects that impressed judges Montoya and Barrichello the most was his self-belief, a vital trait for any racing driver to have.

Now, having experienced how his McLaren 720S behaves, Baldwin and his team have elevated their expectations. He is there to win the championship.

“I am very wary of getting overconfident because I’ve had that before and it always results in a negative result after so I’m really trying to keep my feet on the ground.

“We got very fortunate to finish first, we came in the pits in fourth and the floodgates kind of opened but we need to be putting it on pole and winning the races more so to be fully convinced that we deserve to be the champions.

“The primary goal going in was to not crash the car to be honest. We had no goal to be the quickest there or get pole or win the race, the goal was to have a solid weekend and don’t crash the car.

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“Quickly over the two days we were there, those goals changed from that to we want to win the championship. We feel like we’re only going to improve.”

But how did transition from sim world to real-world so well? Ironically enough by delving back into his sim and with some assistance from virtual reality.

“I did a bit of prep before on the sim and using virtual reality to try and immerse myself for that real-life driving style, but always with these things in real life, you have to turn up and adapt to the situation. I did that and it went really well.

“You have to be adaptable, it works the same way as in sim racing, but probably more in real racing. Because there is limiting running versus sim racing where you can go round as much as you want.”

Adaptability almost paid off with pole position at the first time of asking, but for a marginal track limits violation on his fastest lap.

The team remained competitive on race day too. Baldwin more than held his own during the first stint before handing over to his team-mate and former GT4 racer, Michael O’Brien.

Their victory came after a solid first stint put them both in line for a podium finish on merit until a late-race penalty for the leading McLaren elevated them into first position. Composure in the final stages after a late safety car by O’Brien clinched race one of the year.

With a victory in the books, the team will not rest on its laurels going forward. In fact, Baldwin says that it has given him more confidence in himself to continue to push and extract the maximum from both himself and his car.

“I’m not quite there yet in terms of perfection. Neither is my team-mate, it’s his first season in GT3 as well. He’s constantly learning about the car, I’m constantly learning about the car and it’s a new car for the team as well.

James Baldwin, British GT Race One, Oulton Park

Baldwin and O’Brien on the podium after winning race one of the season

“We don’t actually know how to drive this thing completely on the limit yet. Once we do and we unlock that, I think we’ll be quicker than every other McLaren and hopefully running away with the championship.

“That’s what I envisage but I’m definitely being fluid in the sense that I’m not perfect yet. If I get told or get advice to drive in a certain way to find a few more tenths then I’m definitely going to take it, I won’t be stuck in my ways.”

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This weekend will be the first of two rounds this year at Donington Park, a circuit Baldwin does have real experience at albeit brief.

“My first ever car race was five years ago in Formula Ford was round there before I had to get out.

“In theory, a lot of people are saying that the McLarens should suit that track a lot more than Oulton. So going into it, we have a lot of confidence and should be able to challenge for the win.

“There’s no way we can get slower! We have to get quicker. The key thing is just making sure we don’t push too hard at the wrong moment because if we end up crashing, that’s the only thing that’s going to affect us or could stop us.

“I’m going in learning and trying to listen and ask questions. Hopefully, I’ll end the season a more rounded racing driver, that’s what this programme is all about. If we get success along the way then brilliant.

“We just need to build up the right amount at every race and with a small bit of luck, I’m sure we can do that and win the championship.”