Updated: July 12, 2020 11:10:00 am
exPress Start is a weekly online column on the intersection of gaming and culture. Level up with Gaurav Bhatt every Saturday as he explores the creative and competitive sides of video games. This week, a look at the evolving relationship between real and virtual racing.
Last week’s podium at Austrian GP was a sight for sore eyes. Not only was Formula 1 back after four months and seven cancelled events, but the top three featured a former gamer and two Twitch streamers.
Finishing third was McLaren’s Lando Norris — the self-appointed liaison between the sim racing and professional driving. “Can’t believe I went from a Full time @Twitch streamer to 3rd youngest ever F1 podium finisher in a matter of days…” the 20-year-old tweeted after the race.
Over on Twitch — the Amazon-owned streaming platform where he can regularly be found playing games — Norris’s bio states: “TEMPORARAYAYRLY FULL TIME STREAMER, drives in Formula 1 every now and then too…”
Second was Charles Leclerc — the Ferrari driver who began the sim racing era with four major wins in a row and has 500,000 Twitch followers of his own. After one such virtual GP win in April, Leclerc, 22, had posted: “I’m actually enjoying very much playing, and streaming. And I enjoy it even more when I win. But the post race celebrations are somehow feeling a bit different. Switching off the computer and go cook white pasta is a bit less glamour than spraying champagne on the podium.”
Then there was the winner.
Mercedes’ Valtteri Bottas, at 30, is a senior citizen in gaming years and admitted last year that he had stopped virtual racing. Then Covid-19 struck, and the Finn broke out a swanky simulator.
Dig deep enough and you can find Bottas’ posts on obscured racing game forums from ten years ago, apologising to fellow gamers for his inactivity after being signed as a test driver by Williams in 2010. His inactive profile lists 6,000 completed laps and 230 race wins.
Do gamers win races?
False equivalences aside, the podium in Spielberg effectively showcased the symbiotic relationship between the two worlds. There still remains a ‘generational divide’ between racing fans as the detractors want young punks off their screens, while gamers think sim racing is the greatest thing since Brawn’s double diffusers.
To find the ‘happy medium’ between the perspectives and dispel myths about the correlation of sim and professional racing, we called upon champion racer and gamer Raffaele Marciello.
‘Sim racing makes you a good driver’
Sinking three-pointers on the basketball court or doing skill moves on the football turf is not as simple as holding or rotating buttons.
Sim racing, however, preserves the ‘man and his machine’ element of motorsport, and buttons correspond to virtually identical inputs.
Lando Norris swears by the training imparted by video games. Max Verstappen was among the drivers who spent hours in simulators to keep themselves sharp. Former world champion Jenson Button, an avid gamer, has started his own esports team.
Raffaele Marciello, too, grew up with a steering wheel in his hand, playing Gran Turismo on PlayStation 2. A former member of the Ferrari Driver Academy and a test driver for the Sauber Formula One team, Raffaele switched to GT racing in 2017. The Italian won the FIA GT World Cup last year, and during the lockdown, lapped up several wins in a simulator.
Speaking shortly after a podium finish in Nurburgring last week, Marciello told the Indian Express: “For a young, coming driver who wants to improve his braking technique, who wants to learn more about the tracks, it’s a great tool.”
Last month, Marciello won the inaugural 24 Hours of Le Mans Virtual race. The 25-year-old — along with fellow professional driver and Haas Formula 1 reserve Louis Deletraz and sim racers Niko Wisniewski and Kuba Brzezinski — was part of the team jointly fielded by Williams Esports and World Endurance Championship squad Rebellion Racing.
— Raffaele Marciello (@Team_RMarciello) June 13, 2020
The race ran over what supposed to be the original Le Mans weekend of June 13-14. And Marciello prepared by doing 800 laps of the digitally-recreated iconic 13.626km circuit.
“Louis and I were doing 50-60 laps every day. We always wanted to win, but first of all, we didn’t want to be too much lower in performance than the sim racers,” says Marciello. “Kuba and Niko know the game very well and they helped us in the setup.”
Marciello’s team finished ahead of 196 other competitors, including Norris and Verstappen and former F1 champion and two-time winner of the actual 24 Hours Le Mans, Fernando Alonso.
“Does it mean I’m better faster than them? Our preparation was good. And I have spent a lot more time in simulators than other drivers who were maybe coming in,” says Marciello. “Sim racing is a different world. You should remember that (Michael) Schumacher never liked simulators. He got sick in the simulators.”
Recruited to the Ferrari Driver Academy in 2010, Marciello was extensively working with the team’s simulators when then Mercedes driver and seven-time champion Schumacher expressed his dislike for the technology. The German, who made his F1 debut in 1991, years away from the ‘PlayStation generation’, insisted that “almost all drivers” suffer from motion sickness.
Marciello, who spent close to eight hours in the driver’s seat for the virtual Le Mans, believes you don’t need simulators to be a good driver.
“So, maybe it is good for a bit of technique, sharpening skills, learn tracks and stay in shape, but it doesn’t make you a good or bad driver in my opinion,” says Marciello.
Data-hungry F1 drivers, however, are known to pore over numbers from their gaming sessions. For one of the sim races, Norris called up his former McLaren engineer.
“Being able to look at the data in-depth and actually having my F1 engineer from last year going through things, understanding how to really work on different areas (helped). A lot of the things I was doing and my characteristics on the actual race track, I was actually replicating on the simulator, some are good, some are bad, but it’s very good in terms of being able to work on those things,” Norris told Autocar. “It’s getting more and more scientific, getting more data involved, and the programmes are getting better and better.”
‘There are no risks in sim racing’
“There are only three sports: bullfighting, motor racing, and mountaineering; all the rest are merely games.”
Barnaby Conrad’s quote is often wrongly attributed to his contemporary Ernest Hemingway, but it’s safe to assume that both believed sport to be an activity where one’s life is at stake.
But if you’re not a chest-thumping modernist writer or an actual thrill-chasing professional racer, and your reason to scoff at sim racing is because of its low-risk nature… have a long, hard look in the mirror. Hasn’t 2020 been enough of a car wreck for you?
It would take a particularly sadistic developer to invent a simulator capable of infliction physical pain, and no driver has ever crashed in a game and wished it was real.
They do wish for more feedback though.
While high-end wheel and pedals and a supported video game can replicate accurate feedback, it’s still not like being in a vehicle flying down the track at 350kmph. A racer thus has to keep his eyes peeled.
“You don’t have the g-force and everything, so you have to focus a lot with your eyes,” says Marciello. “Because you have less feedback physically, you have to know mentally the braking points.”
“For a young, coming driver who wants to improve his braking technique, who wants to learn more about the tracks, it’s a great tool,” Raffaele Marciello on eRacing pic.twitter.com/bvANX4rWum
— Express Technology (@ExpressTechie) July 12, 2020
Marciello’s setup, a “quite expensive” remnant from his Formula testing days, has three monitors for better immersion. It’s still “easy to get distracted by the outside world”.
“Your girlfriend passes by. You look above and there’s no car, only your house roof. Sometimes the doorbell or the phone goes,” laughs Marciello. “But it is also good training because you learn how to keep your focus for many hours at a time. When you’re in an actual car on the track, keeping focus is not a worry.”
Though not physically, sim racing has adverse real-life implications.
Bubba Wallace lost a sponsor for ‘ragequitting’ an event, and fellow NASCAR driver Kyle Larson was fired for using a racial slur during a live stream. Audi driver Daniel Abt struggled to migrate to the virtual track and roped in a professional sim racer to secretly compete in his stead. When discovered, the German tried to play off the ruse as a joke and was fired by Audi.
The highest-profile scandal came in virtual Indianapolis. In a bizarre attempt at guarding his turf, former Indy 500 and IndyCar champion Simon Pagenaud deliberately crashed into Lando Norris to prevent an F1 outsider from winning. The incident sparked a row and Norris went off.
“I know it’s virtually and people class it as a game – it’s become quite a bit more than that over the last few weeks… You’d still expect people to act professionally… for someone to be so selfish and just to not care about other people was disappointing at that time, and to see from such a driver,” Norris said on the ESPN podcast.
On a somewhat related note, there may not be injuries in sim racing, but crashes and dangerous driving are still looked over by actual stewards and drivers are punished if judged guilty.
‘Motorsport doesn’t need sim racing, or vice versa’
Professional racing has long been a niche sport. Hundreds of events, with confusing formats and complicated rulesets, render it inaccessible to many. And no matter the format, racing’s audience continues to skew older, and last year Formula 1 revealed that only 14 per cent of their viewers are under 25.
Barring superstars, a Formula 1 driver is a fancy helmet in a fancier car. Riding on the momentum generated by the crop of sim racers/Twitch streamers, the administrators can learn to market the drivers and make them more than just an interchangeable face behind the visor.
“The thing I’ve seen that is very striking to me is how because the real drivers have become involved in these initiatives and these events, how well they’ve been able to engage with the fans,” F1 managing director Ross Brawn said during last month’s FIA eConference. “The message was constantly coming across from the fans that they wanted to know more about the drivers. They see them in the car with the helmet on, see them interviewed formally, but what are the drivers really like? What do they do? How do they live? Of course with Esports, you’ve got a much better insight into the drivers’ personalities and their characters and their nature. That’s been a real boom.”
As for the sim racing events that bandied about their viewership numbers this year, the ratings have been consistently declining. And with real-life events continue to come back, virtual racing will again settle into what is a rabid, but limited, fanbase. Marciello, however, believes the medium proved its potential.
“They grew up in participation. But with real world coming back, sim races will go back to the numbers before the pandemic,” says Marciello. “This was a good time for media attention and more driver participation, but sim racing has been popular before the pandemic too. This year it has shown that it deserves every spot.”
Developers can use the extensive sample size of races featuring professional drivers and their feedback to fine-tune the games. Potential sim racers meanwhile would love to take up the steering wheel to go bumper-to-bumper with stars.
Marciello concludes with a message to the naysayers.
“It’s not mandatory to watch it. Sim racing is for people who are maybe not able to do it in real life, or even don’t like it. It’s easy to set up, and now even professional drivers know it is not very simple,” Marciello says. “I have also heard people go, ‘oh this is boring. this is no fun, not real’. It’s very simple. Change the channel.”
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