Why real racers face a tough time against pro sim drivers

The suspension of global motorsport forced by the COVID-19 pandemic has seen a proliferation of real-world racers involved in Esports and sim racing.

Lando Norris drives a lap of the Interlagos circuit on his home simulator

A number of events and series have been established, creating the opportunity for drivers from various championships to compete together for the first time.

But it has also pitted known names from motorsport against many of the leading Esports stars, giving a sense of just how great the divide between is between racing in the real and virtual worlds.

Veloce Esports and Motorsport Games have been staging regular events featuring both professional drivers and sim racers, including the ‘Not the GP’ events on what would ordinarily be Formula 1 race weekends.

The ‘Not the Bah GP’ - held on the Bahrain race weekend - had six professional drivers on the grid: F1 racers Lando Norris and Nicholas Latifi, recent Renault driver Nico Hulkenberg, plus Stoffel Vandoorne and Esteban Gutierrez.

Yet for all of their experience in real-world race cars, it proved more difficult for them to translate this into the sim world on the F1 2019 video game.

Williams driver Latifi was the highest-placed real-world driver in fifth - but was over 25 seconds off race winner and professional sim driver Daniel Bereznay, who races for Alfa Romeo in the F1 Esports series. The podium was completed by sim racers Jarno Opmeer and James Baldwin.

Of the professional racers, Vandoorne finished seventh; Norris was 10th ahead of Gutierrez in 11th; and Hulkenberg finished all the way down in 17th.

F1 2019 screenshot

F1 2019 screenshot

Photo by: Veloce Racing

The second race offered a similar story, even with a reverse grid. Cem Bolukbasi took victory ahead of Bereznay and Baldwin, with Norris leading the pros in seventh place.

The most recent Veloce ‘Not the GP’ event changed the format, putting drivers up against each other in a series of one-on-one races.

While Norris was able to take victory this time around, YouTuber Benjamin ‘Tiametmarduk’ Daly managed to make it all the way to the final, knocking out Latifi, sportscar racer Archie Hamilton and F3 driver David Schumacher along the way. W Series champion Jamie Chadwick also suffered an early exit at the hands of YouTuber Will 'WillNE' Lenney.

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One factor that explains the lack of success for professional drivers in these events is the platform: the F1 2019 video game. It is marketed to be more of an arcade-style game than a perfectly-accurate simulation, meaning there are certain ways to gain lap time that simply wouldn’t work in reality.

It’s for that reason Red Bull’s Max Verstappen, himself a prolific sim racer, has ruled out taking part in any events using the official F1 game.

“There are little tips and tricks you’ve got to know for them,” said Norris. “For F1 2019 more than anything, there’s a lot of little things you have to know about than for others.

"For new people coming in, those things can easily be one or two tenths per lap, and that’s quite a lot of lap time come the end of a normal lap.”

Proof of this came in the Veloce Pro Series event one week after the Bahrain race, which was run on iRacing, widely regarded as the most comprehensive sim platform. Norris took a dominant victory in the opening race from pole, going lights-to-flag, while ex-IndyCar racer Ed Jones and SUPER GT/Super Formula driver Sacha Fenestraz were other front-runners.

Veloce eEsports Pro Series Race screenshot

Veloce eEsports Pro Series Race screenshot

Photo by: Veloce Racing

What sets the sim racers apart from their real-world counterparts is simply game time. Much as drivers get better with every lap and race in the car on-track, those spending the majority of their time racing these games and simulations are able to build up a bank of experience that is difficult to fast-track.

“If you don’t have the hours behind you, you don’t know the tricks and tips, and you’re not going to be at the front,” said sim racer Baldwin, whose recent success in Esports has seen him secure a drive in the GT World Challenge Europe series for 2020 with Jenson Button's Team Rocket RJN squad.

“I expect all of these [professional] guys to be at the front on iRacing. It’s quite realistic, the physics are near real-life.”

In Norris’s case, there is also the knowledge of the game built up, going some way to explaining his success: “I would love to see my hours spent on iRacing! I don’t know if I should be proud of it or embarrassed!”

Williams F1 driver George Russell is a relative newcomer to sim racing, but has started taking part in a number of events including F1’s Virtual GPs, as well as helping establish a charity event also based on the F1 2019 game with Norris, Latifi, Charles Leclerc, Alexander Albon and Antonio Giovinazzi.

Russell conceded he didn’t expect the sim racers he has faced to have been so quick.

“I was like, ’blimey, I’m going to have starting a bit of effort in here!’” Russell said on BBC 5 Live. “To be honest, the level of it is really high now. In the last race there were six F1 drivers. There’s more coming in at the moment. [But] there’s no additional pressure with the outsiders, as obviously this is what we do.”

The F1 drivers may not say there is any extra pressure going up against their virtual world rivals, but at the very least, it is giving them an incentive to keep practicing so they can make the marginal gains needed to improve - much as they do on-track.

“It’s definitely very, very difficult,” said Latifi, Russell’s teammate at Williams. “I think I could spend all of the rest of the hours that I’m going to spend self-isolating in this break and I still wouldn’t get to the level of these [sim racer] guys!

“If it’s keeping me sharp and having fun in the progress, then I’m all up for it.”


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