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How Max Esterson went from iRacing to winning in GB3

The affable American is aiming to create a professional motorsport career and has already collected silverware in junior series following a jump from sim racing.

How Max Esterson has gone from iRacing to winning in GB3

Max Esterson doesn’t show it, but there’s an additional weight of expectation on his shoulders compared to some other competitors. 

If it wasn’t stressful enough trying to aim for the likes of Formula 1 or IndyCar or spending time in the United Kingdom far away from New York roots, the sim racing fraternity’s expectations are sky high. 

As a driver who started playing original PlayStation Formula 1 video games before progressing to the PC simulation platform iRacing, his career path shuns traditional logic that dictates that you need a decade of karting before jumping into single-seaters. 

 

All eyes from the motorsport paddock are on the 20-year-old Manhattanite to see if such a route is viable, meanwhile, those who count virtual racing as a hobby require a talisman to prove just how competitive their favourite scene is. 

“I started [my driving career] on the simulator when I was 10, just for fun,” explains a beguiling Esterson. 

“My older brother was gifted a Logitech G25 steering wheel set for his birthday. I seemed to take it over and it escalated from there. 

“I realised I was quite good on iRacing. I started practising more and taking it seriously. By around 2018 and 2019 I reached a professional level in the GT3-based series they had at the time, and I also participated in major endurance events.” 

The sim-to-real concept in itself isn’t something new. James Baldwin won the 2019 World’s Fastest Gamer 2 competition, earning a seat in the British GT Championship before taking fourth in the following season’s standings alongside Michael O’Brien. 

Enzo Bonito beat 2016–17 Formula E champion Lucas di Grassi in a heat of the 2019 Race of Champions after winning the virtual companion tournament, a feat Lucas Blakeley also managed after besting four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel at the 2022 running. 

Just last month, the Gran Turismo movie highlighted Jann Mardenborough’s career following a victory at the Sony and Nissan-backed GT Academy reality TV show.

But, as you’ll note, these were all successes born from well-funded competitions with the explicit aim of proving virtual drivers could succeed in motorsport. Esterson and his family are doing it their own way, finding sponsors and securing seats on the single-seater ladder. 

“I went to a summer camp in New York State, and it was there I realised karting was fun,” highlights the Georgia Institute of Technology engineering student, currently using gap years to chase the racing dream. 

“The following year in 2019, I did a year of low-level club karting at that same track. It was difficult, it wasn’t natural for me as I didn’t drive karts on the sim. But then, at the end of that year, I did a test in a Formula Ford in the US, and I felt much more at home. 

“The following year was obviously Covid-19-affected, so it was a bit disjointed, but I did a couple of Formula Ford races in the US and at the end of that year, I came over to the UK to do some more that sparked the next step.”

Max Esterson, BRSCC Formula Ford 2021, Knockhill

Max Esterson, BRSCC Formula Ford 2021, Knockhill

Photo by: Ross McGregor

Nine wins, 23 podiums and third in the National Formula Ford Championship would be a strong haul for the 2021 season, capped off by picking up The Walter Hayes Trophy. 

This was followed by a step-up to the GB3 championship for last season, resulting in a race win and three podiums plus a near-miss to pick up back-to-back Walter Hayes accolades – although Esterson claimed victory in the Formula Ford Festival in the same season was an achievement “above them all” after coming close in 2021 “haunted me for a year.” 

With experience in multiple single-seater formulae, the family friend of Chip Ganassi is perfectly placed to discuss the unorthodox method of using simulators in lieu of the traditional karting pathway. 

“Kowing the circuits from such a young age without having to even think about them has been super helpful, for example, I’ve been driving around Spa since I was 11,” says Esterson with conviction. 

“The ability to do so many repetitions, I think, is a huge advantage. Plus learning a general feeling for braking technique at such a young age.” 

“Another advantage of iRacing is that I saved a lot of money,” he beams in a jovial fashion. 

While his demeanour says happy-go-lucky, he speaks with determination and purpose. There’s a steely look underneath the welcoming expression and dark-rimmed glasses. 

While there have been aforementioned programmes to expel the virtues of sim racing, not many go public about potential drawbacks. 

“One disadvantage I think is [if you competed in] karting for so many years, you build up physical strength, which is helpful,” adds Esterson. 

“I struggled a bit at the start of last year, because in Formula Ford they’re quite easy physically to drive. So jumping into the GB3 at first was a bit difficult. When these kids do 10 years of karting, they build up race fitness.” 

“I suppose another area is rain driving, but maybe that’ll change soon on iRacing.” 

Max Esterson, FIA Formula 3 Silverstone 2023

Max Esterson, FIA Formula 3 Silverstone 2023

For all its pretence about being a realistic simulation, wet weather is a significant omission from the service – although it’s in active development with several preview images released to date. The sooner it arrives, the better for budding motorsport stars, as Esterson touches upon his initial challenge with inclement conditions. 

“I didn’t drive in the rain until I was 16 so it was a bit different [for me]. People who are karting in the UK or Europe since a young age, they’ve done plenty in the rain, especially in the UK.” 

Following a sophomore GB3 season that’s yet to net any silverware, six top-10 finishes so far, there are still two rounds and six races remaining to try and catch the eye of teams for 2024 planning. In July, he competed in two weekends of FIA Formula 3 which could hint at the next steps. 

“It was unexpected as someone dropped out at the last minute and there was an availability to jump in,” he explains. 

“I think it was wise to take the chance because you don’t have many opportunities to learn about the series before the full season starts. I just want to keep climbing the ranks of European single-seaters as the immediate goal.” 

 

Whichever direction Esterson’s career heads next, simply getting to this point has been a significant achievement not just for himself, but for the sim racing community. 

If he secures a top-flight paid drive in the upper echelons of the sport, he could set the tone for a generation to follow, something he thinks is becoming more common already. 

“I think the sim is becoming more and more relevant and whether it leads to sim racers getting simulator driver roles at professional teams or competing in the real thing, the pathways are opening.”  

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