Norbert Michelisz: The original gamer-turned-racer
Forget the graduates of the Nissan GT Academy - Hungarian WTCC star Norbert Michelisz was arguably the first to find his way into international motorsport via computer games. Valentin Khorounzhiy tells his story.
If you were to roll the clocks back to 2005 – the year the WTCC was revived in its current form - you would find most of its current leading drivers already involved in motorsport.
Gabriele Tarquini and Rob Huff were racing in that first season, Yvan Muller was fighting for the BTCC crown, Jose Maria Lopez ran his debut campaign in GP2, and Tiago Monteiro was a Formula 1 driver with Jordan. Even Hugo Valente – currently WTCC's youngest works entrant at 24 – was then already making his foray onto national-level karting.
At that point, Norbert Michelisz was a university student with a copy of Grand Prix Legends on his computer. He had not turned a wheel in a professional racing event.
Michelisz has since become a mainstay in the series, a key element without which WTCC – and especially its Hungarian round, where the locals turn out in droves to support their hero – are hard to imagine.
But while his immense home popularity and his contribution to motorsport in Hungary are both crucial, it's the strides he has made in his decade in racing so far that stand out the most.
In the modern motorsport setting, leading drivers are usually either veterans with decades of experience or the new generation, groomed into a motorsport life since their very childhoods.
Michelisz is neither, but that has not stopped or even dented his remarkable ascent to the status of factory driver in an FIA World Championship.
Photo by: Zengo Motorsport
Just as it has been for so many of his fellow drivers, Michelisz was charmed by motorsport at a very early age, his uncle playing a big part in shaping his main interest.
"My uncle used to be a racing driver, but on a small level, doing it as a hobby – and, even then, it was quite difficult for him to find the money to support his racing," Michelisz recalled.
"I think he realised how much I was into cars and how much I loved visiting him while he was doing his rally and rallycross races. He was a mechanic and he built me this small car – it's called a 'kispolszki' [Polski Fiat]. It had the transmission of a Fiat 126P, with the engine of a Simson motorbike – 50cc, 3.5 horsepower.
"I came from a small town so, near the house, it was easy to find places, roads which were not used by road cars but could be used with small vehicles. I had three pedals, I had to shift gears, I wasn't driving that fast, but it was good way of learning."
Of course, a family from a small Hungarian town did not have the money needed for any kind of racing career, and Michelisz had to find a different way to enjoy competition.
"By the age of 15, I had realised that I was interested in IT, I had saved some money and my parents supported me by buying me a computer. The main target for me was to use it to learn, but, of course, I figured out that it was possible to play racing games on it.
"When I was 17, I moved to Pécs, the city where I went to university, I lived alone in an apartment and there it was possible, with an internet connection, to play online. And I realised very quickly how much I enjoyed that.
"In my first year, I was very close to dropping out of the university. There was no parental control of what I was doing because I lived alone and I was a complete geek - so I was online, practicing for the next race, trying to find the best set-up."
Grand Prix Legends
By Michelisz's recollection, Hungary had a big online gaming scene at the beginning of the century and it was Hungarian gamers who played a key role in organising competitions in what would eventually wind up his game of choice – Papyrus Design Group's beloved 1998 sim Grand Prix Legends.
"I found GPL at the same time that I found out that there is a very successful Hungarian online racer, who won one of the first world championships with GPL.
"So I pretty much forgot anything else except GPL and I just wanted to beat him and show everyone that I'm on the same level as him. That was the motivation for me, and that was because he was offered a real-life drive in a Hungarian championship and was quite successful in the real world.
"So I thought that, if I managed to be on the same level online as he was, there could be a possibility to become a real racing driver."
The "successful online racer" was Gabor Weber, who, at the time, was competing for a team called Zengo Motorsport. And, having seen what Michelisz can do behind the wheel of a virtual car, Weber convinced team boss Zoltan Zengo to give the young man a go in the real thing.
"Because of Gabor, Mr. Zengo was aware that I was quite good online and he offered me a test drive. That was 2005 - I was racing online for already four or five years when I was given the test opportunity."
The test, run with an 100HP Opel Astra and a 180HP Renault Clio at the Hungaroring, was a success, which Michelisz attributes to the skills he picked up racing online.
"The good thing is, if you are racing online, without the forces, you learn how to drive the car with your eyes, you learn to understand the first moment when the car is sliding.
"With that experience, as soon as I had the opportunity to drive at the Hungaroring, for me it was quite natural to understand how to drive the car on the limit with the eyes only.
"The test went really well and, because of this, I think something changed in Mr. Zengo's mind. And because Gabor was already at the end of his thirties and I was in the beginning of my twenties, I think he just realised that there is a possibility with me, to see if he can be a sort of mentor, or manager, and to get him to an international level as well."
Photo by: Zengo Motorsport
In 2006, on the back of his successful test outing, Michelisz was offered a full-time drive in the Hungarian Suzuki Swift Cup, a new single-make series.
"The bigger part of the budget would be financed by Zengo Motorsport and I would have to bring a small amount from home. It was a great possibility and I realised with my parents that you have to take this chance.
"It was a really nice championship with many cars and many quite good drivers. And it was a big field, 25 to 27 cars – many Hungarian racers joined because it was quite cheap, and it was guaranteed the cars were all on the same level, because they were new."
Faced with a level playing field, Michelisz went on to become the series' first champion, winning six races along the way and justifying a move up on the national motorsport scene.
"At that point, my main target was just to switch to a different level, so in 2007 we agreed to make a jump and compete in the [national] Renault Clio championship. The agreement was very similar to 2006 – Zengo Motorsport offered to find most of the budget.
"The championship had around 20 cars, the car was a bit faster but, still, it was not a huge step and, I think, because of this I was again able to get the title.
"At the end of 2007, we just realised that in Hungary it's not possible to find another challenge. The next problem was that, if we want to go to an international level, we have to find a proper car and series."
In 2008, Zengo Motorsport entered Michelisz and Weber into the inaugural season of the SEAT Leon Eurocup, which ran as a support series to the then-SEAT-dominated WTCC.
"It was a big jump in terms of budget, but, like in previous years, Zengo offered me that they find part of it and I find the other part. And finding sponsors was now a bit easier than it had been in 2006, as people realised that there could be more to come and that I had some potential."
Ultimately, Michelisz finished the season in 14th place – a thoroughly unrepresentative outcome for a season where the Hungarian took four pole positions in six rounds.
"In 2008, I still wasn't sure if I had the talent to be successful on the international level. The first part of the year was very much about learning and understanding that winning two championships in Hungary doesn't mean that I'm a good racing driver, doesn't mean that I can become a professional racing driver."
But, as that year went on, Michelisz went some way towards quashing the doubts. His first win came in the 2008 finale at Monza, and five more followed next year, along with the series title.
Now a champion of a major European series, Michelisz decided to commit to motorsport for good, calling time on university – where he had been studying economics to add to his IT degree – so that he could chase his "one in a lifetime" opportunity.
The privateer years
Having made one-off appearances in the WTCC in 2008 and 2009, Michelisz entered the series full-time in 2010 in a Zengo SEAT Leon. In the final race at Macau, he started fourth, stormed to the lead off the line and took the chequered flag in first place.
Over the following years, Zengo would switch to a BMW 320i and then to a Honda Civic, as Michelisz took a pair of Independents' Trophy titles and three more wins – two of them on home soil.
Soon enough, Michelisz became a household name, not only for WTCC but for Hungarian sport as a whole. Early in 2016 – admittedly before the national football team's heroic exploits in the European Championship – he was ranked third in Forbes' list of the most valuable Hungarian sportspeople.
But getting there wasn't easy, even after he had already entered the world championship stage. Until 2014, as Michelisz recalls, there was never much certainty over whether he would get to continue competing in the WTCC.
"2014 was the first year when, at the end of the year, I was quite sure that we will compete in WTCC the next season. Every year before that I really wasn't sure up until a couple of weeks before starting the season."
In his first years in the WTCC, Michelisz has gotten well-acquainted with the plight of the privateer – the uncertainty over future, the difficulty in attracting sponsors and the very real possibility that a crash could leave you with no budget to continue racing.
"I don't want to say I was not allowed to crash, but I always knew - because we talked a lot about this also with Mr. Zengo - that, especially in the second part of every year, in case of a crash there is a big possibility of us not continuing the season. People from the outside underestimate this aspect."
Eventually, it was time to move up. In January 2016, Honda announced it would be promoting Michelisz to factory status.
"It was a nice journey. We had a lot of success together but still I had that feeling, when you are missing something. It was very nice to drive for Zengo but my main goal was to become a real professional race car driver.
"Now I feel that, no matter what happens in life, I'm already a lucky bloke who was able to come from very far to reach this level.
"Of course my aim is to win races and to win the championship at one point, but I have the feeling that a bit of pressure is gone because I managed to make the final step of becoming a real professional race car driver."
A new beginning
As the 2016 season enters its final stages, Citroen looks all but set to sweep the titles again in its final hurrah as a full works entrant in the WTCC.
But Honda has come as close as anybody to disrupting that dominance this year, and Michelisz has certainly played a part in that.
He might have yet to win a race for the factory team, having come arduously close to pulling off the feat last time out in Argentina, but that shouldn't overshadow the fact he has looked no slower than teammates Huff and Monteiro throughout the season.
"I had some doubts before the season, because the environment was going to be new. I had been driving for Zengo all my life and I did not really know how everything changing around me would be affecting my performance.
"Driving against a world champion [Huff] and against someone who was quite competitive in Formula 1 [Monteiro], I'm really happy to be on the same level."
Although it does not seem unrealistic that Honda would've caught Citroen in 2017 even if the French marque wasn't leaving, its exit could very well give Michelisz his best chance yet at becoming world champion.
But whatever the future holds, Michelisz, who turned 32 in August, has already charted a remarkable path to the top spot. And while he calls himself "a lucky bloke", his progression up the ranks is owed to the results he's achieved along the way, whether that be in the WTCC, the local Hungarian scene or even Grand Prix Legends.
Video game enthusiasts turning into racing drivers is now a road well-travelled, with Nissan's Gran Turismo Academy a particularly famous example.
Back when Michelisz's GPL prowess earned him a shot at the real thing, it would've been much more of a novelty – but he is thrilled to see that more opportunities for gamers have arisen.
"I know how difficult it is and how many young Hungarians have the dream to become a professional racing car driver, and I know how many really talented guys are out there.
"These kinds of programmes, like Nissan has, I just support from my heart because I honestly think this is the future for finding the right drivers.
"Of course, starting with go-karts is always a bit easier but, with the progress racing games have made, in a couple of years I'm sure the online virtual world will be the best place to look for talented young drivers.
"I think people have realised this and it's not a coincidence that more and more initiatives like that are starting up."
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