Thursday , 22 August 2019

F1 Esports drivers Leigh and Kiefer on motorsport events, and F1StatBlog tries out the sims

The simulator has become one of the paths into motorsport for young fans in today’s world. The information age relies heavily on exposure. When F1StatBlog explored what the 2019 Autosport Show International had to offer, it was a real surprise to see that so many of the businesses and outfits there had at least one simulator to enjoy, and that Esports as a whole had a significant presence.

Force India’s Marcel Kiefer was one of many guests invited onto the main stage during the weekend, which was shared among some of the biggest names in the world of motorsport. Kiefer, and back-to-back F1 Esports Pro Series champion Brendon Leigh spoke to F1StatBlog during the weekend at ASI, while we also tried our own hands (with somewhat mixed results) at a range of sims that were on offer during the four-day event in Birmingham.

One of the largest and loudest stands was the Le Mans Esports Series, which culminated in a round of the championship being run on the Sunday at that stage with its regular competitors and the fastest public time from the weekend. It was what can be considered an entry-level sim to jump into regardless of experience, because of the simplicity of the Forza Motorsport 7 software used.

On the other side of the spectrum, the Adrian Quaife-Hobbs-run Pro Sim used at the W Series stand gave an insight into what the drivers will face when they drive the car for real. “[The sims are] full direct-drive and take the same amount of power to turn the steering wheel in the simulator as it would in real life so it really forces you to train hard,” said Leigh.

“Because I’ve been doing a lot of work in the gym recently it means for me that simulator is quite comfortable. And it really shows and it’s going to be a really good tool for the women drivers to train for the real-life car.”

When F1StatBlog tried that sim out, the lack of physical preparation showed. The brutality of having no power steering and whenever a small mistake was made the car would bite back hard – as would be expected from a junior single seater.

Project CARS 2 with Playseat also had a large stand near the main stage, and it was a good demonstration of how good PCARS2 is. It was an instantly immersive experience and another one where it gives a good representation of driving on a circuit in the real world.

But it was not just traditional circuit racing that was on display at ASI. The official World Rally Championship Esports had a presence with its WRC7 software, although the lack of quality of the steering showed.

Codemasters also had Dirt Rally 2.0 (currently in pre-alpha build) available to try (albeit very well-hidden in the NEC) and having a go at Rallycross on that was refreshing. That looks promising, but still very much unrefined (as expected from such a build). It does, however, appear to be an instant step up on the previous iteration.

There was also a Classic Race Solutions sim set up using rFactor 2 around 1960s Monte Carlo. The quality of the hardware (Heusinkveld equipment so very decent stuff) made the experience all the better. Being able to attempt to replicate the sideways action of what Formula 1 drivers did in that period was certainly a highlight of the weekend.

Overall, there was by far too much there to try in just one day – especially with the huge swarms of people surrounding many of them. And there was very little repetition in what was on offer as well. It certainly helped with keeping entertained during the event.

Variety is important, as Kiefer explains: “because we only have one major Esports series, we want to have a variety of skills like in real motorsport. Take a rally car driver, he’s a rally car driver because he’s good at driving it and he won’t be the fastest in a Formula 1 car probably, but the Formula 1 drivers are the fastest in the Formula 1 cars.”

And, there was so much more. Karting simulators, bike simulators, and these were being used to help demonstrate a form of motorsport to the masses. “Every company has got its own unique way on how a sim should be developed and how it wants its simulator to look in the future,” said Leigh.

“And you can see the companies that are really investing their time – they have motion simulators, and a high-end direct drive, really high-quality pedals. You really see that the company wants to move forward in that and I think it’s great for the whole industry.”

One such company with a motion simulator was Specialist Hardware Solutions, who work with endurance team Greaves Motorsports. In addition, it was also hooked up to a virtual reality headset and also used live telemetry – which is how more and more teams are approaching race weekends in motorsport. It looked amazing and cutting-edge.

“The Greaves Motorsports one where we have LMP cars and everything is so different and somehow beating me and Brendon on the sims because they are just better and better. But we are the experts for F1, for example. And I think it’s great,” said Kiefer.

There definitely was a larger Esports presence this year than in years previous at ASI. Be it through the sims, or the presence of racers or competitions, and the interest it gathered was obvious to see. A rough guess placed one in every six stands having at least some sort of simulator presence during the trading days prior to the weekend.

“It’s just amazing to see how people are getting more out of it and now they love it,” said Kiefer. “[Esports] is just going to be bigger and bigger and when the growth stops – I don’t know, but not in the next couple of years.”

“So I think it’s going to be very exciting to see how it develops, also for the younger generation – we have a lot of young kids wanting to take pictures and I don’t even know where they know me from!”

Leigh echoed those sentiments. “The amount of attention all the drivers get from the simulators is really, really crazy. You see people like Marcel and myself walking around and there’s people coming up to us asking for photos and autographs. There’s actually real-life drivers walking around and not getting [requests] for photos and autographs because people are actually somewhat more interested in simulators.”

Esports in the strange bubble that is the world of motorsports is really taking off, and its large, growing presence at ASI showed that it is important that there is continued growth.

“If you look around it, the simulator stands are a lot more busy than the real-life stands. People are getting more interested in sims than they are in real life,” said Leigh.

Kiefer concurred – “they embrace it and a few years ago that wouldn’t have happened. People see the future in Esports. And that’s good for us and also the industry.”

“I think it’s going to become a case of simulator drivers are going to be ranked equally, if not – higher, than real-life drivers soon,” said Leigh. “And I think that tradition will keep on growing in the future, and maybe that just turns into something where it’s more of a simulator-dominated thing than a car-dominated event.”

About Craig Woollard

Motorsport historian and journalist Craig Woollard has had an unusual path to a career in motorsport. After graduating from the University of Essex with a degree in mathematics in 2013, he changed his career path immediately after discovering a talent for writing. After occasional freelance work in 2015 and 2016, he joined the Autosport Academy for 2017. In the same year, he became an archive digitiser at Motorsport Images - which is his full-time job to this date.

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