“I’m still trying to be involved in sim racing”. A chat with Martin Stefanko

Rarely has a Czech made it to the pinnacle of Formula One, be it on the asphalt or in the gaming chair, but a distant dream came true for 21-year-old Czech star Martin Stefanko in 2018, when he was drafted to Haas F1 E-sports team for season two of the incrementally popular championship. “Getting drafted was a dream come true”, he said. “Being part of a Formula One team was something I’ve wanted to have since I was a child, so that was great.”

He finished 15th in the championship in 2018, scoring 23 points, but due to work was only able to compete in one race in 2019, thus finishing 23rd in the championship with no points to his name, while the team only managed eight points throughout the twelve rounds. “The first two seasons weren’t what we were expecting”, he recalls. “The first season, me and Michael [Smidl] were never really Codemasters F1 drivers, we are more simulator drivers, so it was a new experience for us and we were mostly just learning in our first year. The first two events weren’t what we were expecting but at last we got some pretty good results, with a top five finish as well, and we managed to finish ahead of Renault.”

This year, however, was a completely different story. Life changes meant that Stefanko was not able to be anywhere near as involved as he would have liked, and at the end of a tough year for him, he decided to hang up his race suit. “This year I got my own real job, which takes a lot of free time. I was just at home during the evenings so I didn’t really have time to practise, so that’s why I only did one race in the end. This year, in terms of results, again wasn’t what we were expecting, but next year I think the team can do better.”

Martin Stefanko. Image courtesy of VGP

En route to F1, 2015, 2016 and 2017 proved massive years for Stefanko. He claimed two Czech rFactor F1 titles in 2015, as well an endurance championship, and achieved similar success in 2016, which he describes as the year he realised the dream of F1 E-Sports was possible. 2017 saw him earn a race win in Formula Sim Racing – the first in his team’s history – and the Virtual GP title. The latter came after a “personal” rivalry with countryman Smidl. “There were times in the year when I thought I couldn’t win it. We got to the last race, in the last corner, and I overtook him to win the championship.”

It was an intense, thrilling race held at the FOR GAMES video games expedition in Prague, and it was a career defining moment that led to another illustrious accomplishment – testing a Formula Renault 2.0 car. He laughs as he fondly remembers the test. “It was wet. I came out of the garage on wet tyres, and I could see the boss rolling his eyes thinking ‘he’s going to crash into the wall wall within two laps’!”

Lack of financial backing ultimately halted Stefanko from making it in the motor racing scene, which is a shame given his natural pace and talent, but E-Sports gave him the opportunity he and many others have craved – competing professionally in the top genre of racing. It’s a chance he and his peers would only have dreamed of a few years back before the rapid rise of E-Sports, and this is not lost on Stefanko. “The stuff that has been happening for E-Sports – especially sim racing – it’s just been absolutely insane since 2017. It’s just grown so massively. When I started in 2008, I never would have thought it would get this big. I was always dreaming of racing in a real F1 E-Sports championship, but I never thought that this would actually be possible. When I started, it was mostly about friendly leagues and half-serious championships, it was nothing major.” The scene remained somewhat catatonic until just a few years ago. “In 2017 it just blew up, and it’s kept moving up as well, and it’s just getting so massive. In the next couple of years I think it’s just going to keep growing and growing. There’s going to be even more involvement from the real teams and stuff like that, so I think it’s just going to keep growing more and more.”

Martin Stefanko. Image courtesy of VGP

The next chapter of F1 E-sport’s development could now consist of E-sports drivers being held in the same regard as F1 drivers themselves, and Stefanko sees this as very foreseeable. “You already see with Gran Turismo the drivers get awarded at the FIA prize-giving [ceremony], so I think in the future we could see something similar with F1 E-Sports as well.”

Another of its goals is to catch up with other E-Sports such as Fortnite, which is perennially growing in popularity, and does not fall into the same niche category that F1 E-Sports does. “My whole life has been surrounded by racing”, Stafenko remarks, “so I’ve never really looked too much into other E-Sports. I’ve been watching a lot of CSGO and things like that, but I’ve never really looked too much into it.” However, he does admit that sim racing has some way to go to be considered on the same level as other types of E-Sports. “For sim racing it’s still a little bit difficult because it’s not mainstream. As of now it still isn’t as popular as other E-Sports, but as it keeps growing I think the gap between sim racing and other E-Sports will get a little but smaller. I’m not sure if it’s ever going to catch up because as I said, it’s not a mainstream E-Sports, but with the way it’s growing it’s got a good future as it is.”

In terms of what Stefanko will do next, he continues to keep his cards close to his chest, but does reveal that there are some exciting plans in the works at the moment. “Right now, it’s a little bit of a secret. I have something going on right now, not in terms of the driving side because I’m currently not planning to race in 2020 as I announced on Twitter that I’m retiring. I’m not saying that I will never come back, because you just can’t say that, you never know. Maybe in two or three years I will get the motivation back and the love for it back to practise for hours a day, you never know. But right now as it is, I don’t want to come back as a driver, but I still want to be involved in sim racing somehow, and that’s what I’m trying to do.” He remains coy, however, on what these plans are. “I can’t really say anything at this point because nothing is sure for 2020. But if it goes through it will be very exciting, and I will surely announce it maybe in the next month or so.”

After an enthralling and exciting career in E-Sports, the journey may be at its end now for Martin Stefanko, but as he said you just never know. Maybe we will see the magical Czech racer back in the big time once more in years to come.

Featured image courtesy of VGP

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