Driver Spotlight: Arthur Leclerc – Out of his brother’s shadow

I think I speak for a lot of us when I say that I am a huge Charles Leclerc fan, seeing his ascendency from joining the Ferrari Driver Academy, and winning the GP3 and Formula 2 championships then graduating to Formula 1 with Sauber and now a Grand Prix winner with Ferrari, it has truly been incredible.

He’s also been proving to be quite handy on the Esports side, racking up both wins in the last two F1 Virtual Grand Prix events, winning the Veloce Versus 1v1 event and also streaming on Twitch with the many other F1 drivers taking to Esports scene, raising money for charity in a set of races called ‘Race for the World’ which he also won.

However in all but the most recent Virtual GP, there has been a Ferrari being driven by another Leclerc, this being Charles’ younger brother Arthur. For this year, he was picked up by Ferrari to be on their driver academy like his sibling four years prior and it would be easy to assume that there is a bit of nepotism involved, considering other members of the academy include the sons of Michael Schumacher, Jean Alesi and the grandson of Emerson Fittipaldi.

I thought I’d run you all through why I think Arthur Leclerc could be one to look out for in the future and his recruitment to Ferrari’s young driver programme isn’t merely just because of being Charles’ younger brother.

Whilst Charles arrived into single seaters in 2014 off the back of major success in the karting scene, Arthur was only just starting out in karts despite only being three years younger than his highly rated brother. Arthur actually managed to win the Kart Racing Academy championship in France, but due to budgetary issues, he was out of racing for the next four years and in that time, Charles made that climb up the ladder and into F1.

The older Leclerc always had that issue early in his career, they never had a lot of money and if it weren’t for Nicolas Todt, his career would have been over. So it was the same case for younger Leclerc, who only got back into racing because of backing from his uncle, who set up an e-bike company. This helped him seal a place in the relatively low-budget French F4 championship in 2018.

Despite not racing for four years, it was like Arthur had never been away! He won a reverse-grid race in his first event, held his own in a battle with eventual dominant champion Caio Collet at the Pau circuit, took pole at a very wet Spa-Francorchamps and had it not been for some rotten luck in the final round, would have finished runner-up. That year, he also became a part of the Venturi Formula E team’s junior programme, alongside a selection of drivers from single seaters, karting and Esports.

For 2019, he stepped up to the German-based ADAC F4 championship and took his first victory at Hockenheim which supported the German Grand Prix, and Charles was there to greet him when he pulled up into parc fermé. Arthur raced for the Sauber Junior Team by Charouz, and even with the single victory he finished third in the championship, behind the highly rated pair of Red Bull junior Dennis Hauger and the champion Théo Pourchaire, one of Leclerc’s teammates.

That result is mightily impressive considering the level of talent in that field, and the fact he had nowhere near the amount of racing experience of his peers. Despite being three years older than Pourchaire, he had eight years less racing experience, so bearing all that in mind, that makes Leclerc’s results even more impressive.

Whilst Pourchaire and Hauger are stepping up to the Grand Prix-supporting FIA Formula 3 for this season, Leclerc has gone in another direction and joined up with Prema – the team that his brother won the 2017 FIA Formula 2 championship with – in the Formula Regional European Championship. A lower tier F3 series that races for the most part in Italy.

Arthur is now 19, the same age Charles was when he won the GP3 championship. The Prema team was very much a dominant force in Formula Regional last season and even with highly rated teammates like Roman Staněk, Oliver Rasmussen and fellow Ferrari junior Gianluca Petecof, I am very confident that Arthur is the favourite for the championship.

Last time we had an F1 driver called Charles, he also had a racing driver brother called Arthur, I’m referring to the Pic brothers. Charles Pic raced for tailender teams Marussia and Caterham between 2012 and 2013, whilst his brother Arthur Pic got as high as GP2. This time round, Charles Leclerc is in F1 and is one of the top drivers, and with his recruitment to Ferrari’s programme, would it be so absurd to liken the Leclerc brothers to the Márquez brothers in MotoGP?

Marc and Álex Márquez won a championship apiece in the lower and intermediate classes of Grand Prix motorcycle racing and now they are teammates at the Repsol Honda team that Marc has won all but one MotoGP world championship with since joining them in 2013. Could Arthur join Charles at Ferrari in the next few years? It’s not out of the question! But I won’t get ahead of myself. For the time being, let’s see how Arthur does and see if skill and excellence is in his blood.

Image courtesy of Scuderia Ferrari Formula 1 Team.

An introduction to F1 Esports drivers.

Over the weekend of what should have been the Vietnam Grand Prix, we were treated to some Esports action as we have come to expect. The highlight of the weekend arguably was the second rendition of the F1 Virtual Grand Prix. Following on from the first event which took place over the weekend of the Bahrain Grand Prix, where two of the real-world regular drivers Lando Norris and Nicholas Latifi were joined by other pro drivers and even a golfer, and Olympic cyclist and a member of One Direction.

However for this event, Norris and Latifi were joined by the likes of Charles Leclerc, Alex Albon, George Russell, Antonio Giovinazzi, and even 2009 world champion Jenson Button. It was held on the Australian GP circuit (since Vietnam was a new addition to the calendar and thus not on the F1 2019 game they were using) and was won rather convincingly by Leclerc, ahead of Renault F2 driver Christian Lundgaard and Russell was P3 in the Williams. Yes, that did happen, though there is equal performance with all the cars.

However I’d like to bring some spotlight to the race following that, the Pro Exhibition. All of the F1 teams let their Esports racers off of their leash to showcase some of the best in virtual racing, just like they’ve been doing in the F1 Esports Series that has been running since 2017.

In the inaugural season, 40 drivers went through qualifications and made it to the semi-finals and 20 of them went to compete in the finals held alongside that year’s Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. After the three 25% distance races held across two days, it was then-kitchen manager Brendon Leigh who performed an incredible move on Fabrizio Donoso to seal the first championship ahead of Donoso and Sven Zurner.

For the 2018 season, all but one of the teams got involved and would pick players who entered through online qualifications and an evaluation process, and they would go on to compete in a full 10-race season held exclusively in London’s Gfinity Esports Arena across three live shows. Drivers would go for individual glory, whilst a prize pot of $200,000 would be distributed among the team’s for their position in the final standings.

Again, it was Brendon Leigh who would come out on top in a dominant display driving for Mercedes, winning six out of 10 races with the other races being won by Merc teammate Dani Bereznay, Toro Rosso’s Frederik Rasmussen and Sauber’s Salih Saltunç. With it, Merc also won the constructor’s champions.

For 2019, the team that didn’t want to take part finally caught the Esports bug, Ferrari. This may have been a stroke of genius because as a result, they got first pickings in the Pro Draft, and selected David Tonizza. A driver who failed to get picked by anyone in 2018, but came back and immediately hit the ground running.

Even with the onslaught of talent around him including the likes of Rasmussen and Bereznay – who had moved to Red Bull and Alfa Romeo respectively – as well as former Renault Junior driver turned Renault Esports driver Jarno Opmeer and the now two-time champion Brendon Leigh, Tonizza was unfazed and racked up three victories from the twelve races to just pip a late-charging Rasmussen to the title in the last race. However, due to Red Bull’s drivers scoring more points than Ferrari’s due to Tonizza’s teammates not scoring any points, Red Bull won the team’s championship and with it, the majority of the now $500,000 prize pot.

As you can imagine, a lot of gamers want to make their way into the Esports series but it’s only two drivers per team in one race. So three drivers are signed and you’ll see some drivers prioritising more time on some tracks over others to get the best possible result, albeit that does come with its downside. Both 2018 and 2019, Frederik Rasmussen lost out on being runner-up and a shot at the championship respectively because he elected to step down and have his teammates race.

Then on the flip side of that, former Sauber driver Allert van der Wal was drafted by McLaren Shadow in 2019 but he didn’t compete in any race, at least I don’t remember seeing him. Plus, Red Bull drafted a guy called Nicolas Longuet but he only did the one race at Monza where he managed to finish in the top three!

The system is flawed but can be worked on, especially now since we have this unprecedented opportunity to polish the rough spots. We now have these proper online races taking place and in the Pro Exhibition, Frederik Rasmussen won from David Tonizza and Haas Esports driver Floris Wijers. We now have another upcoming Pro Exhibition race this weekend on the Shanghai circuit, which will take place before the Virtual Grand Prix race.

We have so many top-line drivers who can win and be successful in F1 Esports, and I’d love to see a full on championship held every week similar to that of a lot of online League championships, such as Apex Online Racing. As much as I like the idea of the three races in one event, F1 Esports seems a bit safe and lacking behind the FIA Gran Turismo Championships in many departments.

Nevertheless, I hope you lot feel compelled to watch the F1 team’s Esports drivers tackling the Chinese GP circuit on Sunday potentially before the Virtual Grand Prix Series race.

Be on the lookout for Formula 1’s own social media channels for how you can watch these races…

Images taken from actual game play…

Driver Spotlight: James Baldwin – Sim Racing’s All Star | Part Two

Next up for James was a role with Alfa Romeo’s F1 Esports team. Veloce runs the team that competes in the F1 Esports Series, and had decided to sign up James alongside fellow Veloce drivers Dani Bereznay and Salih Saltunç, both of whom had been in the championship the year before. Bereznay had been part of the Mercedes team alongside champion Brendon Leigh and as a result of finishing runner-up, helped them seal the constructor’s championship.

Saltunç had also won a race on his way to fourth overall in 2018, and Alfa also had to pick a driver who had entered through online qualifications – who turned out to be former Renault Esports driver Kimmy Larsson – so it was decided to not have James race for them and only be involved as a test driver. A shame really, because James has proven that he’s very versatile and I was very interested to see how he would fare against the Codemasters F1 game specialists.

Nevertheless, it may not be too unrealistic to think that James could be in line to possibly race for Alfa this season in F1 Esports. Even if his real world commitment took priority, but we will get there.

He ended the year by being selected to represent the UK in the inaugural FIA Motorsport Games, in the sim racing competition dubbed the Digital Cup. On Gran Turismo Sport which by his own admission is not one of his strongest racing titles – he just missed out on a bronze medal in the finals, which was unfortunate but to think that he was competing for his country in what is essentially the Olympics for motorsport, and they embraced the sim racing aspect is just incredible in and of itself. James even walked out in the opening ceremony in Rome along with his fellow Team UK representatives.

Another achievement for James albeit a much smaller-scale one was that he topped the times in Veloce’s own Star In A Simulated Car series, where Veloce team members and a few outside personalities hotlap a BMW M8 GTE car at Brands Hatch GP on iRacing. He did nearly get pipped by W Series champion Jamie Chadwick, and on the video for her interview and lap, someone wrote in the comments “So we’ve deduced that James should be a real driver..”, and that comment aged like fine wine!

An added side effect of winning the eROC, James had automatically qualified for a place in the second rendition of the World’s Fastest Gamer competition. Unlike the first season where winner Rudy van Buren earned a place as McLaren’s simulator driver, the winner this time round would earn a full season’s worth of racing in a GT championship.

James flew to California and did evaluation tests in both sim and real-world driving, under the watchful eye of his mentor and first WFG winner Rudy van Buren, GT Academy winner Jann Mardenborough and Baldwin’s own F1 hero, Juan Pablo Montoya. With drivers being eliminated in very quick fashion, it was down on the final day to James and three other drivers, and you guessed it, James Baldwin won.

So as a result of his involvement with Esports, James Baldwin is now a real world driver, or at least he will be when racing does get underway. What exactly will he be racing? Well a McLaren 720S GT3 of course!

Specifically, the 720S GT3 that is ran by the team which 2009 F1 World Champion Jenson Button owns, Jenson Team Rocket with RJN Motorsport. RJN being the same team that a lot of GT Academy winners have raced with over the years.

Like in my previous article with Igor Fraga, James Baldwin again proves my point that sim racing can indeed help you get places. The world of motorsport is unfortunately an expensive one and not everybody has the money to go racing at most levels but with the incredible levels of realism and the undoubtedly huge savings in money, it can prove to be a viable platform to showcase real skill and build careers.

When we do get racing, James will be driving in the GT World Challenge Europe Endurance Series (formerly known as the Blancpain GT Series Endurance Cup) alongside long-time RJN regular Chris Buncombe. Le Mans class winner in the P2 class in 2007, GT Pro-Am champion in 2018 and raced for RJN’s team principal Bob Neville for the first time in 1997, the year Baldwin was born. I’m also holding out hope for the possibility that Jenson Button himself could be racing with James at the Spa 24 hours.

He also has a very fast-growing YouTube channel in which he streams the Esports events he participates in, he does setup tutorials, challenge videos and he’s also planning to release content based around his GT racing campaign, go check out his channel:

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC0Ene38yf-Y6movLKSvc0Iw

The timing has been a bit naff of course but hopefully it is soon that we will be able to go racing, as I’m excited to finally see this incredibly exciting driver be on that track where he has proven he belongs. It has been a huge pleasure to see his career surge the way it has, and I know James Baldwin will be very successful both in the virtual world and in the real world.

Images courtesy of James YouTube channel.

Driver Spotlight: James Baldwin – Sim Racing’s All Star | Part One

I am sure a lot of you have been enjoying the Esports races that have been happening and have been keeping us sane whilst we await the return of real life racing. With the events organised by The Race with their All-Star Esports Battle races and Veloce’s Not The GP series now being joined by their own Pro Series, and not forgetting F1, IndyCar and MotoGP among others organising their own events, we are not short of choice, are we?

Seeing what has been happening in this trying time has been great, and seeing many notable real-world racers take to the virtual world to keep themselves sharp and us entertained is just great to see. Max Verstappen and Lando Norris have been the leading lights with their large followings, helping show what sim racing can really provide.

However, as much as this is familiar surroundings for one driver in particular, I know that he will want to get on the real track very soon. He has been participating in these events alongside Verstappen and Norris and in the first race of the Veloce Pro Series, he finished second to Lando. This driver being James Baldwin.

Like Max and Lando, Baldwin started out racing karts aged eight and won four British karting championships by the age of 15. He attempted a move up into cars in 2015, but only had the money to do a grand total of two races in Formula Ford, so with all that pressure of his family’s money being put into these races, James quite understandably felt that pressure a bit too much. He did those two races and there was no more money, and his racing dream was seemingly over.

After a while out of the driving seat, James shifted his focus to sim racing and quickly proceeded to pick up where he left off in the success department. Through an event organised by Renault on the game Project CARS 2 in which he won, Baldwin got an invitation to participate in the eRace of Champions, where the winner would be allowed to compete in the main Race of Champions at the venue for the Mexican Grand Prix.

The Race of Champions is a tournament in which drivers from many different disciplines compete with equal machinery on makeshift circuits in stadiums to find out who is the champion of all champions. In 2018, the organisers opened up an Esports competition in which Italian driver Enzo Bonito won and therefore allowed him to compete in the main event alongside World’s Fastest Gamer winner Rudy van Buren.

For the 2019 event, Bonito would be joined in the Sim Racing All Stars team by whoever would succeed him as the eROC winner and everyone was expecting him to be joined by two-time F1 Esports champion Brendon Leigh. But in a huge upset, Baldwin defeated Leigh to become eROC champion and he impressed the judges along the way, those judges being nine-times Le Mans winner Tom Kristensen, 2001 F1 runner-up David Coulthard and renowned stunt driver Terry Grant.

He lined up alongside Bonito for the Nation’s Cup competition in the Sim Racing All Star team and also competed for individual glory in the Race of Champions. Whilst his Nation’s Cup teammate grabbed the headlines for defeating Formula E champion Lucas di Grassi and IndyCar champion Ryan Hunter-Reay, Baldwin was by no means any slouch as he won against local NASCAR hero Rubén García Jr. in one of the heats.

This would only be the start of a year of ascendency for James Baldwin, otherwise known as Veloce Jaaames. Yes, three A’s, he didn’t fall asleep on his keyboard when he was coming up with that.

As you can tell by the other part of that username, James is a part of Veloce Esports. The team founded by Formula E champion Jean-Éric Vergne and teammate from his Carlin F3 days Rupert Svendson-Cook, which has really led the charge and pioneered the turn of introducing Esports to a mainstream audience. Their initial focus was on virtual racing before expanding into FPS games and even the car football game Rocket League.

Back to James now, because 2019 had not even gotten started for him and it was not about to stop. He entered into the Project CARS world championships which were taking place at the Mercedes headquarters in Stuttgart and James ended up winning that. Veloce then entered last minute as a wildcard into the Le Mans Esports Series Super Final which would take place before the 24 hours of Le Mans.

In an incredible and never-seen-before format, the teams made up of three drivers would – just like in real life – race for 24 straight hours but in nine races on both historical and modern variants of the Le Mans circuit as well as races at Silverstone, Spa and Sebring in a vast variety of car classes ranging from 1960s Le Mans cars, Group C, GTE, LMP cars of varying eras and many more.

From 11am to 9:30am the following day, all twelve teams would compete in two or three hour enduros to rack up points, and it was one second head start in the final for every point more than the team behind them. Baldwin and his two Veloce stablemates Noah Schmitz and David Kelly overcame a 15-second deficit to somehow win the final 90-minute race and therefore won the whole event and a hefty cash prize! They stood on the Le Mans podium, sprayed champagne whilst all the teams prepared for the start of the real-life 24 hour race and presumably they all went to bed and collapsed from exhaustion.

Images courtesy of WFG

AND Veloce Esports

Sim racing to the rescue?

Is 2020 about to become the year that digital motorsport raced to the forefront and is taken seriously?

When I agreed to be a contributor to ThePitCrewOnline, I wasn’t going to restrict myself to what I was going to write about and I would write about anything that took my interest. My first article was about Igor Fraga, a Brazilian racing driver whose involvement in sim racing through competitions such as F1 Esports, FIA Gran Turismo championships and the McLaren Shadow Project Final has resulted in him sealing a place in the FIA Formula 3 championship.

I originally wrote that with the notion that the first round of F3 – which was set to take place alongside the Bahrain Grand Prix – was still happening, then we had this pandemic happen and it has thrown a minor spanner in the works with regards to all these motorsport events getting postponed and cancelled. I don’t think it needs to be said but in case it’s lost on anybody; the health of others is more important than some cars going around a track.

In my previous article, I mention a lot of success stories from the world of sim racing but the other beauty of it is that during such horrid circumstances, something very beautiful can come from it. Having mentioned it briefly since it was all happening very last minute when I was writing it, events were organised by The Race and Veloce Esports that took the place of the real-life racing that was cancelled over the weekend of what was supposed to be the Australian Grand Prix.

The first event by The Race was called the All-Star Esports Battle and had participants ranging from professional drivers such as Max Verstappen, Simon Pagenaud and Juan-Pablo Montoya, sim racers such as Rudy van Buren, James Baldwin and McLaren Shadow Project winner Kevin Siggy Rebernak, and also online personalities like the incredibly beloved Jimmy Broadbent.

Racing in 2012-style F1 cars on rFactor 2 at the Nürburgring GP circuit, and organised everyone into heat races; one for pro drivers, one for sim racers and the final one for drivers who entered online qualifications. Pro driver heat was won by Verstappen, the sim racer heat by van Buren and the qualifying heat by a driver named Jernej Simoncic. It was an incredible event seeing all these contrasting characters unified in the face of adversity, and the final was won in the end by Simoncic.

Moving onto the Veloce event – dubbed the #NotTheAusGP – Lando Norris was participating and he was joined by YouTuber WillNE, Real Madrid C.F. goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois, and was even joined by James Baldwin and Jimmy Broadbent, who participated in the All-Star Esports Battle. On the F1 2019 game at the Melbourne circuit with a 50% race distance and the event was incredibly entertaining! Particularly as we saw Lando Norris having to fight through the field after getting disqualified during qualifying, and for most of the race he fought with Tiametmarduk, who I boldly claim makes the best F1 centred content on YouTube.

The event was won in the end by Alfa Romeo F1 Esports driver and friendly giant, Daniel Bereznay. Both these races are available to rewatch on YouTube from the weekend of March 15th on both The Race and Veloce Esports’ YouTube channels, but from the last weekend of March 22nd, we have had follow-up events from both of those and also an officially sanctioned event by F1 itself being referred to as the Virtual Grand Prix series.

Round two of the All-Star Esports battle took place on rFactor 2 again but this time at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s Grand Prix circuit in Indy Pro 2000 cars. The event consisted of two heat races for pro drivers, one for sim drivers and then a last chance race for the pro drivers who didn’t finish in the top five in the first two heats. The first pro driver heat was won by IndyCar driver Felix Rosenqvist and the second by Rudy van Buren, with Kevin Siggy Rebernak winning the sim racers heat and the last chance race being won by GP2 race winner Tom Dillmann.

In the end, the overall event was won by Rudy van Buren ahead of Kevin Siggy Rebernak and the top real world professional driver Daniel Juncadella just beating out Felix Rosenqvist for that honour. Other notable competitors in this event were former F1 drivers Nico Hülkenberg, Stoffel Vandoorne and Esteban Gutiérrez, all three of whom would compete in the next two big events.

On Sunday, both Veloce Esports put together the #NotTheBahGP and F1 themselves put together the Virtual Grand Prix. Along with those three former F1 drivers that I mentioned, we had Lando Norris also competing in these races, Jimmy Broadbent having done the All-Star Esports Battle doubled up his Sunday with both events and joining them would be professional golfer Ian Poulter.

In the Veloce event, instead of a 50% distance race like the proceeding Veloce event, it was two 25% distance races with the second of those races utilising a full-on reverse grid where the first race’s winner would start last with the slower running drivers up at the front. As again, the alien that is Daniel Bereznay swept the first race and despite starting last for the second race, he was near the front before spinning and having to settle for third, with Red Bull Esports driver and real-world GT4 racer Cem Bölükbaşı taking that race. That second race in particular was incredibly entertaining, and pretty much like the whole concept of these races taking place, it’s difficult to describe without anyone seeing it with their own eyes.

Moving onto the officially sanctioned by F1 event, dubbed the Virtual Grand Prix which included the likes of Johnny Herbert, Anthony Davidson, Luca Salvadori, Sir Chris Hoy, Nic Hamilton and Liam Payne. The race was won by Renault F1 junior driver Guanyu Zhou ahead of Stoffel Vandoorne and DTM driver Philipp Eng, the event did have a few technical hiccups and of course it didn’t feature the most professional drivers but it was fun!

That is something I want to touch upon. In these events, you may not see a lot of professional racing but it’s just some fun and entertainment whilst we all go through this difficult time. If you want to have the event that is in terms of driver ability the best, then you will want to watch the All-Star Esports Battle. The Veloce Esports organised events are a good middle ground of driver ability and people looking for some fun who are there to entertain, then the F1 Virtual Grand Prix is pretty much an all out celebrity race for the most part.

It may, unfortunately, be a while before we are back to normal, I hope it is very soon but until then, don’t be a miserable mush and dismiss any digital forms of racing. What’s happening right now sucks, but as a result of it all has come something beautiful, a bunch of people from varying walks of life have come together to try and entertain all of you lot.

One of the best things about this is seeing these guys stream their races to Twitch and YouTube. There’s an entertaining video that Benjamin Daly a.k.a. Tiametmarduk uploaded which featured him battling with Lando Norris, and seeing the reactions of the pair of them was just brilliant.

It may not be top quality racing like we come to expect of professional drivers but it’s something.

I hope I haven’t put myself in a bubble here by writing about Esports-related articles, especially as my next intended article was putting the spotlight on James Baldwin, a driver who has ascended to new heights thanks to Esports just like Igor Fraga. It’s not the circumstances I’d have preferred but I think for the time being, Esports is what may keep us lot sane!

I will provide links to the YouTube videos and also the subsequent channels of a fair amount of these sim races. The All-Star Esports Battle, the Veloce ‘Not The GP’ and the first F1 Virtual Grand Prix, along with an event that Team RedLine (the Esports team that Max Verstappen and Lando Norris are a part of) held recently as well. They’re all the raw footage from all the live streams, so since a majority of you are stuck inside, you’ve got some time to kill, haven’t you?

Keep on the lookout for any more major Esports racing events taking place over the next few weeks. I know they aren’t planning on slowing down any time soon!

Anyway, hope you’re all doing well and hopefully we’ll be out of the woods soon.

We will race on.

Driver Spotlight: Igor Fraga and the power of Esports | Part Two

For 2019, Igor Fraga competed in the inaugural Formula Regional European Championship, an F3-level series which competed in Italy for the most part with rounds also in France, Spain, Hungary and Austria.

The season was dominated for the most part by Prema with their trio of drivers consisting of Frederik Vesti, Enzo Fittipaldi and Olli Caldwell.

Fraga was undeterred, and with his team of DR Formula by RP Motorsport, he took four wins, four poles, three fastest laps and eleven podiums in 23 races, ending the season an incredibly impressive third behind Fittipaldi and champion Vesti.

Back in the virtual world, things went a little sour. The new format of the Gran Turismo championships meant that if you won overall in one particular event, you wouldn’t have to go qualify to participate in the World Finals at Monaco. After messing up his chances in the first round in Paris, he won the second event which took place at the Nürburgring supporting the 24-hour race. However it was the following event that really put a major downer on things.

The third event took place in New York and Fraga, having already guaranteed himself a place in the World Final, was racing in the event final against Mikail Hizal. They were driving at Spa and Hizal had better tyres. With the long drag from La Source all the way to the Kemmel Straight, it looked like a foregone conclusion that Hizal would pass Fraga.

However, Fraga first employed a tactic of getting off the throttle and letting Hizal through after La Source, only to immediately use the slipstream and get back past, which is tad sketchy but not inherently illegal.

Then he did something which really was wrong. He lifted off the throttle going up Eau Rouge and Hizal couldn’t avoid hitting him. After that, Hizal had to preserve fuel and dropped back by over five seconds. That last part is important.

Fraga was penalised. Although he didn’t actually lose anything, he was given a five-second penalty and kept his victory.

Three weeks later, and round four of the Grand Turismo championship took place at the Red Bull Hangar-7 in Austria. The debate was still centred on Fraga’s move in Italy, but to their credit, both Fraga and Hizal had taken to social media to address it. Fraga apologised, and Hizal encouraged people not to attack him, insisting he had learned from his mistake.

I had gotten into a bit of a war of words over Twitter regarding the incident with both Gran Turismo championships regular Fabian Portilla and also David Perel, a real-world driver who frequently plays Gran Turismo. Perel insisted that because it was not real-world racing and that there was no inherent danger, it meant doing such a thing was okay.

Nonetheless, Fraga participated in the GT World Finals, and to everyone’s shock, he spun out of contention in his semi-final and didn’t even make it into contention for a repechage race, unable to retain his crown. However, there was still the Manufacturers Series, a secondary competition where three drivers sign in-game with a manufacturer prior to each live event and the ones who qualify represent that manufacturer.

Fraga, alongside Tomoaki Yamanaka and Rayan Derrouiche, represented Toyota, and they became Manufacturer Series champions. This probably didn’t soften the blow of not being able to have the chance to defend his Nations Cup crown, which was won in the end quite fittingly by Mikail Hizal.

For 2020, Fraga was announced to be competing in the F1 Grand Prix-supporting FIA Formula 3 championship with Charouz Racing System, alongside F3 regular Niko Kari and fellow Formula Regional graduate David Schumacher. This was immediately generating headlines with the official F1 website crediting Fraga as ‘F1 Esports finalist joins F3’, but there was also what would come even before turning a wheel at an F1 Grand Prix.

It was announced that in preparation for the upcoming season, Fraga would participate in the New Zealand-based Toyota Racing Series, which is designed to keep drivers who usually compete in Europe sharp over the winter when there is no racing. The series has been won in the past by drivers such as current Jaguar Formula E driver Mitch Evans, and also current F1 drivers Lance Stroll and Lando Norris. Igor was placed into the M2 Competition team with the previous season’s champion Liam Lawson, and he really surprised everyone.

He really held his own against Lawson, going toe-to-toe with him when everyone was expecting the New Zealander to dominate. Lawson ended up winning five times to Fraga’s four, but due to Lawson’s one DNF and Fraga scoring in every round, Fraga ended the season as champion.

Not only that, Fraga won the New Zealand Grand Prix, an illustrious race that is one of only two races outside F1 to hold the title of a national Grand Prix along with the Macau Grand Prix. He did so whilst the first event of the 2020 FIA Gran Turismo championships was about to start just across the Tasman Sea in Sydney, Australia.

In spite of everything that may be thrown in the direction of Esports by racing ‘purists’, we have a fine example of how virtual racing can really open up doors of opportunity.

It all began for Fraga when his dad bought him Gran Turismo 4 on PlayStation 2 with a cheap wheel and pedals for him to practice on between sessions in his go-kart.

Yes, Fraga is not the prime example of what you think of when you hear ‘gamer turned racer’. He has a background in motorsport before getting involved in sim racing so he isn’t like GT Academy graduate Jann Mardenborough.

But before F1 Esports, the Gran Turismo Championships and McLaren Shadow Project final, Fraga did not have much chance of racing in Europe and thus pursuing his F1 dream. Now, however, he is a step closer to that. Especially now it has been confirmed he will be joining Red Bull’s junior program!

Fraga is an exciting driver who has proven that he isn’t just a PlayStation gamer looking to mix it with the big boys. He’s a racing driver first, and has proven that gaming and sim racing are not just a gimmick.

Just after he won the 2018 Gran Turismo World Championship, a video was released on Fraga’s YouTube channel which really does encapsulate the brilliance of everything:

Driving is for everyone. Whether you race karts at the weekends, or you’re a professional who is paid to race, or even if you drive digital versions of them, the beauty of racing is that it is well and truly a universal language. More than ever, we are seeing more people picking up online racing to fuel their desire to compete. It’s creating more opportunities than ever before, and that shouldn’t be dismissed.

I see so much in the way of gate-keeping in regard to Esports. Whether you like it or not, it’s an inexpensive alternative to real racing and it is here to stay. It’s up to you whether to embrace it or not, but you can’t deny it isn’t already proving its worth.

We have had Formula E doing a one-off sim race in Las Vegas with both sim drivers and regular-series drivers going head to head for a cash prize of $1,000,000. This was won by now-McLaren Shadow driver Bono Huis ahead of Felix Rosenqvist, who raced at the time for Mahindra in Formula E.

McLaren also partnered up with a competition called World’s Fastest Gamer in which kitchen sales-manager and former Dutch karting driver Rudy van Buren became McLaren simulator and development driver, he has since become Mahindra’s Formula E simulator driver now he’s looking to compete this year in Porsche SuperCup or Carrera Cup Germany.

The Race of Champions opened up an event for sim racers to participate in in 2018, in which also now-McLaren Shadow driver Enzo Bonito won. He made headlines a year later when he raced and defeated former Formula E champion Lucas di Grassi and former IndyCar champion Ryan Hunter-Reay in their heat races.

Red Bull F1 driver Max Verstappen and McLaren’s Lando Norris both like to participate in big iRacing endurance races too, having taken the win at last year’s iRacing Spa 24 hours even if Max’s broken brake pedal tried to sabotage that! Many other top-line drivers are also starting their own Esports teams, including Fernando Alonso, Jean Alesi, and even Jean-Éric Vergne who along with his old Carlin F3 teammate Rupert Svendson-Cook are the founders of Veloce Esports, who run the Esports teams of both Alonso and Alfa Romeo F1.

Jann Mardenborough is also worth a mention. He entered GT Academy when taking a gap year before university, and ended up winning it. As a result, he has driven cars including Nissan GT3s and various single-seaters, won a GP3 race in 2014, took a class podium finish at the 24 hours of Le Mans, and he nearly won championships in the Toyota Racing Series and Japanese F3. He’s now racing in Japan having competed in Super Formula and now mainly Super GT.

Finally, the FIA recognised the potential of virtual racing by giving certified status to the Gran Turismo championships and also by including it in the Olympic-style inaugural FIA Motorsport Games.

I’m British, so I was following Team UK’s entry into the Digital Cup. James Baldwin was our representative, but that’s an article for another day.

I hope you all feel compelled to seek out some virtual racing, whether it be to watch or to compete yourself. I hope I’ve convinced at least one person who wasn’t already convinced by Esports to check it out, and if so then that would be mission accomplished as far as I am concerned.

Especially with the cancelled motorsport events, it has been Esports that has come to the rescue! Veloce Esports and The Race have organised events that took place last Sunday which featured big names from the world of motorsport, and no doubt will there be more over the next few months.

I am certain that in the next couple of years, we will find an F1 champion or a 24 hours of Le Mans winner who started out in gaming. Whether that’ll be Igor or someone else entirely, they are bound by nothing.

 

[Featured image – FIA]

 

Driver Spotlight: Igor Fraga and the power of Esports | Part One

This weekend was supposed to be the first round of the FIA Formula 3 championship, supporting the F1 and F2 rounds at the Bahrain Grand Prix. However, due to obvious health concerns, there has been a delay to proceedings.

We here at The Pit Crew Online wish everyone well during this time, and we respect that the health of everyone should be the foremost concern above anything else, including motorsport.

Anyway, today I want to talk about a certain driver who is going to be participating in the F3 championship this year, which was previously known as GP3.

The FIA’s rebranding of GP3 and the subsequent disagreements among the motorsport community as to what is rightfully an F3 championship have all been major talking points. This is especially so because it led to the demise of the beloved former F3 European Championship that raced alongside DTM, from where the likes of Max Verstappen, Charles Leclerc and Lando Norris all came from.

Irrespective of how you feel about F3, I’m of the opinion that having the F3 name alongside F2 and F1 during Grand Prix weekends is a great thing, and I think we can all agree that the 3.4-litre naturally aspirated V6 is a sound to behold. Not only that, but the grid quality this year is extremely high!

The dominant Prema team have signed Oscar Piastri, Frederik Vesti and Logan Sargeant, the first two being the reigning champions in Formula Renault and the European F3 Regional series, whilst the latter took an amazing podium finish at Macau last year. Beyond Prema, we have the team that nobody expected to hold a slight candle to them, Hitech Grand Prix.

After Red Bull junior Jüri Vips gave the Prema trio of Robert Shwartzman, Marcus Armstrong and Jehan Daruvala some competition whilst racing for Hitech last year in F3, Red Bull seemed to conclude that Hitech was the best place to have two of their juniors. They’ve moved Liam Lawson over from MP, and promoted Norway’s Dennis Hauger from F4. They’ll be joined by Renault junior Max Fewtrell, who raced last year for ART Grand Prix.

Speaking of ART, they are housing another exciting talent jumping up from F4: 16-year old Théo Pourchaire, who denied Hauger the chance at being the first driver to win both the German and Italian F4 championships in the same year. Then there’s Enaam Ahmed, David Schumacher, Sophia Flörsch, Enzo Fittipaldi and Jack Doohan, so there are many drivers to get excited about for this season of F3.

However, none of them may generate more headlines than Igor Fraga.

Fraga was born in Japan back in 1998, to his Brazilian father and his Brazilian-Japanese mother. By the age of three he was already driving karts and did his first championship race aged five. It didn’t take him long to begin racking up championships – he won seven karting championships in Japan and also the Asian Karting Open Championship in 2008, but it was after returning to his native Brazil when it became clear that things would not be plain sailing.

When he was 15, he began competing in entry level formulae. He competed part time in Formula 1600, in which he took a victory, pole and fastest lap, as well as two races in Formula Vee which netted two podium finishes.

That got the attention of Prop Car Racing, who entered him into the Brazilian F3 championship’s secondary class, in which he won four out of 16 races and finished third in the standings.

Fraga then attempted to move to the primary class of F3 Brazil for the following season, but due to factors outside of their control and despite Fraga’s best efforts – which heralded a podium finish – they couldn’t continue in the category and pulled out after just four races.

After sitting out the rest of 2016, Fraga returned to Brazilian F3’s secondary class for 2017 and it was well worth the wait. Fraga took 10 wins, 13 podiums and seven poles in 16 races on his way to the secondary class championship. Prop Car knew Fraga had potential, so they decided to put in the effort to ensure Fraga could compete in the Mexican-based NACAM F4 Championship between September 2017 and June 2018.

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Photo by amigo Julio #formula3 #automobilismo

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Being outside his native Brazil, Fraga did all that he could to learn the tracks, including the Mexican Grand Prix circuit. How did he go about doing that? By buying the most recent F1 game installment by Codemasters of course!

It was around this time that I first heard about him, as he entered the inaugural F1 Esports Series and qualified for the semi-finals in London, which took place in early October.

Fraga was up against now two-time F1 Esports champion Brendon Leigh as well as a lot of other highly-rated racers. He finished fourth in the first race at Silverstone and second at Interlagos, and as a result he had qualified for the final, which took place alongside the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.

By participating in this, Fraga missed one of the NACAM F4 rounds – would it be worth it? Unfortunately, he did not do too brilliantly. He finished 18th out of 20, failing to score in the first two races and then only picking up points in the final race when the points were changed to allow every classified driver to score.

Back in the world of physical racing, Fraga completed his NACAM F4 campaign as runner-up, over 100 points behind champion Moisés de la Vara. Fraga, however, was already concentrating on primary 2018 campaign.

He attracted the attention of former F1 and IndyCar driver Roberto Moreno, who invited Fraga to stay at his place in America and personally invested his own money to help him get a drive in the USF2000 Championship, the first step on the Road To Indy program. Racing for the Exclusive Autosport team, Fraga took home three podiums on his way to fourth in the final standings. His big moment, however, was yet to come.

He once again saw an Esports opportunity when he entered into the inaugural FIA-certified Gran Turismo Championships Americas regional final. He got a top two finish in his split, guaranteeing him a place in the World Final before going on to become the Americas regional champion with a crushing dominance in the last race on the Interlagos circuit. This set him up as one of the favourites heading into the World Final in Monaco.

He won his split in the semi-finals and qualified for the Final’s four races. He won the first race, held in road-going sports cars, and was leading the second race at Interlagos in GT3-style cars when a late charge by a rival forced Fraga into a mistake on the last lap. He tumbled down from first to fourth at the line.

Race three was even more of a nightmare. Held at Monza in Le Mans prototype cars, Fraga tumbled from fourth to tenth which meant he was to start tenth for the final race, which was worth double the points of previous races. It was not going to be easy.

The last race’s car of choice was the fictional Red Bull X2014, and they would do battle on the Circuit de la Sarthe. I remember watching this race live and being convinced that Fraga would find a way to win, and what happened next just beggars belief.

In the Nations Cup races, drivers have to use every compound of dry-weather tyre. Fraga had tactically put the slowest tyre type on first and due to the high-speed nature of the circuit, he remained in the slipstream of the cars ahead and was lapping as quick if not quicker than the frontrunners on the best tyres. By the time they all made their stops and used every type of tyre, Fraga was now on the best compound and amongst the leaders, who were now on the worst compound.

He got up to second and already had enough points to seal the world championship, but that didn’t deter him. He went for the lead and he won the race and with it, became FIA Gran Turismo Nations Cup world champion. Fraga was on top of the world, and he wasn’t done yet.

Igor Fraga wins the FIA Gran Turismo Americas Final

Only two months later, Fraga once again competed in an Esports competition. McLaren held a unique event where seven drivers who had qualified through a variety of different platforms would go head to head in a cross-discipline set of races consisting of sim racing, console driving, virtual reality and mobile gaming. All of this would determine which one of them would become a member of the McLaren Shadow Esports team.

Not only would Fraga and his fellow Shadow finalists be racing on a variety of racing games, they’d also be put to the test in a real-world McLaren GT4 car, the top-secret McLaren simulator, and human performance analysis to test physical and mental strength.

In this unprecedented format, the finalists competed on various virtual platforms, racing different spec cars at various circuits on iRacing, Forza Motorsport 7, Real Racing 3, Project CARS 2 and rFactor 2.

Unbelievably consistent, Fraga racked up points and eased into contention. He was easily in the top three, and competed in the race that would decide who would earn the place in the Esports team. The final decider was held on rFactor 2 and Fraga won with ease.

Fraga began 2019 on the back of becoming the first FIA Gran Turismo World Champion and earning a place on McLaren’s Esports team. As a result of this, both Gran Turismo and McLaren Shadow agreed to back his real-world racing campaign that year. So as a direct result of Esports, Fraga had become a very well-known name in the motorsport world and was now able to fulfil his dream of racing in Europe.

 

[Featured image – Gran Turismo]