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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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]