Is this the moment for digital motorsports?

Online racing jumps in popularity as Covid-19 crisis grinds real racing to a halt

Fancy taking on Lewis Hamilton? Of course you do. If there’s even a millilitre of petrol in your veins, you’ve dreamed of strapping on a 1,000hp advertising hoarding, and zooming around the world’s race tracks in pursuit of gold and glory. Sadly, for most of us, age, bulk, and an almost total lack of talent counts against us.

Perhaps, though, the tantalising possibility of taking on the best racing drivers in the world, at their own game, has moved rather closer – with game being the operative word. With all of us being shut indoors until the current coronavirus crisis has passed, motor racing has essentially cancelled itself for the time being. Formula One has called off or postponed all racing until at least the summer. Le Mans has deferred itself until September. Ditto the Indianapolis 500.

Hungry for some racing action, fans have instead been flocking online. And not just fans – real, actual, racing drivers have too been turning on and tuning in, and actually competing against mere mortals. Or at least those mere mortals keen enough to have set themselves up with expensive gaming rigs.

King Lewis I hasn't quite stepped down from his four-wheeled throne to compete as yet, but McLaren's Lando Norris and Williams' Nicholas Latifi have done, while driver-turned-commentator Martin Brundle has too. Formula One is running virtual races to fill in for its empty schedule, with shortened qualifying events (down from an hour to 18 minutes) and half-length races (arguably changes that should have been made to real F1 racing years ago). Formula 2 racer Guanyu Zhou picked up victory in the recent virtual Bahrain GP, so it's also arguably a chance for up-and-coming drivers to show off their skills against the best of the best.


i-Racing platform

"The software that the racing runs on now is phenomenal," Niall Maher of Irish racing simulation company Digital Motorsports told The Irish Times. "The i-Racing platform has arguably the most accurate commercially available car models. You can buy a car on i-Racing for, say $10. Bring that back three years or five years, and that level of technology was the difference between being a top-five finisher in F1 or not, so that's the sort of level of accuracy that the gaming is operating right now."

The explosion in popularity of digital racing has been driven by the current lockdown – in the United States, NASCAR managed to attract almost a million viewers to its recent online versions of cancelled races, comparable to about half what they'd get in terms of TV viewers. Online, shared, racing has been a thing since the late 1990s and the proliferation of gaming software, but now Maher reckons that there are many multiples of people engaging in digital racing than there are those with actual, physical competition licences.

"We want to change that, just a little, though" says Maher. "By which I mean we're talking to the likes of Motorsport Ireland so that people could get digital racing licences, and that licence number would stay with them if and when they go on to race physical cars on track. My dream would be to see someone from Ireland, representing us at the highest level, with a racing licence that started out as a digital one."

It's no so far fetched. In the past decade, Nissan launched a massive worldwide competition, called the GT Academy, which sought to turn couch-based gamers into real racers. It worked, too, with Academy graduates Jann Mardenborough and Lucas Ordonez going on to compete at the highest levels of motor racing, including the Le Mans 24hrs.

"What we'll hopefully see" says Maher, "is a return to the old days when top drivers, Jim Clark let's say, would be winning Grands Prix one weekend and then showing up at a local race the next, allowing up-and-coming drivers to measure their skills against the very best."

There are, in fact, outlets right now that will allow you to directly pitch your digital skills against top-line drivers. Formula E, the global electric single-seater racing series, already brings along to every race a phalanx of digital racing rigs. These aren't merely for gaming – during the actual race, they take live data from the cars and the track, and allow gamers to race directly against the top teams from Porsche, Audi, Nissan, and Jaguar in real time, directly following the action on the track.


Given that the sort of sponsorship money needed to run a top-line racing team will doubtless be fallow in the extreme in the coming months, and that racing comes regularly in for criticism for its carbon footprint (it’s not just the cars, it’s the planes that bring the cars and the team personnel all over the world) is there potential for digital racing to, eventually, take over from real, physical racing?

Maher, in spite of running a digital racing company, sincerely hopes not. "I'm a big F1 fan, and I'd never want to see that happen. I got into motor sports because my dad was a mechanic, and so I grew up around cars. In fact, it was my dad that gave my brother and I our first computer, and plug-in steering wheel, and we were upset because it wasn't a real car! I race an MX-5 myself, so I'd never want to see physical racing be replaced, but what we will see – and Formula One's Ross Brawn has said something along these lines – is that one will complement the other. It'll become as much a part of motor sports as data and telemetry right now.

"Actually, if you saw the recent documentary on the life of Juan Manuel Fangio on Netflix recently, I think that digital racing is kind of in a similar place right now. By which I mean, when Fangio was racing, the teams were almost family affairs. A few people working together to put a car on the track, often living in the same house together. Now, that has evolved into huge companies employing thousands, but the passion remains the same."

As for this being digital racing’s big moment? Maher is careful how he picks his words. “You can’t feel success when you know that people are suffering. That said, there are people out there right now doing really difficult things, and if they can come home in the afternoon, and switch off for an hour by racing against their friends online? By being part of that community? Well that has to be a good thing.”

What’s it like to switch from real to digital?

It’s one thing to play a video game with racing cars. It’s quite another, and a slightly eerie thing at that, to digitally drive a car you’ve been behind the wheel of in the real world, and on a digitised version of a race track that you already know well.

I know Mondello Park pretty well – I've been around its tight and tricky tarmac many times and in many cars. However, driving it digitally, in one of Digital Motorsport's simulators, set up in a suite overlooking the Mondello pitlane is another thing entirely.

I'm "driving" a BMW M4 coupe, a digital representation of a car I've literally just stepped out of in the real world. Just driven hard, and fast, around the actual, physical Mondello Park. So driving its digital cousin should be a piece of cake, right?

Well, not quite. Not quite in the sense that I’ve just wildly over-estimated my braking point for turn one, and I’ve understeered off into the gravel, thumping the car heavily into the tyre wall on the outside of the gravel trap. Just for the lawyers, I’ve NEVER done this in real life at Mondello, and certainly not with a €100,000 BMW. So why have I just done it in the sim?

“When you put someone who’s an experienced racer into the sim for the first time, they drive it as if they’re driving a real car” Maher tells me. “They drive gently for the first couple of laps, let the car ‘warm up’, figure out the nature of the track, and then they’ll probably come into the pits, and talk about setup. The best ones will ask how much power the virtual car has and how much it weighs, and at that point you’re thinking ‘wow, they’re taking this really seriously.’ Only then will they start trying to do proper racing laps.”

When it comes to cloggers such as myself, Maher says that it’s a combination of impatience and the specific setup of the gaming rig. “People can get exaggerated confidence in the sim, that’s true. But of course, you might have a setup on the sim that’s not quite the same in feel and feedback as the real car, so that changes things too. Now we can make adjustments and make it feel more real, but even so, even the best sim right now can’t replicate every feeling you get in the actual car.”

He’s not wrong, and I reckon that the most important feeling is one of fear. Sitting on the floor of the sim suite, I know that, no matter how accurate the physics engine, or the weighting of the steering’s resistance, I’m in no danger. Actually, really, hammering down the front straight at Mondello at 160km/h-plus, heading for that tight hairpin turn one, every single cell in my body knows damn well that it’s in danger, and my coward reflexes are never going to allow me to keep the throttle pinned more than is sensible. That, to me anyway, is the big difference – I know I can’t hurt myself in the sim.

That’s a minor issue for me, but a more serious one for real racers and sporting regulators. Indeed, there have been mutterings of late that some of the driving standards in racing are falling, simply because younger drivers are growing up with simulators and are assuming that what goes in the digital world also goes in the real world. They’re possibly forgetting that real life doesn’t come with a reset button.

Thankfully for me, the simulator does. So, appropriate buttons pressed, I’m magically and inexpensively back out of the gravel and screaming in a BMW banshee past the start-finish line. I could do this all day…

A session in the Virtual Race Academy at Mondello Park, once the lockdown has been lifted, will cost you €50 for 45 minutes, including qualifying and two 10-minute races.

The official F1 2019 game can be downloaded for PlayStation, Xbox, or PC for about €55