19 Jun 20

Rowland and Mortara: Race track to sim rig in the Race at Home Challenge

What’s it like to jump into a sim rig, against a grid full of your on-track rivals, and go virtual with a full-on Formula E racing series? We caught up with sim rookies Oliver Rowland (Nissan e.dams) and Edoardo Mortara (Venturi) after their stellar efforts in the ABB Formula E Race at Home Challenge in support of UNICEF.

We’ve seen how Jann Mardenborough and Rudy van Buren made the jump into motorsport for-real, taking on simulator roles with Nissan e.dams and Mahindra Racing, respectively. So, it’s only fair that we ask Oliver and Edo how they found the leap from race track to sim rig.

Both were novices heading into the Race at Home Challenge two months ago. They’d been behind the wheel of their teams’ simulators but had only ever raced online for fun, if at all, in Rowland’s case.

Sim rookies!

“I’d literally done nothing before the Race at Home Challenge in sim racing,” said Rowland.

“I’ve obviously done a lot of sim work with Nissan e.dams in Formula E and a little bit of Formula 1 stuff in the past but I’d never raced online before.

“So, the first Formula E Race at Home round was really my first proper taste.”

“I have done it for fun with friends on some other motorsport games like iRacing before,” added Mortara. “I’ve had a rig for about three years, but I’ve not used it for any real length of time – just to have fun with mates.

“It’s quite different to the real thing. The feelings and sensations that you get when you’re strapped into a real car are different, naturally, to those you can get with a simulator – a wheel and pedals.

“However, it’s still pretty good training I believe, and the visuals are getting very, very good now. They’re extremely well developed, so you can get a feel that you’re driving the real thing.

“The behaviour of the cars themselves is also starting to become more realistic. The main thing that you miss with the sim is the feeling through your backside when you’re driving the car – that obviously can’t be done with a home sim-rig. You rely on visual feedback.

The Grand Final. A race to remember for Rowland!

“As racing drivers, we know the lines and trajectories and all of that kind of thing, so maybe it takes us a little less time to adapt than it would for someone picking the game up fresh.

“My competitiveness helped to! It’s really a matter of how much time you’re spending on the sim – you’ll improve as the competition goes on.

“You get to understand how to drive these cars. There are differences between the sim and reality. For example, in rFactor, you’re able to slide the car more than you would be able to in reality, so you have to adapt.”

Rowland agrees. The difference between real and virtual is evident mainly in the feel and feedback a driver would get through their body when strapped into their car.

“The circuits and the look and feel of the graphics are pretty accurate,” he added. “The car and physics model gets close but it’s not quite the same as driving the real thing.

“The biggest difference with all sim racing is that you only really get the visuals and the visual feedback. Whereas, in-car, you have the movement of the car, the feel and the way it moves around underneath you.”

On the pace

The pair both impressed, especially as the competition progressed, and they each adapted to the demands of rFactor 2 and their ultra-competitive real-world rivals.

Rowland was twice a winner, while Mortara scored strongly as the pair came home in third and fifth spots overall.

“I think I was close straight away, probably within three or four tenths-of-a-second off the top guys but they have a lot more experience than me with this kind of thing,” said the Brit. “I adapted pretty quickly initially, but those three or four tenths took some time.

“A lot of it was getting the settings with the brakes and pedals just right for me and whatever worked best on each particular track.

“In the last three races, I showed I was able to compete at the sharp end. I was a little frustrated at the start that I couldn’t be as quick as some of the other guys but I got my head down and worked hard.

“I would like to say I was one of the top four, initially. It seemed like Max (Guenther, BMW i Andretti Motorsport) was very strong initially but then faded a little bit.

“Pascal (Wehrlein, Mahindra Racing) and Stoffel (Vandoorne, Mercedes-Benz EQ) just kept getting stronger and stronger, quicker than the rest.

“The main difference was the gap between fourth and the rest seemed to shrink a lot as the series went on. It made mistakes in qualifying really show up.

“Throughout my career, I’ve tried a lot of different things and have needed to be adaptable, so that helped. I practiced a lot, and maybe I had more time to than some of the other guys – around three-four hours a day.

“I was annoyed at myself after Hong Kong because I practiced and felt really good but got caught in contact into the first corner.

“I’d put so much effort in to have it ruined in one corner, so this changed my practice routine. I started to do less, and funnily enough, this is when I got quicker!”


Broadening horizons

Aside from the on-track competition, the pair both enjoyed being able to offer fans something back during a lockdown, whilst supporting vulnerable families and children for UNICEF during the coronavirus pandemic.

The opportunity to reach a wider audience was also something both Mortara and Rowland appreciated – helping open up a sport that can be notoriously inaccessible to many and deliver a slice of the joy that racing brings them to many others.

It provided a rare chance for fans to engage with their heroes "face-to-face" during a race, where ordinarily they'd be cocooned in-car under their crash helmets with just a radio as a bridge to the outside world.

“For me, sim racing is about having fun with my friends and I really find the idea of engaging with fans with platforms like YouTube and Twitch really interesting,” said Mortara.

“In Formula 1, for example, some of the guys are really funny and it’s a good way to get involved with people that way. The more people you can reach, the better it is for us, and for motorsport in general.

“The genre is developing and the games are improving rapidly which is helping that. We have more realistic representations now than ever before.

"Sim racing gives people the opportunity to have the same feelings we have when we race and that’s fantastic.
“Everything we can do to help people have the chances we did and get to drive our cars is great, in my opinion.
"This is happening right now, and I’m sure it’ll get even better in the years to come."
Edo Mortara, Venturi

“It gives people the opportunity to have the same feelings we have when we race and that’s fantastic.

"Motorsport is not for everyone; it can be expensive and not so accessible.

“Everything we can do to help people have the chances we did and get to drive our cars is great, in my opinion.

"This is happening right now, and I’m sure it’ll get even better in the years to come.”

“It’s been great for the fans, giving them something to tune in to where they’d usually be watching us race in the stands or on TV,” echoed Rowland.

“It was a really good initiative to have it on TV and across channels like YouTube to give something back when there was little sport and no racing.

“I enjoyed it a lot. When I get the time, it’s something I’m going to keep on with for sure.”

Apply yourself, and practice

The advice for those looking to develop and get themselves out on to a race-track for-real? Apply yourself and, fingers crossed, opportunities may follow as the discipline develops.

“You have some very talented sim racers out there,” said Mortara. “I’ve raced against them and I know their passion. The level they’re at is absolutely incredible.

“Making the switch to real race cars is another thing, but I hope that some of the best get a chance to test or race with us in the future.”

“Sim racers could probably give me advice, more than anything else!” added Rowland. “If they were looking to make the transition to the track, it’s just about developing an understanding.

“They’ve clearly got the basics down on a simulator given how competitive and quick they are. So, it would just be about feeling and understanding how to translate that feel you get from the car into control and input.

“So, just like anything else, you need to apply yourself and put practice in. If you do that, it’ll come.”

Join Formula E and UNICEF in raising money to support children affected by coronavirus