18 Jun 20

Virtual reality: How Mardenborough and van Buren became racing pioneers

With ABB Formula E Race at Home Challenge Grid winner Kevin Siggy set to jump from sim-rig to Gen2 on a Formula E street circuit, we ask how those who've made the leap into the real world, made it work.

Formula E’s Race at Home Challenge in support of UNICEF allowed the series' community of teams, manufacturers, partners, drivers and fans to be a part of live online races while raising funds for UNICEF to keep children around the world healthy, safe and learning during the coronavirus crisis.

Over two months and eight rounds, the full Formula E grid competed in parallel with a Challenge Grid, comprising the best sim racing talent around, filtered out from the rest through a series of open qualifiers in order to make it through into the main event.

At the end of it all, only the fastest of those sim racers would earn the opportunity to make the transition from sim rig to race track with a drive in a Gen2 car at a Formula E street circuit.

That driver will be Kevin Siggy – the ice-cool 22-year-old Slovenian who stormed to the Challenge Grid crown and the grand prize.

How Siggy strode to Challenge Grid victory

Virtual reality

How easy is the transition and what does it take to make the jump from the virtual world into the physical one? Jann Mardenborough, Nissan e.dams’ simulator driver, is among those best-placed to answer that question.

He was one of the first to be given a chance behind the wheel of a full-fat racing car thanks to Nissan Europe, Sony Computer Entertainment Europe and the pioneering GT Academy project.

Created in 2008, GT Academy sought to provide a route for keen sim racers into professional motor racing via PlayStation’s Gran Turismo and Nissan’s Driver Development Programme.

“Looking back, it was a great opportunity to be a pioneer with Nissan and cross over from virtual to reality with GT Academy,” said Mardenborough, who fought off competition from tens of thousands of competitors across Europe to win its 2011 iteration.

“I think the program helped shine a light on e-racing and provided more people with the opportunity to enter motorsport.

“I found the transition was actually pretty simple. The most difficult process is retraining your brain to learn where to look when racing a real racing car.

“This was something which took a few months, working with my Silverstone and GT Academy mentors to really get on top of. It’s still something I'm perfecting to this day. Other things happened naturally with determination.”

Mardenborough Nissan e.dams 2

So successful was his transition to the race-track that Mardenborough has since enjoyed a career that is approaching a decade in length, which has seen him take to sportscars, the famous 24 Hours of Le Mans, Super GT and GP2 and GP3 Series – the junior championships that traditionally feed Formula 1.

Living the dream

Making a career of a passion has been a real dream ticket for the Brit, who now supports Nissan e.dams in Formula E as its simulator driver, following a successful stint for the outfit in the 2019 and 2020 Marrakesh Rookie Tests.

“I can only speak for myself, but real racing was always the childhood dream, so any opportunity that could present itself to me, I dived in,” he added.

“However, in Twitter debates, I have experienced other sim drivers not wanting to pursue a career in real motorsport but instead stick to sim racing. It's a case of different strokes for different folks!

“I’m enjoying the feeling of responsibility in providing feedback to the team both in the simulator and at the test in Marrakesh earlier in the year.

“In Formula E, it’s the race runs that get the priority of finding the fastest, most efficient way in the races, making the battery last combined with the regenerative settings.

“My role is to test new ideas, software and fine-tune the settings, so arriving at the track the team has a good baseline of what works before headed out on track.”

Nissan e.dams: Marrakesh Rookies

RVB!

Rudy van Buren is another sim star who has made the jump, with his breakthrough coming via the World’s Fastest Gamer competition, in which he beat 30,000 applicants to a McLaren simulator role for 2018, via an on-track showdown in real GT race cars.

The Dutchman, like Mardenborough, feels he made the transition look a natural one with a bit of hard work, self-belief and a sprinkling of karting know-how.

“Looking at the Race of Champions – competing against racers like David Coulthard and Tom Kristensen – which was the first thing I did straight after WFG, I made the leap pretty nicely!” he said.

“It’s tough, but as long as you’ve got the self-belief and just trust yourself then you can cope with anything the car throws at you.

“It won’t be the same for everybody but with my karting background and a bit of testing I did after that, I had enough of a baseline in my system, hidden somewhere, to be competitive.

“Seat-time is the most valuable thing. Whether you’re taking someone from the sim to the race track or vice-versa, it's key to get familiar with the car and its small quirks, as well as the overall procedures.”

Rudy van Buren Mahindra Racing

RACING AT HOME

The explosion in popularity of motorsport-focussed simulators and games across platforms and championships in the last year – accelerated with the lockdown restrictions imposed upon the real thing – has been pleasing to see for Mardenborough, having been there through the formative years.

“Race at Home has been great for keeping fans and drivers engaged in Formula E, and all for a good cause in support of UNICEF,” said Mardenborough.

“The level of competition improved at each round, and Oli (Oliver Rowland, his Nissan e.dams stablemate) did really well in the second half to take a couple of wins and a podium.

“Sim racing has gone from a being a topic that you'd only share with close friends to avoid ridicule, to a respected household term that everybody in motorsport recognises.

“You can now make a career out of it. During GT Academy times, this wasn't possible.

“I’m hoping more will follow, for the pure sim driver-only to racing driver like me, however, nearly every young kid in karting is on a simulator now to aid in their development.

“There’s always room for improvement with the software - what has improved is the quality of the equipment to mimic the real-life counterparts.”

Finding the balance

Mardenborough feels sim racing is a strong means of bringing the fans even closer to the sport but with the increasing standards and stakes, separating the raw emotion brought about by competition can cause difficulties.

“There’s a huge opportunity to engage with fans on Twitch and other platforms, and I’ve done that recently with the current situation in the world. However, I’ve stopped recently as it isn't perfect.

“The racing is virtual, but the feeling and emotion is real while racing online. Perhaps the world isn't ready for the raw emotions that come out to the world live while racing, even if they're the same emotions as real life, but they aren't always broadcast with your helmet on.

“Maybe there will be a solution down the line. For me, if it’s a race, it’s a competition. So, my focus is predominantly on that.”

Van Buren echoes Mardenborough, with sim racing becoming work, though a recent shift towards seeing real-life racers join the fold in mixed sim racer/racing driver grids has meant he can enjoy more and practice less – all while racing against some of the sport’s most legendary names.

Balance, for him, is key to expanding the audience and growing e-racing’s popularity yet further – not losing sight of the fun to be had and sterilising the discipline amid the rise of the pro sim racer.

“I joined sim racing when it was still in its infancy; that would be 12 years ago by now. Back then it was just a case of simply going online with the bad internet connection and all the usual problems, but it was still possible to race with other people.

Mardenborough Nissan e.dams

“If you look at sim racing now, it’s a mainstream Esport with more TV coverage and media profiling than ever before. It’s taken a huge step forward in the years that I’ve been active.

“When I won the title of WFG in 2017, I took a step back from a lot of sim racing stuff. It became my work rather than my hobby. I was competing in Formula E, Formula 1 plus Formula 2 and 3. I was doing it left, right and centre.

“I wasn't getting much of a chance to do it at home just for fun. With the global pandemic, there has been an expectation for me to take part in everything again and being totally honest, I was a bit worried about trying to fit that amount of sim time in again.

“You hear more and more about drivers taking a break for a few months or stopping completely because they’ve been flooded with requests, which means the hobby aspect has been lost in the process and some of the fun has been taken away.

"Some of the top real-world racers are sim racing and having fun - enjoying themselves and engaging with fans - I think that’s the right balance. It’s key to keep it light and fun and perform in the moments where you need to."

“It’s great that there’s so much attention, and the sport now has the credit it deserves, but with so many organisations wanting to be involved, particularly at the moment, there is a lot more pressure on sim racers.

“Luckily for me, things have changed now, where organisers only open set-up one day prior to the event to stop everyone being able to practice for seven days a week as the real-life racers couldn’t commit the time.

“Racing against some of those names over the past few months has been really cool. I had a moment two weeks ago where I had Mario Andretti on the phone to me for tricks and tips around an oval circuit. Those sorts of things are really cool.

“Of course, you have the races where you need to be super serious and prepare really well for, but there should also be a very big part where you do it for a hobby, for enjoyment.

“A lot of guys like (Formula 1 drivers) Lando Norris and Charles Leclerc are clearly enjoying themselves and not particularly focused on the results if they’re engaging with the fans when they’re not racing.

“They’re having fun and that’s the right balance. It’s key to keep it light and fun and perform in the moments where you need to.”

Formula E Race at Home Challenge

INTO THE SIMULATOR

Van Buren, like Mardenborough, now finds himself racking up the virtual miles as a simulator driver for a Formula E team, as part of Mahindra Racing’s team effort – something he’s incredibly proud of.

“Becoming part of Mahindra felt like a big new challenge. Everything was done in a way that I wasn’t used to.

“But, it is incredible to be part of the Mahindra Racing Formula E team and although it’s still something fairly new to me, I feel like I’m getting stronger at it.

“Essentially, you’re a back-up and support at the factory. The drivers and team do all the work trackside and look at any changes on the track, weather conditions and car set-up.

“You’re constantly correlating whatever they do at the race track in the sim. The better you can do with the sim set-up, then the better prepared the team is for the race.

“It’s an on-going process and sometimes you need to play around with energy maps and take an out-of-the-box strategy. Most of the time, that’s last-minute stuff in the sim to see if you can unlock some extra potential. 

“I can’t wait to drive the real thing. I think it will benefit and push the whole programme on even more because I will be able to develop the simulator by applying learnings once I’ve driven the real thing.”

Commit, and give it a go

For anybody hoping to follow van Buren, Mardenborough and now Siggy, the advice from the guys that have been there and done it is simple – be committed and give it a go.

“Get a wheel and get driving because you’re going to need a lot of hours to be competitive,” said van Buren.

“Ask yourself if you are ok with dropping everything and not letting anything get in the way of racing and constantly looking at yourself on how to improve your craft? If so, you may have a chance,” added Mardenborough.

Catch the ABB Formula E Race at Home Challenge in support of UNICEF  highlights