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Fearless esports racers blur lines between games and the real thing

The Guardian logo The Guardian 22/01/2019 Andy Bull
Enzo Bonito broke new ground in Mexico © Getty Enzo Bonito broke new ground in Mexico

Last Saturday afternoon a 23-year-old Italian called Enzo Bonito won a car race at the Foro Sol in Mexico City, and when he did it, motorsport shifted, just a little bit, towards a strange new future. Bonito was competing in the Race of Champions (RoC), racing head-to-head in a heat against Lucas di Grassi, a 34-year-old who won the Formula E championship just a couple of seasons back. And then, just to prove it wasn’t a fluke, Bonito did it again the next day. This time he beat the 2012 Indycar champion Ryan Hunter-Reay. The thing is, Bonito is a sim racer. He learned everything he knows from playing computer games.

“It wasn’t much of a surprise for me at all, if I’m honest,” says Ben Payne, who is the director of esports at McLaren. “But I know it raises eyebrows for a lot of other people.” McLaren are investing a lot of time, effort and money in esports. Bonito is part of their team, along with Rudy van Buren, who won three races at last year’s RoC, in Riyadh. Van Buren was working as a kitchen salesman when he won McLaren’s World’s Fastest Gamer competition, which earned him a year-long job as their simulator driver. Later this year, Payne says, Van Buren will likely make the switch from being a virtual racing driver to a real racing driver.

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“If you or I are amazing at Fifa, that doesn’t mean we’re going to grace the FA Cup final any time soon and the same is true for most esports,” Payne says. “Just because you’re good at NBA2K doesn’t mean you’re going to get to play for the Boston Celtics. But sim racing is different. The skills are all so transferable. These guys know the tracks and they know the cars, they know the braking points, the gear changes, the apex points. They’ve spent as much time training how to race these cars in the virtual world as anybody else has in the real world. And that’s why they are taking names at RoC.”

Driver Enzo Bonito competes for the Sim Racing team during the Race of Champions Nations Cup in Foro Sol in Mexico City, Saturday, Jan. 19, 2019. The Race of Champions is being held for the first time in Latin America.  (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell) © ASSOCIATED PRESS Driver Enzo Bonito competes for the Sim Racing team during the Race of Champions Nations Cup in Foro Sol in Mexico City, Saturday, Jan. 19, 2019. The Race of Champions is being held for the first time in Latin America. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)

Van Buren’s backstory is a little different to Bonito’s though. Van Buren used to kart race when he was a kid. He was the Dutch national champion in 2003 but he stopped when he was 16 because he couldn’t afford to keep it up. Bonito, on the other hand, really has done most of his racing on a computer, at a wooden table, with a regular old chair. He got behind the wheel of a real racing car for the first time in 2018 at last year’s RoC. “I’m not going to lie,” Bonito said back then, “at first jumping into the car was a bit terrifying. But it went better than I thought.” No joke. That same week he got within 0.4sec of beating Petter Solberg, the two-time world rallycross champion.

Last week McLaren held their shadow project grand finals, a competition to find the world’s best sim racers. They had more than 500,000 entrants. The final seven came to the UK to compete across a week of trials. On the Tuesday McLaren let them each loose in a 570S GT4 for 150 laps around the Top Gear test track in Dunsfold. “You do cross your fingers as they drive off,” Payne says, “but we didn’t have so much as a spin, really, and it was a bit greasy in the morning too.” One of the competitors, Ebrahim Almubarak, had never even driven a real sports car before. In his online profile he admitted he doesn’t have a favourite driver because he’s never actually watched any races “but on social media in recent years I have been hearing a lot about Lewis Hamilton, Fernando Alonso and Sebastian Vettel”.

MEXICO CITY, MEXICO - JANUARY 19: Enzo Bonito of Italy walk with his flag during the Parade of Nations before the Nations Cup at the Race of Champions on Day 2 at Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez on January 19, 2019 in Mexico City, Mexico. (Photo by Humberto Romero/Getty Images) © 2019 Humberto Romero MEXICO CITY, MEXICO - JANUARY 19: Enzo Bonito of Italy walk with his flag during the Parade of Nations before the Nations Cup at the Race of Champions on Day 2 at Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez on January 19, 2019 in Mexico City, Mexico. (Photo by Humberto Romero/Getty Images)

When the telemetry data from those laps came back McLaren’s analysts reckoned the best of the drivers were racing at a similar sort of level to someone who’d spent a couple of years in F3. Which isn’t a surprise, because the winner, Igor Fraga, was a karting champion who had a class win in Formula 3 Brazil in 2017. This year, Payne says: “Igor will potentially have opportunities in a real car at McLaren.” Fraga is one of a generation of drivers who are adept at both forms of the sport.

Payne admits you can’t learn everything about real racing from a computer screen. The physical sensations, the fatigue, and the feel of the thing, the way it flows through your body, for instance, or, more than either of those, the fear. There’s no jeopardy in computer racing where you can always hit the reset button and start again. “Jenson Button once said that the fear factor is the biggest difference,” Payne says. “But when we put these guys in the cars they aren’t showing any fear because they know what they are doing. They’ve done thousands of laps on these tracks. I think they should be scared, we all think they should be scared, but they have such confidence in their ability.”

Impressive as Bonito’s victories were last Saturday, the RoC is still a world away from competing in F1. Not everyone is convinced real racing and virtual racing will ever entirely converge. But McLaren are. They say they are democratising the sport, and sim racing is surely a cheaper, and more readily accessible, way in to it than karting. “We think the future of esports is as big and bright as we want to make it,” Payne says. He points out that McLaren’s CEO Zak Brown recently said that he thinks in the next decade there will be an F1 champion who’s come from a gaming background as opposed to a karting background. The line between what’s real and what’s virtual, Payne says, is getting blurrier by the day.

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