Ferrari Formula 1 star Charles Leclerc is a big believer in sim racing as a sport, pointing to the tensions and passions in virtual racing as the ‘drug’ that lures drivers to race be it in the real world or on monitors in every corner of the globe.
Since lockdown became the new normal, sim racing has boomed with he likes of Max Verstappen, Lando Norris, George Russell, Alex Albon and Leclerc leading the way with streams of their sim racing adventures which gave the esport a huge, much-needed boost in terms of credibility while enticing an older generation of drivers to the world of virtual racing.
These days just about every racing driver on the planet is sim racing when time permits. With real race drivers – current day legends – the benchmark for all pretend racers to follow and a pecking order to fit into.
As one of the frontrunners in promoting sim racing through his streaming, Leclerc was tapped up by Gazzetta Motori in the wake of Ferrari announcing their 2021 esport line-up and programme.
Asked if he would be involved on the simming side of things at Maranello in between driving the Ferrari SF21 in the longest season of F1, Charles replied: “I would certainly like to be involved but a lot will depend on the commitments relating to the Formula 1 season that is about to begin.
“Also considering that the calendar could change at any moment due to the Covid emergency. If there is the opportunity to do so, I will be very happy to participate.”
There are simulators and there are ‘simulators‘ such as the multi-million dollar ones F1 teams use to correlate data between their real-life car and the virtual one; extreme pieces of kit which teams hide secretly and are known to be in a constant state of development and refinement.
Asked to compare that to his rig at home, Charles explained: “Compared to even only a decade ago, the difference is no longer abysmal thanks to steering wheels and pedals capable of reproducing high-level effects but also large screens and simulation software that seems to be anything but simple games.
“The technological gap will be impossible to eliminate, apart from the costs, other factors come into play, such as the space available that we have here at Ferrari to build an experience that is immersive for us and allows us to develop the car at its best. The feeling is however now very similar.”
As for his approach to real racing and virtual, he ventured: “If we talk about driving technique, they are two essentially different things, even if only for the fact that the driving position and the setup of a steering wheel and pedals of the real Formula 1 car are difficult to reproduce.
“If instead, we consider the mental approach it is just like the real one, I realized that when I lined up for the important online races just to win them.
“If you prepare yourself properly to face high-level opponents, you will dedicate that kind of commitment to training which then leads you to develop the competitive tension and concentration necessary to obtain the maximum in terms of performance.
“The intensity is clearly lower because in simracing there is no risk component, but the tension of a grid, even if virtual, is felt.”
While sim racing as an esport is booming relative to what it was a year ago, the reality is that shoot’em ups and fantasy games are way more popular and appealing to the masses.
Leclerc explained why: “I think the reasons are essentially two. The first is that the general public has not yet perceived how advanced the technology that underlies the simulated driving experience is, and for this reason it is struggling to approach this world.
“Then there is the time and dedication necessary to emerge in an incredibly competitive esports category: talent is not enough, you have to work really hard and daily to get to compete with the best, like the drivers we expect to find in our Ferrari Esport Series.”
Increasingly sim racing has become a platform for drivers to become noticed. Indeed several drivers who have excelled in sim racing have gone on to make careers of racing in the lower echelons of the sport.
With karting and junior racing not only threatened by the coronavirus landscape and exorbitant costs, sim racing is also becoming an effective way for real race drivers to stay sharp and relevant while allowing talent to shine in the ever-growing coverage of the esport.
Which leads to the final question: Will it ever be that one day an F1 team hires a driver bred on sim racing?
“If the talent, skills and dedication to work are there, why not?” said Charles.