Changing lanes: Virtual racing revs into high gear

Naquib led the Sem9.Axle Sports team to fourth place at the 24 Hours Le Mans Virtual. — Handout

The Covid-19 pandemic may have fast-tracked the mainstream appeal of sim racing as popular motorsport competitions or series started organising their own initiatives.

In 2020, the F1 Esports Virtual Grand Prix was announced following the postponement of the real-life racing season due to the pandemic where racers competed in the F1 2019 game developed by Codemasters. In a statement, F1 said the Virtual Grand Prix drew over 30 million viewers across TV and digital platforms during the lockdown period.

The event saw the participation of 11 drivers and other sports personalities, such as former Manchester City footballer Sergio Aguero, also contributed to the popularity of the sport by streaming the events from home. In the end, Williams F1 driver George Russell, 23, was crowned the Virtual Grand Prix champion. It was reported that Russell had never tried sim racing prior to the Virtual Grand Prix and didn’t have a rig setup but he made up for it with practice.

Russell said the Virtual Grand Prix was a great initiative to keep the racers occupied during the lockdown.

“It’s kept the competitive side of us busy and interested. I put a lot of hard work and effort in and I’m glad I’ve got some good results to show for it,” he said in a statement released by F1. A new season was subsequently announced for 2021 where 10 teams competed for a charity prize fund.

TechCrunch reported that the virtual version of Nascar or eNascar, which was launched in March 2020, also saw an increase in viewership during the pandemic where the drivers compete on the iRacing platform. In the same year, the 24 Hours Of Le Mans – an endurance race – also moved to the rFactor 2 virtual platform, where racers can experience real-life elements such as change in weather conditions and pit stops for repairs in case of any damage.

Growing prospects

Malaysian sim racer Naquib Azlan, 21, started competing professionally in 2020. He shared that his daily routine includes two hours of practice time daily on his rig at home.

“It is just like real life racing because the fundamentals, mental challenges and preparations are the same. You just have more flexibility and possibility to explore and practice because with real life racing, you are limited by time and money,” he shared.

Recently, Naquib came in first at eRacing GP under the SEA eSports Championship which concluded on Jan 9, 2022, where he took home a prize of US$2,000 (RM8,378) from the US$10,000 (RM41,890) prize pool. On Jan 16, he also led the Sem9.Axle Sports team into fourth place at the 24 Hours of Le Mans Virtual. The same event saw the participation of F1 world champion Max Verstappen who crashed out of the race after he lost control of his vehicle.

“It was intense. We spent a whole month practising where we were driving for up to three hours a day. It feels surreal to beat an F1 champion. I guess all the practice really helped us,” he said.

For an endurance race like Le Mans, Naquib shared his strategy that includes factoring in bathroom breaks: “You get 50 seconds to break and you have to be really quick. Otherwise, you’re just focused on the race. At the end of the challenge, I weighed myself and found that I lost 2kg.”

He adds that for each competition, racers are expected to adapt to different platforms or gaming titles.

“Every single game has their own features so jumping from one sim to another provides a steep learning curve,” he said.

Naquib is positive about the growing popularity of sim racing in Malaysia and beyond. Recently, he along with other sim racers Nabil Azlan and Alister Yoong signed with Sem9, a local esports organisation that houses teams like Sem9.Gank (PUBG Mobile) and recently-acquired Berjaya Dragons for League Of Legends: Wild Rift.

“I feel very lucky to be signed to Sem9 which is an esports team. It’s a good sign when sim racers have more chances to compete professionally. I think more people are starting to see sim racing as an interesting sport that they can get into,” he said.

Naquib admitted that getting into sim racing is costly as the driving rigs needed to practice and compete can fetch up to six-figures for set up, adding that passion is the key to success with sim racing.“As long as you see yourself taking the sport seriously then that’s the perfect way to start,” he said.

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