The next generation of race car drivers started out as gamers

Hyper-realistic driving games and hardware that mimic the sensation of hurtling around a track have made it possible to race a proper car with minimal experience.
racing helmet
tk The Voorhes

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James Baldwin’s confidence overtakes his ability midway through his fourth lap of Silverstone Circuit. The track, home to the British Grand Prix and among the most famous in racing, features a tricky series of sweeping curves best approached with a delicate balance of gas and brakes. Baldwin, however, attacks them at 110 miles per hour, risky given the damp morning’s freezing cold. His tires skate across the slick pavement and he careens onto the grass. After hitting the brakes, he cranks the shuddering steering wheel to the left, turning into the skid. The car skitters for several seconds and just misses a wall, but the move arrests his slide and gets him pointed the right way. Baldwin exhales, downshifts, and roars back onto the track. Within moments he reaches 110 again for the sprint down a short straight, then heads into the next turn. Chastened, he takes this one at a more prudent velocity.

The 22-year-old Brit watches this drama not through the visor of a helmet, but on the screen of a racing simulator. Baldwin is among the best esports drivers in the world, one of several dozen who earn a living competing in the digital domain. Now he’s preparing for his professional motor-sports debut on a bona fide road course.

Baldwin earned his shot a few months earlier, when he won the second season of World’s Fastest Gamer, a reality television series that saw 10 would-be Mario Andrettis compete for the chance to go wheel-to-wheel with seasoned pros. They raced on virtual and physical asphalt and dirt tracks and faced a series of challenges designed to test their problem-solving and leadership skills. When filming started in October 2019, Baldwin hadn’t done much more real-world driving than tooling around town. Fourteen days later, he crossed the finish line at Las Vegas Motor Speedway doing more than 130 miles per hour in a machine he called “fast enough to be scary.”

That isn’t as foolhardy as it might sound. Hyper-realistic driving games and hardware that mimic the sensation of hurtling around a track have made it possible to go racing with minimal experience in a proper car. Research suggests that the skills needed to master titles like Gran Turismo or Forza apply to competing in events like the 24 Hours of LeMans, one of the most grueling contests in motor sports. Baldwin now joins a handful of sim hotshots who have made that jump, something you don’t see in other sports, says Darren Cox, who launched World’s Fastest Gamer after a career in the auto industry. He notes that people who excel at, say, playing soccer on their Xbox aren’t going to find themselves appearing in the World Cup. “You can’t kick a ball around in FIFA and become the next Ronaldo,” he says.

The line between the virtual and real worlds began to blur in 2008, when Cox launched GT Academy, a TV program that turned gamers into drivers. When the show’s inaugural winner went on to finish second at LeMans in 2011, Formula One, Nascar, and other leagues started paying attention. Several have since joined the automakers that compete in them to launch online teams and tournaments in a bid to attract new drivers and, more importantly, fans. Many involved see gamers crossing over in greater numbers within the decade.

Not everyone believes the next champions will emerge from the world of esports, however. Skeptics argue that the physical and mental demands—let alone the inherent feel for the machinery—needed to compete at the upper echelons require experience, not simulation.

Baldwin is determined to prove them wrong. After winning his shot, he started working with a coach to hone the skills to handle the 700-odd-horsepower McLaren he’ll drive throughout Europe sometime in 2020. As he clocked hours in the simulator and miles around Silverstone, the COVID-19 pandemic put the date of his debut on hold. Nonetheless, Baldwin will spend the intervening time enduring an arduous schedule of workouts to prepare his body—and mind—for the challenges ahead. “This has been my dream since I was a kid,” he says. “Because of my esports experience over the last couple of years, I believe I will be able to compete at a very high level in the real world.”

James Baldwin standing in front of a McLaren
Esports ace James Baldwin with the ­McLaren he’ll drive in his live racing debut. The Voorhes

On a bright, clear morning in November 2019, Baldwin and three other finalists on World’s Fastest Gamer stood on the pavement of Las Vegas Motor Speedway. The circuit, 20 minutes northeast of the Strip, has seen Nascar drivers approach 200 mph, but no one had any illusions of reaching such a number during the 22-minute dash that would determine the show’s grand prize winner. Moments later, Baldwin pulled a helmet over his spiky blond hair and folded himself into a sleek fiberglass-bodied racer called a Mitjet EXR LV02.

The pack sprinted away from the starting line. Californian Mitchell de Jong led for two laps before Baldwin squeaked by. He ruthlessly built a 10-second lead—forever in auto racing—by the time the checkered flag waved. Cox congratulated him as he climbed from the cockpit, sweaty and elated. “We’ve just watched a group of kids, most of whom had never raced a car in their lives, get into a superfast sports car and dominate this track after just two weeks of practice,” Cox said.

Baldwin began training for his big-time debut two months later. He started at Brands Hatch Circuit, near London, before switching to Silverstone. The track is not far from where he grew up watching Formula One, the pinnacle of motor sports. At an age when most kids learn to ride a bike, he begged his mother and father to let him take up karting, often the first step toward a career as a throttle jockey. As hobbies go, it’s not cheap—a few thousand for a decent machine, and, at the uppermost levels, as much as six figures in expenses each season. Still, they relented, and over the next several years Baldwin did well enough to move up in 2015 at age 17 to a larger, more powerful ride in the Formula Ford division. He entered four events in six months, compiling a decent record but spending $20,000 doing it. “My parents were like, ‘We have to stop now,’” he recalls after a session in the simulator at the track.

Baldwin switched to playing the racing sim Project Cars in his bedroom when he wasn’t in a classroom studying engineering. The title is among the most popular in a genre that dates to 1974, when people used to drop quarters into Atari’s Gran Trak 10 arcade game, which featured a genuine steering wheel, shift lever, and pedals. Despite the realistic hardware, the experience was more Mario Kart than Indy 500. That remained the norm until the mid-1990s and the debut of seminal titles like Gran Turismo, Grand Prix Legends, and others that featured lifelike physics, environments, and driving techniques.

The rise of online gaming in the early 2000s has allowed players to compete against each other, more like they would on the track. Dabblers get by with consoles like the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, but hardcore competitors often favor computers with peripherals like a steering wheel, shifter, pedals, and seat. “Once I transitioned to a more realistic simulator, not only did I get faster, but I had more fun,” Baldwin says.

He started entering tournaments and in 2018, at age 20, joined Veloce Esports, a gaming team in London. He quit school, and within a year ranked among the world’s top competitors in Project Cars 2, prompting Cox to offer him a spot on World’s Fastest Gamer.

Cox grew up wanting to try karting, but turned to video games because his parents couldn’t afford it. He studied politics and economics in college before going to work for Renault and then Nissan, where he led its global competition operation. The automaker launched a marketing campaign with Gran Turismo in 2006, and Cox invited aficionados of the game to lap a track with professional drivers. “Some of the instructors came up to me after and said, ‘You know, a bunch of these guys can really drive,’” he says. “That was my light bulb moment.” Seeing a chance to cultivate talent and attract new racing fans, in 2008 Cox launched GT Academy, an unprecedented television series in which Gran Turismo players competed for a seat on Nissan’s racing team. The show, filmed in Britain, ran for eight seasons, aired in 160 countries, and drew 100 million viewers at its peak.

fuzzy controllers hanging from mirror
A new generation of drivers are getting their start on consoles instead of racecars. The Voorhes

It also launched several careers—impressive, given that most contestants had never climbed behind the wheel of anything faster than the family hauler. The show’s first winner, Lucas Ordoñez of Spain, has since competed in 112 events and racked up 21 top-three finishes, including two at LeMans. Jann Mardenborough earned his driver’s license just two years before winning season three. Nissan spent six months preparing the Brit for the 2011 24H Dubai endurance race, where his team placed third. He’s been at it ever since. “The transition from the virtual to the real world felt completely normal,” says Mardenborough, who now competes with Kondo Racing in the Japanese Super GT series. “Being a 19-year-old at the time probably helped; I didn’t have the self-preservation part of my brain telling me to back off.”

The pivot could not have come at a better time. Formula One saw viewership in Britain, where most teams are based, plummet 24 percent between 2018 and 2019. Nascar has lost more than half of its live and TV audience since 2014. The sport is on a “constant quest” to counter declining viewership, and “esports presents an intriguing opportunity to access a potentially valuable new demographic,” according to a 2017 report by Nielsen analysts. The tactic worked for soccer. A 2016 University of Michigan study cited the success of the FIFA game franchise as a factor in the sport’s surging popularity in the US.

In 2015, Cox founded his own outfit, which joined the Canadian firm Torque Esports in 2017. One year later, he launched World’s Fastest Gamer. The first season aired on ESPN and CNBC. Some 400 million people tuned in, and Rudy van Buren of the Netherlands won the grand prize: a job as a simulation driver for McLaren Racing, helping perform virtual tests of its Formula One cars. Impressive, but Baldwin will face the ultimate challenge of driving a McLaren 720S GT3 for Jenson Team Rocket RJN in the 2020 GT World Challenge endurance championship series. “Of course people in recent years have been on a similar journey, going from esports into the real world, but no one has gone in at the level of racing we are,” Baldwin says. “I am determined to show what is possible.”

Given Baldwin’s resolve to prove he can handle a $600,000 carbon-fiber rocket on wheels, it is perhaps ironic that he still spends much of his time in a simulator. But then, so do many pros. Teams at every level rely on the machines, which can cost as much as eight figures, to precisely replicate navigating any course, in any conditions. They allow drivers to acquaint themselves with a car or track and help engineers analyze vehicle performance. The technology is so precise that it has in many cases largely replaced expensive physical testing.

That explains why Baldwin’s training relies so heavily on it. If he isn’t in his rig at home, he is squeezed into the form-fitting seat of a simulator built by Allinsports, an Italian firm founded by a former Formula One engineer. His hands grip a steering wheel flanked by gearshift paddles (the computerized controls long ago replaced conventional stick shifts), and his feet depress gas and brake pedals. His eyes rarely leave the curved 48-inch screen before him. The hardware, about the size of a recliner, sits in the corner of a conference room overlooking Silverstone.

An off-the-shelf program called rFactor 2 allows Baldwin to experience nearly any circuit in the world, in any of dozens of cars. He can adjust his ride’s suspension, tune its engine, even customize the paint job. The software models factors like the damage tires sustain in a skid and how traction varies as the rubber wears and pavement conditions change. The system uses these calculations to provide surprisingly tactile feedback. The steering wheel shudders and vibrates, the brake pedal demands a firm push, and, like the McLaren he’ll drive, everything requires a deft touch to avoid a stall or spin.

James Baldwin practicing in a racing simulator
James Baldwin practicing in a racing simulator. The Voorhes

Evidence suggests the skills Baldwin has honed in the digital realm will serve him well as he crosses over. Cognitive psychologists at New York University Shanghai and the University of Hong Kong showed that gamers are much better than other people at processing visual information and acting on it. They also found that driving sims can help anyone “significantly improve” those abilities in just five to 10 hours, leading the researchers to believe that such software could be effective training tools. Their 2016 study builds on work by Daphne Bavelier and Adrien Chopin, cognitive neuroscientists at the University of Geneva and the Sorbonne in Paris, respectively; their 2012 inquiry revealed that playing titles that feature highly dynamic situations and demand rapid decision-making can improve perception, attention span, and spatial cognition. Chopin has little doubt that esports players can become racers, given the authenticity of the vehicles, environments, and controllers. “Because of these characteristics, it is essentially the same task,” he says. “What you learn in the game should be transferable.”

Still, Baldwin knows he must hone his abilities through real-world experience. He’s lapped Silverstone in several cars, learning how to handle them at racing speeds. (So far he’s achieved 170 mph.)

This past March, he spent two days zipping around Circuit Paul Ricard in France in the McLaren. “The team was very happy with my performance,” he says. “They said my pace and consistency were great. And I didn’t crash, which was a massive tick in the box for them.” Naturally, he crammed for that test by driving a virtual version. Still, Baldwin concedes there are some things a simulator can’t prepare him for. “A real car is hot, it’s sweaty, it vibrates,” he says. “It sounds silly, but you don’t actually realize this until you get in and start driving.”

Beyond heat and noise, gamers have a lot to learn. They often miss subtle signals from the tires and suspension that can help them go faster and avoid problems, says Ross Bentley, a coach who has trained them. And while esports drivers possess excellent reflexes, concentration, and hand-eye coordination, they often lack the fitness long stints at speed require, says Mia Sharizman of Renault Sport Academy, the automaker’s driver recruiting program. During a race, competitors can lose several pounds, experience as much as five times the force of gravity, and endure heart rates as high as 170 beats per minute. “You need to be able to have core and neck strength to withstand the extreme G-forces, leg strength for the braking, and, most importantly, mental fortitude to be able to function while knowing that your life is at risk,” Sharizman says. “It’s extremely difficult to replicate that type of scenario and environment.”

Fortunately, Baldwin has some appreciation of this from his childhood racing experience. He’s working with Simon Fitchett, who has spent seven years training Formula One drivers, to prepare his body and further sharpen his concentration. “It’s hard to focus my mind sometimes,” he says. But the greatest challenge may lie in mastering fear, something Juan Pablo Montoya, whose long career includes stints in Formula One and Nascar, saw competitors struggle with while he was a judge on World’s Fastest Gamer. “A fast corner in a simulator is nothing. You press a button and you try and you try until you get it right,” he says. “When you’re doing 150 or 180 miles per hour on a track in a corner and you have to keep your foot down, the reality sets in. That’s when you’re going to start seeing the difference between the guys who can make it in reality and the guys who can only make it in esports.”

Baldwin will face that test when he finally rolls up to the starting line at Brands Hatch Circuit outside London, fulfilling a childhood dream. He has no doubt he’ll pass. “As long as I’m finishing first,” he says, flashing a cheeky grin, “then it should all be good, right?”

This story appeared in the Summer 2020, Play issue of Popular Science.