Confronted by a global pandemic, racing drivers have taken to doing their day jobs virtually. Fans have joined in with the simulator racing in a feel-good story during lockdown, and now the journalists have joined in too
Representing Formula Scout is Craig Woollard: reviving his own virtual career by venturing into Grand Prix Virtual World Championship (GPVWC), one of the longest-running sim racing organisations, and finding himself racing against personnel from the highest echelon of motorsport on rFactor 2, a programme used by many Formula 1 and Formula E teams.
Due to a lack of time brought on by the world as we knew it, I took a sabbatical from sim racing shortly before the conclusion of 2019. Until that point, there were few highlights. I had largely raced at club level at Realish Racing, while also venturing into simracing.club’s Virtual Le Mans Series – the feeder for its Virtual Endurance Championship where some of the absolute best racers take part. A sole class podium was the highlight, and that was achieved years ago.
Because time is now plentiful, the decision was made pretty quickly to dust off the Logitech G29 and get back behind the wheel. GPVWC, which started in 2000, was recommended as a place to get back into action against enormous grid sizes. It replicates the single-seater ladder effectively – and its entry-level Academy series was the place of choice for a debut.
There are five steps of the ladder – not too dissimilar to the real world’s route from Formula 4 up to F1 – with the Superleague at the very top incorporating management aspects, and the Academy Series at the bottom. Superleague Lights, Supercup and Formula Challenge also feature, with notable steps in performance and quality of competition in each step.
“We wanted to create something replicated in sim racing that was already alive and well and existing with the glorious racing management games in the past. The idea was to create something that merged these two aspects in sim racing,” explains Will Ponissi, Alfa Romeo Racing’s senior communications officer and owner of GPVWC.
“Think about GP Manager 2, Grand Prix World and so on. In the beginning, it wasn’t as complex as it is now in our top level, where you could only edit engine reliability and engine power as the only development. Over the years we have added new elements such as hospitality, logistics, car development, engine selection, like in F1 with limited parts. In the top level we’ve got this incredible level of complexity [including] hiring drivers and finances.
“Going lower down the ladder you’ve got the equivalent of Formula 2, Formula 3 and so on in which this complexity is no longer there – they are spec cars. We’ve got something that tries to replicate the actual ladder to F1 as much as possible.
“About the Academy, I think this is about the fourth or fifth year that we’ve had it. It started originally as an open series which was basically ‘arrive and drive’. No teams, just individual drivers. An opportunity to come in and drive without the commitment of a whole championship. It was mostly created to reply to an increase in demand. We had more people wanting to participate than teams that we had in the main series.
“We wanted to create something that was easily accessible, not too difficult and in time would allow people to showcase their talent. F3 cars are similar to the ones we use at the lowest level of our career ladder ‘Formula Challenge’ so the idea is if somebody tries these cars and competes in an Academy race, gets spotted by a team, then makes the jump into the ladder ideally at the lowest level, and then works his or her way up to the top. We’ve got an increasing number of girls competing.
“Now we actually have talent scouts acting as matchmakers between drivers that do well in the Academy series and then the teams in the career ladder. They’re trying to fill holes in teams that are missing drivers that in time provides this level of service and tries to promote new blood and new talent into the league.
“And it works well! It’s an overly subscribed series. At the latest race at [Polish circuit] Poznan we had 12 or 13 people that couldn’t race simply because we reached the limit of 40 cars. There is an incredible demand for this. It’s really successful and we’re trying to increase the opportunity for participation. The Poznan round was not originally in the calendar, it was an extra round that we’ve added just to provide an extra opportunity to give racing to people.”
Among this 40-strong field was FE world feed and BBC F1 commentator Jack Nicholls, F1 journalist Scott Mitchell, Ponissi, team members from two other F1 teams and myself.
“I took part because I want to get back into sim racing. I last raced at GPVWC back in 2013, so still know some of the guys running it, so it’s like my home online,” Nicholls, whose commentary career kicked off in Esports, told Formula Scout.
He wasn’t the only driver who had ended a long sabbatical due to real-world racing.
“It was the first time I had raced since 2012, I used to be a regular,” Ponissi said. “Since 2013 I have started working in F1 and so that has taken a lot of my time and also now with the level of competitiveness in the series unless you practice a lot and put in the effort you’re not going to be very competitive, so that’s why I stopped racing.
“I decided that since I had some time and everybody was doing sim racing, I bought myself a new computer in lockdown, I was like ‘you know, I want to try’. I want to compete again because I love the feeling. I love racing. I’m just not very good at it.”
Among the less experienced, in a sim racing sense, was Mitchell.
“Before I committed to making a career in journalism work, I was a wannabe racing driver,” he said.
“I raced karts at national level but never with a big budget, just my mum and dad working hard and making a lot of sacrifices. I lacked the ultimate ability as well as the funding to do anything more than that. But I’ve always loved driving as a result, and I’ve generally accepted that I’m never going to get into a position to compete regularly again. This is the cheapest way to change that!
“My setup, I think, is as basic as it can be without resorting to a controller. I’ve got a Logitech G920 wheel and pedals and a Playseat Challenge foldable seat. Well under £500. It’s great value, I can get close to the quickest guys so clearly not a major handicap. The wheel did come off the mount twice… I think it worked its way slightly loose from excessive use! Then it didn’t reattach properly.”
The car – based somewhat on the current Dallara F3 2019 – is pleasant to drive from the off. It’s easy to feel comfortable and gain an understanding of how it handles from the first few laps. It bit every time I pushed too hard – as to be expected. The set-up options are plentiful, while the nuances of rF2 mean that some otherwise odd set-up choices become the first things to change. It took a little while to find the several seconds I was missing, but by qualifying the gap to the front had dwindled.
Poznan is a nice little circuit. It is short, but features some nice, long, flowing corners, while also featuring some technical sections too. GPVWC placed a single DRS zone on the front straight, which fed into the massively fast opening turn.
Normally, qualifying 23rd sounds pretty dismal. In a grid of 40, that didn’t feel too bad. On pole position was Kyran Parkin – a former Realish team-mate of mine. He was 0.238 seconds ahead of anyone else, a huge margin comparatively. My own time was 1.576s off the pace during the short qualifying using a set-up provided ahead of the event refined to my own driving style, but there was definitely potential to be in the top 15 or so. It was a fairly satisfying session overall.
“The Academy race at Poznan was really something I wanted to do for fun since so many other Realish people were doing it too,” Parkin said. “I spent 1.5 hours getting the hang of the car on Monday night, then another couple of hours refining the set-up and my driving on race day. I was expecting to be fast but not pole and race win levels of fast! So that was a nice surprise.”
Parkin has been a sim racer for a number of years after being introduced to it by now-popular gamer Jimmy Broadbent. “I first picked up driving with a wheel and pedals in 2010, on games such as Gran Turismo 5 and F1 2010. I played those for a while but in mid-2011 Broadbent suggested I try rFactor, which I did and loved it. Spent a lot of time messing around in all sorts of car and track combinations all the way until October 2013, when I entered at GT3 round at Misano run by SROL.”
His career highlights to date include a Virtual Endurance Championship win, not to be sniffed at, and several Realish titles.
For myself, the 31-lap race was a total disaster. The start was cautious, which resulted in only picking up what spots I lost off the line when the inevitable chaos occurred in front with a grid of that size. From there, I found a train forming behind me, something not helped by Piotr Adamczyk trying overtakes into the fast corners. There was also a three-wide moment.
On lap six, it all started to fall apart. Running wide resulted in a damaged car and a spin that dropped me towards the rear of the pack. The next lap, I spun off with the DRS open while going over a crest and applying too much steering while not considering the lack of downforce. The resulting damage forced a pitstop. From there, I found myself chasing Mitchell, who had accidentally stopped for wet tyres after an incident of his own on lap one. I also found myself being lapped, a lot.
Later on, I came across Adamczyk again, who just lapped me but had then spun. I slowed down too late and launched him into space in spectacular fashion. That resulted in a second stop for damage.
The end result was 29th of 31 finishers, two laps down on winner Parkin. The race had featured two of my most embarrassing errors in sim racing, but it was a lot of fun. The car and track were enjoyable, and what racing I had was very enjoyable.
Nicholls felt his race should have been more fruitful than ninth place. “My race was poor! I make a lot of silly errors which dropped me back, I should have been about sixth I think with my pace, but I’m just very bad at making unforced errors.”
As a result of failing to win, Nicholls did not receive a congratulatory message from Dario Franchitti over the radio.
“Also, I only realised in the warm-up I would need to make a pitstop. It was fun racing with Mark [Singleton], but on the whole it was a lonely race. Two weeks before in Baku, I had much a more fun race with some battles, my race [here] was a little quiet.”
Parkin had his strategy planned well before the race. “Based on the high wear, especially front left, I figured that a tyre change was the way to go,” he explained. “No stops and driving conservatively was definitely possible but it sounded miserable.
“[It] felt odd having to go do a winner’s interview as the race was broadcast but it was satisfying. [Victory] doesn’t mean too much to me. I enjoyed the moment that evening and the next day, but I’m more concerned with other races coming up now. There were some fast people in the race, although several dropped out due to accidents or whatever. Szymon [Frelik, who finished 4.8s behind in second] ended up being the only real threat and I was able to hold him back without too much stress.
“Backmarkers were very well behaved too, being nice and predictable when yielding so I can’t fault the driving standards at all from my perspective. I guess it’s nice there were some ‘high-profile’ people there. Maybe if through some miracle I qualify for a FE Race at Home Challenge or The Race All-Star Esports Challenge round in the future, I’ll get recognised by Jack Nicholls…
“I’ll pass on Paul Ricard [the next round] as I personally find it to be a very underwhelming driving experience to put it nicely!”
Nicholls hopes his cameo leads on to more, time-permitting with his commentary commitments. “I’ve signed up for a BTCC-style championship and hoping to get a seat in the main series at GPVWC. Although then, commentating on four Esports events at the weekend might make me go a little crazy…”
Mitchell’s first appearance had a solid qualifying result of 13th, but he dropped to 28th in an eventful race. “I’m taking it as seriously as I can,” he explained. “I’m a horribly sore loser and I can’t just race for fun. I’ll test as much as my time allows and if I’m not within a second of the outright fastest I wouldn’t take part. It does increase the frustration because you put a lot of effort in and someone wipes you out, then it just feels shit. But having something competitive to throw myself into is amazing for my mental health.”
Talking of competitiveness, will Mitchell admit there’s a rivalry between the journalists on track?
“Absolutely. I don’t hate Jack Nicholls. I mega-loathe him. But when we are racing he is the last person I want to finish behind. I’m not a proper racing driver, I’m a journalist, so I need to beat the others, then I can at least count a class win.
“Without sounding too stupid, I think my background as a karter, occasional car racer and sporadic simulator user (proper motion sims, not online racing) has already given me a massive appreciation for the nuances of professional driving. I know what I can’t do and that just makes me respect top-line drivers more.
“That is definitely reinforced when you get into properly organised online racing and you see the depths of set-up changes that are available. It doesn’t even scratch the surface of F1, obviously, and that just makes it so clear how good the teams and drivers are at maximising everything.”
Unsurprisingly, no teams on the GPVWC career ladder have come calling for my services after a dismal debut. It’s evident that I am not Max Verstappen either on the simulator or in the real world. A lot more practice is definitely required for the next round, especially in wheel-to-wheel combat. At least I’m less likely to DRS myself into a barrier at Paul Ricard.
Watch Craig’s Esports exploits below, and click here for more of Formula Scout going racing – across a continent