My experience in a major esports race

My experience in a major esports race

rFactor 2

Having never driven on a PC simulator or rFactor 2 until the day before, I was invited to participate in a major sim racing event. Here’s how that went down!

Image credit: RCCO

Around a month ago, on 23 November, I participated in the RCCO World eX finale around the Nürburgring. I first covered the series heading into Round 5 and interviewed series organiser Mike Rockenfeller in the leadup to the finale.

Back in March before I was with OverTake and writing just for fun with a website called ThePitCrewOnline, Rockenfeller was kind enough to invite me to do a Zoom call. I couldn’t quite believe it really, that the 2010 24 hours of Le Mans winner and 2013 DTM champion was inviting an amateur writer like me to a video call. It felt too good to be true. Thankfully though, it wasn’t and I listened to what he had to say and decided to write a preview piece on PitCrew.

Fast forward a couple of months and I’ve joined OverTake, I covered the season up until that point and maintained my close contact with RCCO. Heading into Round 8, I approached Rockenfeller’s founding partner Thomas Voigt to inquire about conducting a formal interview with Rocky, he accepts and follows that up with “Would you be interested in a wild card entry for one of the remaining races?”. I had to double take when I first saw that, because I couldn’t quite believe it.

Full disclosure, I had never driven rFactor 2 before. I don’t even have a PC simulator at home, so I decided to look for simulator centres and found the closest one to me was SIMTrack Driver Performance. I called them up, gave them the basics of what I was doing and said they could make it work. So that was it, I was set to be a wildcard driver in the eX finale!

Getting trained

On the Monday, we arrive at SIMTrack Driver Performance’s base of operations, which unbeknownst to us was in the Ginetta HQ! For those of you who don’t follow the British Touring Cars Championship, Ginetta run their Juniors and GT4 Supercup championships as support races to the BTCC. They’re essentially GT cars but some single seater stars have proven their worth in Ginettas, including McLaren F1 driver Lando Norris who finished third in Ginetta Juniors back in 2014.

We were welcomed by the guy who leads SIMTrack named Adam, we walked in and were given a tour of the place. We saw a shell of a Ginetta racecar which can be swapped with one of an Aston Martin GT in the big simulator room, which looked incredible. However, I knew it would not be a good idea to compete using that setup and instead I inquired beforehand if they had a home simulator, and they did.

As soon as I walked in, I saw a guy driving on the Nürburgring circuit on rFactor 2 and that was the moment everything suddenly felt real. It was a curved monitor, a deep bucket seat, load-cell Fanatec pedals and a proper direct-drive wheel, everything I had seen all my favourite drivers use but never felt like I could touch one of them myself. But there they were.

Again, full disclosure. My setup at home is a Logitech G29 with a Playseat and I typically play F1 2021 and Gran Turismo Sport, which means you’re probably thinking “How on earth did this noob get to compete in this race? He’s a sim racing pleb!”. I can understand your thought process there.

Nevertheless, I got in the seat and was brought up to speed by Jack who had been driving on the rig when I walked in and who was to be tutoring me. First rookie mistake of mine: no gloves. Top tip for you people looking to get your hands on a direct-drive wheel, put on some gloves… I ended up with blisters on my thumbs after the first day. But we are getting ahead of ourselves.

Testing Driver Perfomance
I got generally quicker as my session carried on. Image credit: SIMTrack Driver Performance

Surprisingly, I didn’t spin it as often as I thought I would on the first day. The car being all-wheel drive meant it was actually tricky to spin if you weren’t actively trying to do so, although I did have my difficulties of course. Namely that I was expecting the circuit to be the F1 layout, on my first tour out I would deviate over to the right hand side of the track coming out of Turn 4 preparing for the fast Turn 5 only to find out I was doing the DTM layout, with a hairpin causing a detour towards the traditional Turn 10.

During my tutoring, I had got braking down for the most part with the Fanatec load-cell and it was a world of difference from the Logitech pedals. I could really modulate the brake, which meant I could perfectly apply the amount of pressure I needed to transfer the weight of the car where I needed it.

Though there were many times I did brake too hard, the back came round and the wheel would rip out of my hands and I would then feel a major vibration, which came from the tyres being flatspotted. Every so often, Jack would show me telemetry from mine and his best laps and he would show me where I was losing time (which was everywhere), but as the day went on, I got closer and closer to his times. At one point, I even matched his sector one time!

Two hours of tutoring on the Monday and then one hour on Tuesday before the big race. I was nervous, but I joined the Discord group call and that’s where the fun began.

Before the Race

When the race server opened up, I joined the Discord call and we had to check our cameras. Truth be told, I immediately felt imposter syndrome and I had every right to feel that way, since everyone there was a professional driver whether it be in the real or virtual world. At first I didn’t speak, but at one point I did geek out and immediately apologised, but the people there encouraged me not to feel subdued. Very kind of them.

At one point I said “If anyone comes up behind me, let me know so I can get out of your way. I don’t know how to enable rear view mirrors” to which one of them directed me to the corresponding button. The drivers were all very friendly to me, we were having a good laugh, I was inquiring about how the VCO ProSIM finale had ended up which was still ongoing at that point. BS+COMPETITION driver Beitske Visser driver was still competing in it at that point, and when she finally did join the server, she brought me up to speed on the results.

Now for those of you who aren’t familiar with the format of World eX, drivers are paired up to do a one lap race in what is known as Level 1 Qualifiers and coincidentally I’m sure, I was paired up with OverTake Dream Team Series competitor Emily Jones. The starting position is determined by a public vote, and no surprise that Emily won that vote, what did surprise me is that two or three people voted for me! Thank you, kind strangers.

Emily and I were fourth in the list to go first, and we were dragged into a voice chat with Nicki Shields so we were on the broadcast. Nicki started by asking Emily some questions about it being quite early in Australia where she is based, whereas for me it was the evening. Then Nicki turned her attentions to me and starts asking me about my background, I essentially was like “I’m about to prove why I only talk about esports racing”.

I’m then caught off guard when Nicki remarks about my brightly coloured hair, I was talking but didn’t realise there was a timer so when Nicki said “the race is about to start”, in a subdued panic I pressed the button to go to track just in time for the lights to go out.

Both my appearances on the broadcast come at 27:50 and 1:01:50.

Race Time

At the start of my Level 1 race, I somehow was able to stick my nose on the inside, but did knock Jones a bit. I thought I had made an unfair move and didn’t make an effort to defend into the next corner, though Emily told me she didn’t feel like I had been too aggressive. So I decided to interject with some humour, by casually attempting to bribe Emily to which the commentator had a good laugh about.

I lost, as you would expect, although I was impressed with myself how I held my own against an accomplished sim racer like Jones. We were dragged back in to the driver’s chat, and apparently the competitors had been cheering for me which was very humbling. One of them remarked about how they had thought I was going to miss the start, and no doubt they rewatched the broadcast and had a good laugh about that.

It was a bit of a wait before we went to the last chance race, where I had to finish in the top three among the esports racers to qualify for the next stage. Due to Liam de Waal getting disqualified for his Level 1 race and the likes of Michi Hoyer, Esteban Muth and Nicolas Hillebrand having misfortunes in their races, I started ahead of them.

Immediately, I messed up and jumped the start because I thought I could hold the brake in first gear, but I edged forward and immediately apologised. I assumed if I somehow by some miracle got in the qualifying places, I’d get disqualified anyway, so I won’t lie, at that moment I was very annoyed at myself.

Nevertheless I got going. My start was terrible but that may have been a blessing in disguise, as I avoided the melee heading into turn one. I jumped over the kerb and got as high as fourth, albeit temporarily. I settled down in seventh, but then heading into the hairpin on lap two of three, I felt someone rear end me. I still don’t know what happened.

For the rest of the race, I was battling with another driver. I didn’t know it at the time but it was Mike Rockenfeller himself, and after Hillebrand spun off ahead of me, Rocky and I had our little battle which ended up with him coming out on top. But in the end, I wasn’t last in the overall eX Prix, I was second-to-last which is quite an achievement as far as I’m concerned!

Ultimately, my experience lasted a grand total of four laps but it was worth every second. I said my goodbyes to the drivers on Discord, and left SIMTrack very satisfied, I then hoped to get home just in time to watch the two-lap championship decider on the Nordschleife. I made it back in time to see Martin Stefanko entering the back-straight on the last lap to win the championship. Congratulations, Martin!

Overall, I was very humbled to have competed in this event. I know I’m not ever going to be an esports tier sim racer but for what I was up against, I can walk out with my head held high. Huge thank you to the World eX drivers for all being so accommodating, to the organisers behind the scenes including Rocky, Thomas, Bjoern and Luisa Skottke, Steffen Walter and Stefanie Medele.

Last but not least though, an even bigger thank you to the people at SIMTrack for hosting me, Adam Croft and Jack Smith. Also, one of the regular Ginetta drivers that also drives at SIMTrack who I never got to meet, but who provided me with a Ginetta hat and a signed image. That driver is James Kellet, who races GT4 Supercup. I also borrowed Charlie Robertson’s gloves, hope he doesn’t mind! Check out SIMTrack on Twitter if you fancy arranging a sim driving experience.

On an unrelated note, it was my birthday on the Saturday after the eX event and on the Monday evening by complete chance, I was also invited to an F1 Esports watchalong that Wednesday at the McLaren HQ. Being an esports racing fan who gets paid to talk about it here on is such a privilege and I count my lucky stars.

If you could participate in a major esports racing event, which one would you pick? Tell us on Twitter at @OverTake_gg or in the comments down below!

Biggest esports racing fan in the world.