OverTake presents our Hero of the Month for July: esports racer and Spa 24 hours competitor James Baldwin.
Image credit: James Baldwin
Occasionally, a sim driver earns their way into a real racing car and finds success. Each one reminds us of the skills that can be demonstrated and transferred through virtual racing. But in the leadup to the Spa 24 hours, one driver in particular has been flying the simracing flag high.
Competing for Garage 59, James Baldwin’s return to the track has been a long time coming. Having raced in British GT and remained strongly involved in the world of esports racing, Baldwin continues to represent the very best of what can be achieved by racing online. For James’ outstanding efforts in the real world and the virtual world, we are making him our Hero of the Month for July.
Promising Start Cut Short
As is the case with many a hopeful racer, Baldwin became infatuated with racing after his dad introduced him to F1. One of his earliest memories was seeing the rookie Juan Pablo Montoya pull a bold move on reigning champion Michael Schumacher in the 2001 Brazilian Grand Prix. Immediately, he became a fan of the sport and that set into motion everything that followed.
His father took him to watch some karting at his local track in Aylesbury. Just before turning eight years old he began racing himself, and went on to win four national karting championships by the age of 15. In an attempt to move into cars, Baldwin and his family tried gathering the funds to compete in Formula Ford for 2015.
By his own admission, James let the pressure get to him. He knew this was essentially his final chance to impress. Ultimately, they ran out of the money rather quickly and no sponsor was interested in funding his career, so he had to call it quits. For two years, Baldwin was out of racing and ended up working as a mechanic for Double R Racing in British F3.
By chance though, in mid 2017, he had popped down to his local computer chain retailer and saw a bundle offer for a Logitech G920 racing wheel and a copy of Project CARS. James was back to scratching his competitive driving itch, even if it was on a video game and not in a physical car. He didn’t waste any time getting up to speed.
When Project CARS 2 was released, Baldwin qualified for a competition organised by Renault that he ended up winning. In that time, he had been scouted by F4H Motorsport and later on down the line, he joined Veloce Esports where he remains to this day. Fast forward to 2019 though, and James was due for an incredible year.
Starting off the year, Baldwin made it into the final four in the eRace of Champions after winning the eROC Invitational, defeating 16 other esports racing champions in the process. eROC had only begun the year before and it was Enzo Bonito who won the event and competed in the real-life Race of Champions.
The winner would join Bonito and the other Race of Champions competitors in the real thing. Baldwin faced off against five-time ESL Pro Series champion Nils Naujoks, future Porsche TAG Heuer Esports Supercup champion Sebastian Job and reigning two-time F1 Esports champion Brendon Leigh.
At the Foro Sol stadium which makes up part of the Mexico City Grand Prix track, Baldwin found himself in the final with Leigh, against all odds. They raced on the sims, in real life KTM X-Bow cars and received judgement scores from Terry Grant, David Coulthard and Tom Kristensen.
In spite of many believing it was going to be an easy win for Leigh, it was Baldwin who came out on top and gained the chance to compete in the real life Race of Champions. That was only the start for Baldwin, as he began racking up competition wins faster than the average Call of Duty sweat lord racks up frags.
He won the likes of the Project CARS world championships and the Le Mans Esports Series Super Final on Forza Motorsport 7, making up a 15 second deficit to win the last race of the 24 hour event. Also competing on Gran Turismo Sport in the Digital Cup event at the FIA Motorsport Games, Baldwin ended up just missing out on a medal.
But it would be World’s Fastest Gamer that year which was the ultimate prize. Promising a full season’s worth of GT racing as a reward, the competition brought together some of the top drivers from across the entire racing game space to put them against each other. It included the likes of Mitchell DeJong, Sebastian Job, Maximilian Benecke, Erhan Jajovski, Aurélien Mallet and Kamil Pawlowski.
Throughout an extensive driving program in the US, Baldwin ended up the victor. Rather poetically, he was announced as such by his hero Juan Pablo Montoya. The full season of GT racing that was his prize ended up being with 2009 F1 world champion Jenson Button’s outfit, Jenson Team Rocket RJN. At first it was going to be in the GT World Challenge Europe Endurance Cup, but then it was changed to British GT.
In his first race, Baldwin and his teammate Michael O’Brien took victory and went on to take a further three poles and three podiums. They ended up fourth in the championship, which may seem like an incredible result but Baldwin was disappointed as he believed they were capable of winning the title. He also came away with BRDC Rising Star status.
After the entire season was crammed into three and a half months, Baldwin was eager to get going again for another season. But as time passed, things had gone quiet. He soon found himself watching the start of the British GT season from the sidelines. He was back at square one, and all he had worked for was gone in an instant.
2020 had been a difficult year for James as, alongside British GT, he also participated in F1 Esports with McLaren. He had missed out on the opportunity to compete for Alfa Romeo the year prior, as the two eventual picks Dani Bereznay and Salih Saltunç were F1 game specialists. They both had competed in the previous season and won races, finishing 2nd and 4th in the championship respectively.
But when Baldwin’s chance of competing in F1 Esports came, he struggled. He couldn’t dedicate a lot of time to playing the F1 game, even without having to balance it with British GT duties. On more than one occasion, he was doing F1 Esports on the Wednesday and Thursday, then travelling to the circuit to compete in British GT from Friday to Sunday.
It took a toll on an already beaten-down Baldwin, who had spent early 2020 competing in as many virtual racing events as possible during lockdown and found himself struggling in that time. So, to then have sped through a racing season and come out the other side like he’d been forgotten, it was a difficult moment for James.
Just like before, Baldwin knuckled down and made the best of a bad situation, and he went on to compete across many esports competitions. He dominated the British GT Esports series, winning three out of the four races he entered, and led McLaren Shadow’s charge in the second season of the V10 R-League. Baldwin was arguably the standout driver in that series, even though a rare error in their semi final against Aston Martin prevented them from competing for the championship.
He also competed in the SRO GT World Challenge Esports Europe championships, doing the majority of endurance rounds for Rocket Simsport and the sprint season in McLaren Shadow colours. The latter of which he ended up winning, just pipping Ferrari driver and 2019 F1 Esports champion David Tonizza.
Remaining involved in virtual racing didn’t mean he was going to give up on the track racing dream. Behind the scenes, there was work going ahead to get James an entry into the Spa 24 hours, and with help from his sponsor Travel Planet and people involved at Rocket like Chris Buncombe, he got himself a drive with Garage 59.
Along with preparing and testing for Spa, Baldwin was also continuing his GT World Challenge Esports title defence and was in Abu Dhabi the week before the 24 hour race trying to help YAS HEAT win the V10 R-League. But when the time came to race at Spa, Baldwin found his talents well and truly tested.
A Troubled Return
Baldwin raced Garage 59’s Silver class entry alongside Nicolai Kjærgaard, Manuel Maldonado and Ethan Simioni. They qualified fifth in class and, only a few hours into the race, they had established themselves firmly as second in class. The team even led the way at one point during the pitstops. What’s more, they were running in the top 20 overall. It was looking very promising indeed.
However, when time came for James to drive his first double stint from 11pm to 1am, they had dropped back a bit due to an incident and sustained some damage which resulted in the left headlight not working. He got in the 720S GT3, but as soon as he left the pits, his Anti-Lock Brakes failed. ABS is something pretty essential in GT racing.
He was driving without ABS in his first racing laps at Spa, which were at night, with dust and gravel littered all over. To make matters worse, Baldwin was in a line of Pro class cars. He then had to take evasive action at the bus-stop chicane, locking the front wheels avoiding a slow moving car. That moment ruined his tyres.
Baldwin got on top of the ABS troubles but had to pit, putting him out of sequence. Then came a new problem. When doing the driver swap, Baldwin had the wire for the radio pulling against his ear when his teammate pulled the belt over the wire. This resulted in James feeling sick and imbalanced throughout his stint, and it didn’t help when there was some lengthy safety car periods late on in his stint. He had to weave excessively to keep the tyre temperature up during the night.
Basically, anything that could go wrong for James pretty much did. But he soldiered on, he put in some immensely consistent lap times and finished his stint and was scheduled to be back driving at 6am. However, he woke up at 5am to find out the car had been retired due to radiator damage just an hour beforehand. Game over.
What does the future hold?
In spite of what happened, James remains resilient. His ultimate dream is to compete in the 24 hours of Le Mans, but he does not want to leave the virtual racing world behind. Even if he’s racing on an actual track full time, he’s not about to rest on his laurels. He’s determined to keep up his esports footprint.
Again, rather poetically, the Spa 24 hours also played host to the third round of the Fanatec Esports GT Pro Series. This is the series where Pro and Silver teams in the GT World Challenge Europe Endurance Cup select one of their drivers to compete on ACC to earn an extra few points for the team’s championship.
Of course, Garage 59 nominated Baldwin and he won the race by about 14 seconds. Considering racing the McLaren 720S GT3 on ACC has become Baldwin’s speciality, his dominance came as little surprise. Then, as if that wasn’t enough, not even three days after Spa, Baldwin was back at home and was able to retain his GTWCE Esports title.
James Baldwin: Esports Ambassador
Outside of racing, James has a love for boxing. He also lives with his long-time partner Katie and their adorable little cocker spaniel Indie.
James Baldwin is one of esports racing’s all stars and a true ambassador of the medium. He is living proof that all you need is courage, determination and an inherent belief in your ability, and that video games do provide a path into racing on track. That no matter the setbacks, continuing to soldier on is the best thing anyone can do.
Racing in the virtual world and in the real world, he’s proven time and time again his capabilities behind the wheel and that he well and truly belongs in a racecar. But even so, he won’t ever forget where he came from, the place that has provided him with all these opportunities.
Esports racing could not have a more definitive and truer example of a driver who legitimises our little niche.
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Are there any personalities in esports racing you would like to nominate for the next edition of Hero of the Month? Tell us on Twitter at @OverTake_gg or in the comments down below!