As Formula 1 strives to reach a new generation of younger fans and find new ways to attract people to the series, eSports has been a huge success. The official championship of the Great Circus is in its sixth season, while the interest generated by the video game has caused the California giant, EA Sports , creator of a saga as well known as FIFA , to acquire Codemasters, in a deal for value of 1,200 million dollars [about 1,250 million euros at current exchange rates].
However, they have also created a new facet of Formula 1, and that is that the pandemic and being forced to stay at home for so long showed how competitive esports can be, as many of the regular races were turned into tests with professional gamers, while content on platforms like YouTube from the Great Circus continues to thrive.
One of the biggest names in this field is Jarno Opmeer , who in the midst of the exponential growth of Formula 1 in the Netherlands, somewhat led by Max Verstappen , is the reference after winning the last two eSports world titles.
“In the last five, six, seven years, the Dutch have exploded in the racing world,” the virtual driver told Motorsport.com. “Not only the Formula 1 fans, but also the Dutch people who participate in the simulated competition, and many more people who are involved in karting in the Netherlands. It has been an absolutely huge explosion in the fans.”
Opmeer pursued real-life motorsport’s top flight from a very young age, and like many, started out in the national karting championships and enjoyed relative success before making the jump to single-seaters at the age of 16 . During that stage he fought with someone who walks around the Formula 1 paddock on weekends, Richard Verschoor , who despite not having achieved the big dream yet, since he is in Formula 2, won in Macau, and made things difficult for him in the 2016 SMP4 F4 .
In that year, Opmeer was victorious in seven races, including the one that acted as a support in the Russian Grand Prix, and that led to the Dutchman being on the radar of the Renault academy, but his contract was not renewed after a complicated 2017. At that time, the Dutchman began to pay attention to esports, only failing to qualify for the first official Formula 1 world championship in 2017 due to a clash of real-life racing commitments.
Although the money to finance his career in the lower categories had already run out, a new path was opened: “eSports were my second chance, in racing, especially in single-seaters, if you don’t have much financial support from your parents , or none, you may only get one shot.”
“The possibility of achieving it in one attempt is very, very unlikely, because it takes a few more years in single-seaters to achieve it,” he said. “So I had that option, I knew from real life racing that I was quite fast in the simulator as for the preparation, that was a great opportunity to have a second chance,” explained the Dutchman.
Jarno Opmeer made the most of it, initially teaming up with his old team Renault as part of their 2019 championship squad, before moving to Alfa Romeo a single year later when he claimed his first title. The Dutchman signed for Mercedes in 2021, and managed to defend his crown, thus becoming the most successful driver in the history of Formula 1 eSports.
The Silver Arrows have seen the potential that esports can bring, and in an early project at their factory in Brackley, they adapted a space next to the simulator to investigate the benefits and insight that professional esports drivers could offer. video game.
An updated facility has been created at the Mercedes headquarters, allowing Opmeer and his colleagues to have a dedicated space to be able to train and lap to be ready for events, as well as working with the team to focus on human performance, as well as which is done in reality with Lewis Hamilton or George Russell .
The Dutchman has also been given the opportunity to work with the owners of the German team, specifically with the youngest of the British duo, who participated in some appointments during the pandemic on the Formula 1 YouTube channel. Opmeer said that Russell is “really fast”, thanks in part to his advice, in which he would “teach him tricks that he probably shouldn’t have done”.
Both will take part in an iRacing challenge set up by Mercedes sponsor IWC later in the season, giving fans the chance to join their teams for a virtual face-to-face race date.
“You feel like you’re doing an amazing lap and it’s in front of you!” Russell told Motorsport.com. “Obviously he’s one of the best in the world so I was expecting that. I was quite disappointed with how close he came, it was quite interesting to see the two different visions we had.”
The Englishman wants to get back into eSports over the winter break, having enjoyed the thrill of going from what he described as “a mid-level to an almost professional level” in the pandemic, but is also impressed by how the growth of the sector it has given drivers like Opmeer a new life in racing.
“It’s no secret that motorsport is a very expensive business, and you need a lot of luck on the road to get a chance to race in those lower categories,” explained the Briton.
“However, esports is accessible to many different people, you can be driving on a daily basis. In a Formula 1 car we have four days of testing per season, while in eSports you can do four hours of training a day,” he acknowledged. Russell. “It’s great to give the opportunity to those who may not have had it in real life, but also to those who are passionate about games.”
In some cases, eSports have helped drivers progress their careers in the real world, such as Cem Bolukbasi , who made it to Formula 2 this season, or James Baldwin , who even won the British GT race at the which debuted and participated in the 2022 24 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps.
However, with the hope of a three-time championship with Mercedes, Opmeer continues to think virtual: “At the moment I am very focused. Of course, if there was a very serious opportunity, I would take it, but I don’t want to go halfway and do a prep race, that’s detrimental to your image and to the entire simracing community.”
The world of sim racing has seen the Dutchman grow rapidly, and he now has a huge following on different platforms. On his YouTube channel, there are 375,000 people who are subscribed, and many of them came to Formula 1 through him, and not the other way around.
“It attracts players because they can do it themselves,” he said. “You see some YouTube comments from the past where they say, ‘oh, I got into Formula 1 because of your channel.’ That’s really, really cool to see.”
Everything that Opmeer and the other virtual drivers do is an encouraging sign of the power that eSports has for the highest category of motorsport in the real world.
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