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What is McLaren's World's Fastest Gamer?

McLaren's foray into the world of esports enters finals week...here's what it's all about

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We reckon “World’s Fastest Gamer” is a bit misleading, because McLaren’s big esports competition is actually about much more than ‘just’ being quick on iRacing, Forza or whatever. The prize is a one-year contract with McLaren – not as a racer, but a simulator driver. Someone who’ll spend their days at the space-age McLaren Technical Centre in one of the team’s three sims, trying and informing different setups and giving clear, concise and detailed feedback to some of the cleverest bods in motorsport. 

“We’ve already done the gamer to racer thing,” says Darren Cox, the man in charge. He was the brains behind GT Academy – the Nissan-backed competition that saw gamers the world over compete online to win a shot at becoming a real racing driver. Jann Mardenborough came from GT Academy, and he’s done pretty well for himself. “I saw the level of skill and quality of people racing online, and at the same time testing was being reduced in Formula 1,” says Darren. A good simulator driver is a valuable resource, and “who’s to say the best guy is going to be someone who failed at Formula 3 and is now a test driver?”. Quite. 

WFG has been going on since July, when the first of the six qualifying rounds were held variously across Forza Motorsport 6, iRacing, RFactor 2 and weirdly on mobile app GearClub. These events, which attracted more than 30,000 competitors from 78 different countries, gave six ‘finalists’. Another six established, professional gamers – one each from the worlds of Forza, Gran Turismo, iRacing, RFactor, Project Cars and F1 –  were selected by a panel of experts for a total of 12. 

The competitors are a real mix of ages and backgrounds. Henrik Drue is a radiologist from Denmark – not a pro gamer, or even really a gamer. “As the smartphones came I instantly started playing racing games, only on mobile and tablet,” he says. “I saw this event, thought it through and discussed it with my family, and now I’m here.” Henrik qualified on Gear Club, an iPad app. Nothing like as serious a sim as iRacing. Not even in the same league, we’d venture. “I got a little bit terrified, because they’re so serious and know so much about it” he said of his rivals. “They have been playing those games for many years. I’ve never done car setup on an iPad, you just pick up and play.” 

At the other end of the spectrum is David Le Garff – a Project Cars champion (many times over) selected by McLaren’s panel of experts. At 41, he’s the oldest finalist. “I play a lot of different racing games, but I need to adapt,” he says. “It’s easier to play Project Cars or Forza, but I do my best.”

Beginning Saturday the finalists were assembled at MTC for a week of assessment and judging. The winner will be announced on November 21st, after the group is whittled from 12 down to six and then two by a panel of five judges. Darren’s on it, so too is McLaren’s executive director Zak Brown, head of human performance Michael Collier, race engineer Mark Temple and test driver Oliver Turvey. 

Tests will obviously include racing – they’ll be (and already have been) recreating ones that represent “significant moments in McLaren’s lifetime”. But more interestingly, they’ll have to go through a “Human Performance Assessment” that measures their cognitive and physical abilities. Mike Collier is in charge. “We’re looking at three main areas,” he says, “stimuli recognition, because that’s hugely important. The amount of information coming into the human body during races is extensive, and the best racers are able to focus on the important things and negate the noise. The second thing is cognitive processing, so how quickly they can recognise something then process it through the central nervous system. The final bit is actuation – the end product.”

“And we’re looking at doing that over three different environments – the first is clinical, lab based, the second is virtual gaming and the third is in the sim. Each of those three poses progressively greater challenges to them.”

In the sim itself, the finalists will be assessed on “speed, driving consistency, quality of the technical feedback and their ability to process information in different scenarios”. Mark Temple, who used to be Lewis Hamilton’s race engineer, says “there’s a lot as an engineer we can do using offline simulations, but ultimately the racing car is all about the driver getting the most out of it. And that means the way he interacts with the car is incredibly important. You can’t replicate that in a computer, so you need a driver.”

“They need to be quick, consistent so they can do the same sort of lap times every time, and at the same time give detailed feedback on what the car is doing in an intelligent and structured way.”

McLaren is pretty committed to this esports thing. It’s just named a full-time director of esports, and plans are afoot to do WFG again next year. “The average fan of motorsport and F1 is getting older,” says Darren, “this audience in terms of content and competitors is exactly where F1 and other motorsports needs to be. It’s the genius millennial demographic that everyone’s looking for and nobody can find. McLaren has found them with this project.”

Stay tuned for more on McLaren’s World’s Fastest Gamer when the results are announced next week. 

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