The big lockdown interview – Veloce Esports co-founder Jean-Eric Vergne opens up

‘Out of adversity, comes opportunity’, is a famous quote from founding father of the United States of America, Benjamin Franklin.

And, as each day passes, more and more heartening stories are coming to light about how the coronavirus pandemic is bringing people together in a positive way and getting communities to pull together for the same common good.

The world of motorsport is no different, Formula One teams offering their technical expertise in helping to design and manufacture crucial apparatus to aid in the fight against the virus crippling the world.

Helping people maintain a healthy balance of body and mind during government enforced quarantine lockdown measures is also of great importance, and with no live racing for drivers to compete in or fans to watch, new Esports initiatives have come into their own in giving competitors and fans alike a real escape from the problems affecting the world.

One of the driving forces behind the Esports revolution is two-time defending Formula E champion and co-founder of Veloce Esports, Jean-Eric Vergne. Motorsport Technology caught up with Vergne during his own lockdown period to discuss how his interest in Esports evolved and how it is helping during these difficult times.

MT: You are the co-founder of Veloce Esports. How did that come about?

JEV: “It was three years ago when I came back to live in London and I had a drink with my ex Formula 3 teammate, Rupert Svendsen-Cook. He explained to me a little bit what he was doing since he quit racing and that he had a driver management company and he was planning on going into Esports. Since I also wanted to get involved in Esports in some way, but didn’t really have the resources or the time to do it myself, we just became partners in the company and created Veloce Esports.”

MT: As a result of the coronavirus pandemic, your platform is giving fans of the sport access to enjoy a very different form of racing and get some sporting relief during these difficult times. Racing drivers are joining in with professional gamers and getting tens of thousands of viewers on YouTube. How much has this surprised you and given you a lift?

JEV: “I think it’s giving a big lift to everybody, for the drivers that don’t have racing any more, for the fans who don’t have anything to watch anymore and also for us, because it’s the busiest part of the year for our company. I wouldn’t say it’s good, because I wish we would be working without this coronavirus, but at least it’s good to have an alternative to real world racing and to be able to do something a little different in Esports. So to have Esports gamers, who are huge in their world and have a huge following and fan base, and to also have people from other sports, such as Real Madrid goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois, and golfer Ian Poulter, is great. To see how they do in a racing game, which actually they do pretty well, is fantastic. I love Ian’s webcam. You see all his Ferraris in his garage behind him and he’s a huge fan of motorsport, so it’s great to see. Ian is such a cool guy actually, so I have invited him to a Formula E race so he can see what it’s like when all this is over.”

MT: It was great to see lots of drivers getting involved in #NotTheAusGP and #NotTheBahGP at short notice, celebrities and sports stars such as Sir Chris Hoy and Ian Poulter joining in and Jack Nicholls commentating. How did these races come about at such short notice?

JEV: “We worked very hard with people at Veloce to bring a lot of talent into the competition. Some of them we had to call, and we were quite organised in who we wanted to reach. Some drivers reached out to me or to Veloce because they wanted to take part in the competition. So, I wouldn’t say this has been the most difficult part, really.”

MT: It’s intriguing to watch professional gamers going up against the real drivers, and Lando Norris is proving a real star for fans of Esports and motorsports alike, even competing with top Esports drivers.

JEV: “I think Lando is the driver who has taken to Esports the best out of all the F1 drivers on the grid and in some ways this is making him the big star of Formula One at the moment, because everybody is talking about him, not about Hamilton, not about Vettel but about him. So Esports in this way is good because it’s important for his sponsors, it’s important for his team, McLaren. It’s important to have drivers like this and I think he’s doing a fantastic job. He’s young, it’s his generation. I’m absolutely not in his generation because I’ve never had a simulator until a couple of weeks ago, but I fully understand it, and it’s nice to see all the fans being involved. When you go on his Twitch channel interacting very well with the fans, this is actually the only time when people can see the face of the racing driver when he’s focused, or the face he makes when he makes a mistake! It is quite sensational to be able to see that, because at the end of the day, when you race a simulator or you race for real, you have the same adrenaline, you have the same level of concentration and this is great to see. Let’s wait until he gets a car where he can win in Formula One and then the stress may go up a notch!”

MT: We have seen Esports drivers become F1 simulator drivers through ‘World’s Fastest Gamer’ and F1 drivers doing well in Esports now. How different are the respective skills and can a gamer ever become a top F1 driver?

JEV: “No, because that’s not their target. We contacted many of the top gamers at Veloce and there dream is not really to race, maybe to drive the car and feel what it actually feels like, but they’re really focusing on what they’re good at, and what they’re good at is the Esports side of things and they want to be the best at what they do. To then start another career in real motorsports is going to be extremely difficult for those guys. So therefore, I don’t think it’s even in the back of their minds. All they want to do is be recognised as the top gamer in Esports. They have sponsors, they are paid, they have contracts with managers, so in that respect it’s working the same as the real racing drivers and it’s becoming bigger and bigger. Definitely this coronavirus is going to be a massive push for the Esports industry, to take at least some positives from this bad time.”

MT: Conversely, how important is simulator driving to professional race drivers both pre-season and during a season? How much do you rely on this to prepare you for races and how much time are you currently spending on the sim?

JEV: “That’s something completely different, but it is extremely important for us. In Formula One they have huge simulators but in Formula E it’s perhaps more important because you have only one day racing, two practice sessions and one qualifying which is one lap and then the race. So it’s very important to have the simulator that is correlating the track, your tyre model, your car model, battery models, everything really, so that when you arrive at the track, you as a driver know exactly what to do and the engineers on their side know exactly what to do during the race. They know what to expect if the battery is going to overheat or not. Therefore, today you could not go to a Formula E race without doing some days in the simulator. You just would not be able to perform. Absolutely no way. In Formula One, some drivers don’t even go that often to the simulator. They can go race to race without going to the sim and still be able to win races because you have so much practice in FP1, FP2, FP3. They have three hours of practice before qualifying, so there is plenty of time to prepare for the race.”

MT: Tell us about the start of the season for DS TECHEETAH and your amazing drive in Marrakesh. You were suffering from the flu, correct?

JEV: “I don’t really know what it was. I had absolutely all the symptoms of this virus. I had a fever of 39 degrees before the start of the race and I passed out at the end of the race! It was probably one of my greatest efforts in terms of starting so far back and missing free practice 1. So, to get a podium starting so far back on the grid whilst being unwell, I was definitely very happy with my race. Maybe if I wasn’t sick, I could have handled the race a little better and saved a bit more energy, but I ran out of energy at the end because I was attacking very hard during the whole race. Starting the last lap, I knew it would be hard to finish second, but I had to try! It was actually quite emotional to stand on the podium after a week of suffering and being contained in the hospital and watching FP1 on my phone, because they would not let me out of the hospital until they got the results, whether I had the virus or not. So, I was tested, and it turned out to be a negative, so therefore I could participate in the race. But apparently, I didn’t have it so it was just a very bad flu.

“Antonio had a very clean start to the season, which I didn’t, I had a few issues at the start of the season, I could have won in Santiago but the front wing broke, I had a software problem in Mexico, so I’ve had a lot of issues which is normal during a season to have up and downs and every driver has ups and downs, so I don’t expect Da Costa to be on the podium every race and I expect my form to go back to where it should be and I think my luck will turn. But we cannot have any plans because we don’t know how or when it’s going to end.”

MT: Other forms of virus are also a threat to the world at large, namely the digital variety. Talking of everything regards online protection, your tech partner Acronis is also doing its bit to help, providing Acronis Cyber Cloud for free until July 31 to help business and service providers secure their data and stay safe. How important to have a partner like this on board?

JEV: “It’s great to have a partner like this, especially when you need to stay home and stay safe. It’s a strong message to be pushing in general but also when it comes to staying secure and protecting data when working remotely. We have a very clear strategy to be safe in the whole eco-system, from DS TECHEETAH to the whole PSA group. We are all pushing the various #StayAtHome hashtags and, together with Acronis, we are also encouraging people to stay #CyberFit, as people aren’t used to having to think about cyber security from home usually.”

Fraser Masefield

Sports news and features writer, web editor and author.