Aussie BRDC British F3 star looking to make an impact in VCO Cup of Nations

After months of inactivity on circuits across the world, fans and drivers alike have breathed a collective sigh of relief as grandstands once again reverberate to the sounds of racing car engines on racetracks proper.

Yet, as a result of the global coronavirus pandemic that has crippled the world at large, those same grandstands remain empty, and may do for some time yet. Even before coronavirus brought real racing to a standstill back in March, one thing that has brought drivers and fans together for the common good is the world of Esports.

Events kicked off by The Race and Veloce Esports initiatives got the ball rolling, quickly followed by officially sanctioned F1 Virtual GP events that brought virtual racing into the homes of those under lockdown, with drivers such as Lando Norris, George Russell and Charles Leclerc showing the true personalities of the men behind the masks in a way not seen before.

Now, a new Williams Esports-backed sim racing tournament, presented by Acronis, is seeking to continue the momentum generated during lockdown with the VCO Cup of Nations.

As with the ABB Formula E Race at Home Challenge, the VCO Cup of Nations has been set up to raise money for UNICEF with both VCO and Williams Esports already donating £2500, with a further prize pool of £7500 up for grabs.

Unlike any of the other Esports events run so far, however, the unique format of the Cup of Nations pits countries of four drivers against one another with 10 different cars and tracks – from road racing, oval racing and dirt racing. And the other catch? The drivers will only discover which cars and circuits will be included on the morning of the event!

One of those drivers is up-and-coming British BRDC F3 driver Bart Horsten, who will race for Team Australia when the knockout rounds on July 25-26 on the iRacing platform.

Motorsport Technology and event title sponsor Acronis caught up with Bart to chat about this unique Esports initiative, life during lockdown, and his aspirations for the future.

MT: Hi Bart. How has lockdown been treating you? I guess it’s given you a lot of time to practice Esports?

BH: “Absolutely, it has. I’ve got a really good Sim, now, but many years ago it was pretty basic. I had the pedals moving around on the ground, and a wheel with no force feedback bolted on top of a table! Now, the equipment is just so good, and I’m surprised how good this one is, to be honest. The Fanatec Podium steering wheel is really good! So, I’ve been keeping busy practicing on that, trying to get as good as possible on that rig and mixing some big series events with fun races I’ve been doing on Sim series, just with friends. I’ve also been using the Sim for individual training sessions and things like that.”

Bart has been keeping busy during lockdown, competing in Esports events and sharpening his skills

MT: How did you first find out about this competition and come to be involved with it?

BH: “We were in contact with Williams Esports and Acronis through mutual acquaintances. My Sim racing has generally been on a downward trajectory, because of how busy it’s been, so I thought because I have a bit of extra time, it sounds like a fun competition and I’ll go and do it. I was surprised I got in, in a way, because I didn’t feel like I did enough practice and struggled a lot in one of the cars.”

MT: This is a really intriguing format, that mixes pro Sim racers with real racers, such as yourself and even free to enter amateur sim drivers and race drivers during the qualifying rounds. Do you know any of your competitors?

BH: “I don’t know many of my competitors, actually. I recognise about four names, one guy from karting, two guys from Redline, who are the top iRacing team, but none of them are people I would have raced against either Sim or in real life. I have a feeling it’s mainly Esports drivers, because I didn’t recognise many. I think Rubens Barrichello is in it and a Finnish driver called Elias Seppanen, who did South East Asian F4 and he’s on iRacing all the time, and he’s quite quick. But most of them must be Sim.”

MT: And what of the race format? It really seems to be an exciting one that introduces many variables and could produce a few surprises…

BH: “If you look at the format, I think there’s only three or four races in the group stages, so I think it’s going to be interesting to see how it goes. Being realistic, we probably won’t know which tracks will get chosen but I did notice in the group stages there was a driver change, so it’s probably quite easy to guess which race that will be. I think they will announce the tracks and the cars soon, but we won’t have any idea what the combinations will be, but you can probably again guess relatively well. In terms of the ovals, and the dirt stuff, I’ve done hardly any. I could be very wrong, but that could be a good leveller when racing against some of the Sim Pros if they haven’t gone into that area so much.

“What I discovered was that the people who were better on iRacing were better, anyway, regardless of when you changed the car and the track because they know the Sim. Every Sim has its own little tricks to it, not only in terms of the wheel and the pedals and knowing how they work, but also the type of software that you use has its own little niggles. And those guys obviously know the Sim very, very well. It’s their job, they get paid to know how to drive, pretty much, bang on. Especially when you play around with the cars and you must think about fuel loads, tyres, brake bias, roll bars. For me, that’s overwhelming, and I can’t really do anything about that.

“Also, each car is quite different concerning where the peak of the tyre is, and it takes a little time to understand. The Supercar peaks on lap 1, IndyCar lap 3 or 4, but it’s tricky and quite relevant as well, because when you’re practicing you don’t really know how you’re doing for time. You keep going around and around and around and then you pit and suddenly you’re going much faster again, so it will be interesting. I think the most interesting and intriguing thing about all of it is just the unknown. And for me, that makes it exciting as a driver but also because of the chaotic randomness of it. Especially out of qualifying, so much can happen. If you keep your nose clean and you are smart about it, you can get results that are not necessarily deserved.

“The cars will also run full damage, I would imagine, as there are a lot of rules saying we have to drive back to the pits instead of stopping and exiting the game. We are not allowed to drive through other peoples pit boxes when we do a pit stop, meaning we’re going to do manual pit stops. So, obviously, they’re trying to make it as real as possible so I imagine they’ll put damage on which is a bit scary because some cars, like the F3 car, you barely touch someone and you’re flipping through the air! So it’s a bit brutal sometimes, driving that car in iRacing. But again, it’s experience.”

MT: Obviously, this lockdown time has been an extremely frustrating one for everyone. But one silver lining is that it has introduced people to Esports who may never have seen it before. Have you been watching the other initiatives on your laptop, or on TV?

BH: “It’s been good to get kind of a different perspective from the drivers, watching all the Esports initiatives in the absence of any real racing. I’ve heard some journalists say it’s been good for them because they have had more time to get more out of the drivers. At the same time, they’re in a different environment, which is great for the fans. It was great to see George Russell get really good at the F1 game, which is a tricky game to get the hang of, and he was pretty dominant in that towards the end. In general, it’s really good seeing them in a different environment and just talk more and interact more freely, almost. You could say the F1 game is less realistic than iRacing, but they’re all unrealistic in their own special way.”

MT: One big talking point during the recent big Esports exposure that has sometimes pitted pro drivers against pro gamers is how transferrable the respective skill sets are. Can a gamer make it in real racing or a driver in Esports? What’s your view on this?

BH: “I’ve done some sessions with one of these Esports drivers, and he smoked me! I thought I was pretty handy on the game, because I used to play it a lot, but you’ve got to remember how different it is to the real thing. You’ve got to approach it in the same way, as you do as a racing driver, but if you watch the Esports qualifying, it’s usually two or three tenths across the whole field and they’re really on the limit. That’s hard to replicate in real life because track conditions change and, say for F1, the cars are so different in speed. There are just more factors. It really is really hard to get close to those guys.

“It’s exactly the same as someone who’s a semi-professional racing driver, who does it for fun, then putting them up against an F3 or Factory GT3 professional. They’re going to get beat. They might not be miles off, but they’re going to get beat because the professionals know the craft and they’re going to commit to it. You can write off the games easily, and everyone understands they’re not the same as real life.

“But for the people who are professionals at it, for them, it’s similar to being an F1 driver in their own way because they are maximising everything they can on the game. It’s hard to compete against those guys because of the number of hours they put in. It’s the same in any sport.  But this has been brilliant for fan interaction and Esports in general, and motorsport. I guess the best thing about it is the accessibility and how it’s relevant to the people watching because then they can play it and see how good they are.”

MT: Finally, you have also gone back to testing for the British F3 championship. How’s that going and what are your hopes and goals for the future?

BH: “We started testing at the end of last month and have been testing every week, pretty much, and we will be testing every week until the season starts in August. We’ve been to every track apart from Silverstone because Silverstone is really busy trying to get events sorted and the F1 races. It’s going well and it always goes well if you’re learning every time as a driver and that’s what I’m trying to do every day, every week and every time I get into the car.

“You give yourself things to work on, whether it’s track specific or just general driving technique or changing something with the car. I’m learning, but it’s hard to say how good it’s going. We have had test sessions with other teams and it seems like our team is good but you still don’t know because in an official test some teams might run light or run more sets of tyres, so, to be honest, you don’t know until qualifying. You have an idea in free practice, which will be the first semi-indicator if you’re complete rubbish or not, but those last two or three tenths is up to the guys who pull it out in that first qualifying session.

“As for future aspirations, the goal is to keep progressing, and I do keep an eye on what’s happening in F3. Prema have been awesome and I’m pretty sure they have their seats booked for next year and at the moment they are the class of the field, probably by a tenth or two, and they did it last year. It seems like they have a car that’s not only easy to drive, Vesti and Piastri are very high calibre rookies but coming in inexperienced, they obviously have the right people to teach them how to drive the car quickly and understand that.

“I’m not sure either of them had raced at the Red Bull Ring, so again Prema have done quite well. I don’t know how the team is structured, but they have the personnel to teach the drivers quickly and have also done a really good job with the car and did the same thing they did last year. When the tyres went off, they seemed to still hold their pace. In that first race in the last eight laps, they pulled three seconds on the field so they’re going to be hard to beat. They are there every time.

“I thought this year it could open up a bit more because it’s not a brand new car, but it’s looking pretty tough. Things can change pretty quickly, and I wouldn’t rule out Lawson and Hitech yet. Other than that, you’ve got MP, Trident and maybe ART. If Peroni can get third in a Campos who only scored a few points last year, that tells me anything can happen. Piastri and Vesti are still not complete and no one there is as complete as Shwartzman and Armstrong were. But if Piastri and Vesti started that well, they’re only going to get stronger. I think it’s a goal for a lot of junior drivers to get in that team.”

Fraser Masefield

Sports news and features writer, web editor and author.