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Force India have made the jump to Esports - meet their two new drivers

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Far away from the deafening noise of a formula 1 engine firing up, or the smell of burning rubber from the back of the garage, two of Force India’s newest team drivers have been quietly training behind the scenes.

But they won’t be hitting the track at Silverstone any time soon. They won’t be racing in Texas, Malaysia or Abu Dhabi either. Physically at least.

They won’t even be offering Sergio Perez or Esteban Ocon a challenge for places. Instead, these two new drivers will be complimenting them – and the team, as a whole.

On a sunny Thursday afternoon, right in the centre of the Silverstone paddock, Force India announced Mads Sorensen and Marcel Kiefer as their official Esports drivers. 

Why? Because in recent times, simulated driving has become an important part of F1 – so Force India are striking while the iron is hot – and arguably, getting ahead of the game.

The pair’s job, therefore, isn’t to win a physical prize, but instead, it’s to bring home a virtual one, by winning the 2018 F1 Esports series - for the Hype Energy eForce India team.

But the competition will be tough. They will be joined by fellow Esports drivers, signed by one of eight other F1 teams, from a pro-draft taking place in July.

Each real-life team will pick one driver, who will go on and compete in the series that takes place in October and November of this year.

Reflecting the official F1 sport, the sim-drivers will challenge to win virtual championships over three live events, raced on virtual versions of real-life circuits.

Ahead of one of the most exciting sim-racing series in history, Kiefer is already aiming high.

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“It would be a dream to get a constructors championship at Force India because they’ve never had one,” he explained during his unveiling last Thursday.

“But personally, I’d like to win the driver’s championship, that would be really cool.”

The 19-year-old is certainly looking forward to his debut season – but it’s not just him who’s relatively new to Esports.

Last year, the inaugural F1 Esports series was not contested by any of the constructors. But in 2018, Hype Energy eForce India will be joined by eight of their rivals.

Mercedes AMG, Red Bull, Williams, Renault, Haas, McLaren, Toro Rosso and Sauber will all have drivers lining up on the grid alongside Sorensen and Kiefer. 

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This situation then, is new not just for the Force India team, but for the entire sport.

Although this elite level of sim-racing may still be in its infancy, competitive gaming has been growing for a very long time – and that’s something that Force India’s COO Otmar Szafnauer appreciates – and it’s why his team are getting ahead.

“This has been growing since I was a teenager - when I was playing Atari Pong. It’s now grown into something that emulates the job that we do for a living. That’s exciting.”

In fact, Szafnauer has even got an eye on the future, and he’s tipped sim-racing to get even bigger.

“I think it’s just going to grow. When I was their age I was playing Pong. Look what it has grown into. I can’t predict the next step. But I will say that it will grow.”

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But before that happens, his team will be concentrating on the 2018 series.

And the two sim-drivers that Force India have selected ahead of this year’s pro-draft, are, quite literally, at the top of their game.

Sorensen himself has once before completed a lap of the virtual Silverstone circuit in 1 minute and 25 seconds.

To put that into perspective, Lewis Hamilton holds the real-life record at the British track, completing the fastest ever lap in 1.26.600.

In essence, the Dane is around a second faster than Hamilton, or anyone else who has ever raced at Silverstone.

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Of course, those kinds of comparisons shouldn’t be taken too seriously, as driving an F1 car is a much tougher task than driving on a sim. But his time is impressive none-the-less – and it comes as a reward from his vast amount of competitive sim-racing experience.

The 22-year-old competed at the 2017 F1 Esports series, so is actually the most experienced member of the team. But his love for sim-racing began years before then.

“I started racing when the F1 game came out, that was back in 2010. I’ve been playing it for many years but recently it’s become very serious.

“In 2018, the real F1 teams will enter the Esports series, which they didn’t do last year.

“Force India wanted me after last year’s finals, so they contacted me asking to drive for them. Obviously, I wasn’t going to turn that down.”

Compared to Sorenson, Kiefer has far less competitive sim-racing experience. But past pedigree isn’t everything – and the teenager has explained exactly how he got into this position with Force India.

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The German only started sim-racing back in August 2017 – and in less than a year, he’s now signed with a real F1 team.

“It took a lot of hard work and a lot of dedication. Normally I race 40-45 hours a week. Even if you don’t want to do it you have to.

“I started racing last August. I had a few weeks to get into the top 40 in the world and I made it. Now it’s about constantly getting focused and doing it.”

With two of the best sim drivers in the world, Szafnauer is aiming high and setting some big goals for his new team. In fact, he’s hoping that one day, down the line, Esports can become a proving ground for real F1 drivers.

“Once it becomes close to reality then it can become a proving ground. Until then, you need a correlation between driving and Esports and you need to put drivers in both to see how highly Esports correlates to the real thing.” 

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Of course, that’s a long-term goal. But in the immediate future, Force India want to use sim-racing to complement their team – and push their brand to a new audience.

“In the short term, it’s great to compliment what we do on the track with Esports because it’s trying to emulate exactly that. It’s a natural fit.

“It also helps to bring youth into our sport and that’s always good from a marketing perspective – capturing the youth to bring them into racing is great.

“Today it’s complementary to what we do on the track. The closer the two correlate the closer together it will become.

“Right now, our sim drivers can learn from our racing drivers and hopefully one day, vice versa.”

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In order to fully push his brand the right way, Szafnauer needs to ensure that both sim-drivers are fully committed to their new team – and properly integrated into it too.

“They have to represent the team and understand the brand. Both those things are important,” he explained.

“It’s not just about how fast they are, but how well they work together in a team environment.”

That’s something that both drivers are going to have to learn very quickly if they’re going to find success with Force India. In fact, the boss is hoping to see some clear traits develop over time.

“What we do as a team is make sure that we can all work together and personality is one of the biggest drivers in having a cohesive team,” Szafnauer continued.

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“There’s no person greater than our team and when that’s the case personality matters quite a bit.

“Whether they’re driving in the Esports championship or on the track, these things are important.”

Only time will tell if Hype Energy eForce India will have what it takes to win the F1 Esports Series later this year.

But judging by the two star drivers that they’ve selected, and the attitude that their COO takes, the team’s future – and the future of sim-racing as a whole, is certainly bright.

Topics:
Gaming
Renault
Haas
Sauber
Toro Rosso
Force India
Williams
McLaren
Mercedes
Red Bull

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