A virtual pioneer

Romain Grosjean, we really want to focus on Esports Racing – but still we have to ask, how is life in the United States and being an IndyCar driver?

I love new things and I have been enjoying my time here in the United States. Of course it is a brand new experience for the whole family but we have really been enjoying it a lot. Miami is a great place to live, we’ve got good weather and the kids are very happy. And the IndyCar championship is a championship where I enjoy myself a lot. I am very happy with the move.

You mentioned Florida being a great place to live, so good chances to enjoy your hobbies as well?

I always like being outside. Even when I lived in Switzerland, I used to go skiing or cross country skiing in the winter and cycling or kitesurfing in the summer. I always used to do a lot of stuff outside. But now obviously things have changed. For example, I was at the beach with my family on the first of January. I still like to be outside as much as possible, the big change is that here in Miami you can be outside all year.

You are the head of the R8G Esports Sim Racing Team. Your team follows a rather broad spectrum of activities – you are driving on different platforms, organising your own cups, have access to a large group of drivers. What is the strategy behind this broad approach to Esports racing?

I love Esports. The team is almost two years old and I came into Esports racing during the time Covid hit in 2020. I eventually had a little bit of time to get involved and I really wanted to bring my experience from real life to virtual life. We really grew much faster than we thought we would. We’ve been lucky to have some amazing drivers, good partners and to be able to evolve and be part of big championships. I think we are in a place where the virtual world is growing. It has not yet completely exploded, but we can see more and more constructors coming in the virtual world. Official cups and big series are happening and all of that together, Esports racing will eventually become a bigger business model as well. Right now, it is still a bit of a niche, but I am hopeful that within the next five years, this will change.

Let’s talk about five year plans then – What has to happen for Esports racing to become a bigger business model in that time?

I really think that it will come with more and more constructors getting involved. They are the ones with the biggest marketing budget. We have seen Porsche doing a lot and BMW as well. It’s funny that it’s the German brands who are ahead of the game on that. If more constructors come into Esports racing, we will have more viewers, more sponsors, more money in the Esports racing world. That is where I really hope we go.

Besides growing a bigger business, what’s the big goal for R8G Esports in the future?

Next to the business side of it, there is of course the sporting side. That is where I want us to be always at the top. I want the racing team to be very successful. If we can, on top of that, make a good business – that’s great. But the core of R8G Esports is to win races and to fight Coanda Simsport, Team Redline and all of those guys.

While being a busy and very successful driver in the real world yourself, how much time do you actually have to take care of your team and also to be driving in the simulator?

I don’t spend as much time behind the simulator as I would like, but that it is what it is with three kids and a busy life. Behind the scenes of the team, I actually spend quite a bit of time. I keep in contact with the guys that run the team pretty much every day. They know that they can contact me at any time and that I am always available, so in that aspect, I am very involved.

You have been in Esports racing for two years now. What is your favorite memory?

It has been so nice to watch – from our first 24 hours race at the Nurburgring, where we finished 3rd, to the Formula E on rFactor2 where we competed for the championship until the last round. There also has been the first edition of the ERWC where we finished second. It has been really good to follow the development of the team and to give the youngsters a chance to develop themselves. We picked up some very young drivers and they are doing really well, also in the F1 Esports Championship, where we represented the Haas Team last year. Then we organised the Predator Cup last year as well which is a huge event for us. So a lot of really good memories already.

Which qualities does a driver need to have to become part of R8G Esports?

They need to be fast, that’s for sure, but they also need to have racecraft. We keep an eye on everything that is happening, who is coming through in the different games, who is fast? We also have older drivers who can have a look and help us finding new ones. We also need them to be able to stream and to communicate – just like in real life. Communication and visibility are really important. Our drivers need to be very professional in the way they drive but also in the way they behave and work around.

You were able to bring a lot of your real world sponsors into Esports racing. Was it hard to convince them?

It was a mutual agreement. When we launched the team during the first Covid year there was less Formula 1 racing at the time. My partners loved the idea to go into Esports racing and they got involved even more than I was expecting. That has been really good. Of course, you always want to achieve more. If we have more budget, we can have more drivers and spend even more time on the project. But we are in a good position and are very happy with the way the team runs. I think the sponsors were surprised – in a very good way – about the reach and visibility that we are able to create with Esports racing.

How has your personal view on Esports racing changed in the past few years?

Two years ago, you were playing from your basement with your backpack and some dirty clothes in the background. Now you have to race properly and make sure you have a professional background. Drivers now represent the brands and teams they are racing with much more. Esports Racing has definitely made a big step in the right direction. I still think we can do better and do more, but I am excited about the way it is going. I keep pushing with the boys every day. Let’s keep working hard, let’s develop new ideas, let’s engage with the fans. Esports racing for me is a very important and good way to engage with the fans. For example, we are going to launch a new challenge called “Catch the Phoenix” where people will be able to beat my lap time in a virtual IndyCar. I really like that and I am happy to give out some cool giveaways in the end. Esports racing is just a great way to engage with the fans as well as getting partners in a good spot to make sure that our drivers get what they deserve.

We know about a lot of drivers from Formula 1 and from IndyCar who are also engaged in Esports Racing and who see this as a positive development. But did you also receive some negative feedback on being involved in Esports racing from the real driving world?

Honestly, I have never had negative feedback. Both worlds are different, but all in all it is a very good combination. They work together. And I only had positive comments from the real world about being involved in Esports racing.

Interview: Daniel Becker

Image Credits: R8G Esports

The Story of Mr. C.

Andrei Bogdan Caramidaru’s (or simply Mr. C – as commentators gave up trying to pronounce his name) sim racing journey starts in eastern Europe, Romania, around 2009. He was a passionate, yet of course illegal, street racer, living the ‘need for speed’ life while studying. With the years, his friends’ cars became faster and with that the risk everyone was taking increased.

It dawned on him that this wasn’t going to end well and he stopped. However, the passion for racing, competing and the need for adrenaline remained. It was then when he was introduced to sim racing and it immediately captivated him. Andrei is the type of guy who is either all in or not in at all. Earlier he had tried to replace street racing with mountain biking, but it cost him a couple teeth.

It seems for the better that in sim racing you aren’t actually moving. His friends called him crazy for investing what was a ridiculous €400 for a G27 wheel back then, but that’s not an insult, it’s his character. He started competing on Race07 – RaceRoom’s predecessor – and got involved in the community, became an admin on Racedepartment, today’s biggest sim racing platform.

Trucking as a means
of seeing the world

He finished his studies of sports (yes, he was an athlete, too) and public administration, yet an office job never really caught his interest, because he imagined it too repetitive. He tried to get a foothold in the UK, but eventually couldn’t afford making the transition. Like many, he says:

“I decided to do trucking for just a couple years.”

You’re tempted to ask how trucking isn’t also repetitive? So was I. “You know, yes, the driving is repetitive and the walk from the apartment to the truck, but I’m in a different place with different weather, different scenery, different views and nature every day.” he explained. He lived in Denmark and later Belgium, well at least that’s where his formal home was.

Most of the time he spent in the truck with his wife. Together they not just delivered the freight, but they took the opportunity to see pretty much all of Europe. Every time they got to a place, they would spend time actually seeing and breathing in the city they were visiting. Thus, when he says that Sweden is his favourite country and Copenhagen (or if you ask his wife: Barcelona) his favourite city, you better take that as advice.

Where there’s a will,
there is a way

During all this time, sim racing remained his passion and in 2017 there was a leaderboard competition where he needed to invest more time, so his wife took charge of the truck while he was hotlapping from the passenger seat, which resulted in a top ten finish. He already told her on the first date: “Sim racing, I need this” – so she knew what she bought into.

“Sim racing, I need this”

In 2018 the opportunity came to go to Canada on a work permit for trucking and they made the move. Being on the road for 5-7 days followed by two at home meant that he had to get creative. In the back of his truck he found the space to fit a pretty much full setup: a 32” screen, Fanatec CSL DD and pedals – all mounted on a wooden rig. Today he mainly plays iracing because there’s always a race going on, no matter the time of day. The only issue is the ping stability because he’s on a mobile connection – and forced cockpit camera – he’s a third person guy. However, “sim racing helps me stay sane” he says, sane enough at least to also run a team, raise two children and still manage to drive around 15 hours a day – 10 in the truck, 5 in the rig.

Nils Naujoks

Image Credits: Andrei Bogdan Caramidaru (apart from the 3D rig image, that’s from 3 Circle Creations)

Fuelled by Passion.

One of the great strengths of iRacing is that you can go online any time of day, anywhere in the world and you will always find a race that is about to commence. No need to follow forums, no need to engage with any type of administrative process to be able to take part. Just hit ‘join’ and wait for the session to go live.

The lack of such a simple procedure has been one of the weakest points of Assetto Corsa Competizione for players interested in easy to use matchmaking with an underlying ranking system that ensures you are surrounded by players of similar driving capacities. This comes in addition to one of Esports Racing’s inherent flaws, too much variety and too little structure.

There are simply too many games, organisers, events, classes and cars. While there is a big community playing racing simulations, there are often not enough players to actually fill a grid of a given league, at a certain day, with a certain class of cars.

It was in late 2020 that Boris had enough of the existing solutions on the platform. Some were good attempts, but ultimately lacked to deliver the full experience known from iRacing or involved working through excel tables – not really the automated system that existed on the greener side of the fence. He has played iRacing since 2009 and therefore had a very clear picture of how their system worked and that served as the base for what he was trying to create for ACC.

Unaware and regardless of whether it would work and if players actually wanted such a system, he spent the last four months of 2020 adding another eight hours of programming every night to his main job. By December 28th he had a first functioning version of a daily racing system, with servers automatically starting and registering players at certain times of day. It didn’t take long to notice that there indeed was a desire in the community for such a system. The users grew steadily and when streamers picked it up it resulted in a large influx of new players. After just one year 20,000 people registered. Half a year later, the number doubled to 40,000.

Yet, until this point it was a steady climb behind the curtain as well. The work on the platform was far from over. In the beginning there was only a rating system for the drivers to be able to sort them into grids. A safety rating nudging people to drive more cleanly took some more time to implement. They played around with various formulas before they found an outcome they were happy with. The game only provides car contact logging and its severity but there’s no separation between cause and effect. The rating now also respects the amounts of corners that were driven cleanly to calculate a number that players would either gain or lose towards their safety rating. That again is now used to become eligible for certain series on the platform of which there are now running several different ones.

While those ratings are a good incentive to nudge drivers to race carefully, it remains inevitable in racing that there will be contact. A total of 30 volunteers are helping to review and judge about 100 reported incidents per day in order to hand out penalties to further sanction reckless driving (for the sake of science the author went to test the system and rightfully received a penalty shortly after for not holding the brakes when he got spun on track).
Another 26 people are working behind the scenes organising races, running streams and social media accounts – also all voluntarily. Given how large the platform has become, also the time that the staff invests has grown. Therefore, even if it’s currently not yet feasible, Boris indeed has plans to monetise the whole project – also to give back to everyone who has been contributing to its success.

At the time of writing, LFM season 7 is around the corner, again lasting 12 weeks during which the same track is driven in scheduled races – depending on the series – every hour for one week. The best result for each driver will count towards the season standings and eventually, there will be a winner in each series. Additionally, there is now a series aimed at the fastest drivers on the game with a broadcast happening each Wednesday.

In the future, Boris tells me, they want to see if it makes sense to extend the platform to other games, now that the framework exists, but for the time being he’d be happy if all the existing features in Assetto Corsa Competizione were developed further to make the game even more enjoyable – and to make it easier for third parties to work with it by having better and direct access to the server to feed the website for example. While he’s at it, Boris mentioned other things on his wish list: “I’d of course love more tracks like the Nordschleife or cars like TCR – but at the same time this would also go against the idea of reducing the variety a bit to be able to fill the grids”.

Low Fuel Motorsports has achieved what others tried before them. They managed to gather a huge part of the active player base and offer them something they needed to enjoy the game on a regular basis without the need to do any administrative work as a player.

“All this is only possible because of the incredible work of everyone behind the scenes. I’m just endlessly thankful for everyone who is dedicating their time to LFM!”.

Virtual racing does not need fuel to happen, but its existence and success is fuelled by passionate people like Boris and the entire team behind Low Fuel Motorsports.

Nils Naujoks

Image Credits: Low Fuel Motorsports