‘It’s another world’: Inside the amazing virtual Supercars series
There is not much Jamie Whincup hasn't done on a racetrack in Supercars, but he's the first to admit sim racing has never really been his thing.
More inclined to spend his downtime away from the track on a jet ski or mountain bike than spend hours honing his craft on a simulator, the seven-time V8 champion's initiation to the virtual racing world in the Supercars Eseries has been an eye-opener.
"I wouldn't have done more than 10 laps on a simulator before round one," Whincup confessed.
"The only time I have ever driven a sim is in a corporate suite or at a promotional activity. There'll be a simulator there and they'll ask me to jump on for two laps and I just crash the first or second corner and make everyone in the corporate box feel good about their lap times.
"That had been about the extent of it for me … so I was just seeing what the hell it was all about and from that first week, even though I ran pretty much last, I really enjoyed it.
"I was absolutely blown away by how complicated and how advanced it was. From the outside you think you buy a steering wheel and some pedals and download a game on a computer and off you go.
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"But the depth of it all, the technicality and the programs … it's honestly another world."
In the absence of any real-life racing action due to the coronavirus lockdown, it's a world that has provided a content lifeline for motorsport.
While many other sports have been forced to turn to old replays, Supercars - like Formula One, IndyCar and NASCAR - has been in the fortunate position to be able to offer some "live" action to fill a racing void for its fans - even if it is in the virtual world.
Supercars has held an Eseries championship for professional gamers the past two years, but this is the first time it has held a virtual racing competition for its star drivers - and it's proved a hit.
Attracting a wildcard entry from Formula One superstar - and avid sim racer - Max Verstappen in a Red Bull Holden in round two, the coverage on Fox Sports last Wednesday night had an average audience higher than some real-life rounds.
It also attracted more than 275,000 video views on its Facebook feed from around the globe.
With realistic graphics, racing at iconic international tracks and plenty of shunts and crashes to keep the race fans entertained, it has proved a worthy substitute.
Supercars' general manager of television and content, Nathan Prendergast, said it was "priceless" to be able to deliver a live product during the COVID-19 shutdown.
"It was on our radar pretty quickly that it was something we had to pursue," Prendergast said.
"We are pretty fortunate as a sport to have the ability to have a platform that we could still compete on when the cars can't race.
"It's priceless the ability to stay and compete live on Australian television. Every other sport, sadly for them, are unfortunately unable to do what we are able to do.
"To have a platform on iRacing for us to do it … not only the fact that they can compete on it, but that it's a good enough and diverse enough product that we can actually make a broadcast out of it. It's pretty unique and we are extremely lucky."
The drivers compete from their living rooms on simulators and equipment ranging from "rigs that are worth $20,000 plus … to stuff that you can go down to JB Hi-Fi and get set up for between the $1000-$1500 mark", Prendergast said.
Of course, some drivers are into it more than others.
While Whincup adjusts to his new virtual racing world, it is one Erebus Motorsport young gun Anton De Pasquale is right at home with.
One of the keenest sim racers in Supercars, 24-year-old De Pasquale, who defending champion Scott McLaughlin tipped as the man to beat in the Eseries, regularly races against other drivers on the grid online and uses it as part of his normal pre-race preparation.
Leading into a regular race weekend, De Pasquale estimated he would usually spend at least two hours a day on the sim to help prepare for the upcoming round. But he is doing up to three times that during the coronavirus shutdown to sharpen his skills for the Eseries.
"We're doing a lot more because there is nothing else to do," De Pasquale said.
"Basically (my days) are a mixture of sim and a bit of training. Cycling is the only outdoor stuff I'm doing.
"So we would probably spend about five or six hours on here (sim)."
While De Pasquale said there was generally a bit of fun and banter racing against his fellow drivers in the virtual world - McLaughlin and Shane van Gisbergen are two of his regular combatants - he admitted the stakes had gone up a notch in the Eseries.
"At the start there was a mixture between seriousness and fun," said De Pasquale, a race winner in round two.
"Then after the first round going into the second one, everyone has stepped up a bit and a lot more people are taking is more seriously.
"The whole idea is to put on a really good show for all the fans and give Australia and part of the world something to watch when there is not too much going on."
After pulling together a basic sim for the first race, Whincup is now going all-in, having "built an awesome piece of kit" to use for the rest of the series.
While Supercars' greatest championship driver admits he won't be a match for the sim-mad "young kids", the 37-year-old doesn't want to be an old dog that can't learn new tricks.
"I'm realistic. There is no way I'm going to win a round because the kids these days, they can just spend all day on it, some drivers are spending up to eight hours a day just doing laps in the cars," he said.
"My life is way too busy for that, but I'm hoping to be somewhat competitive come mid-season.
"I hate people using age as an excuse so I don't want to be that person (that says), 'I'm too old to compete with the young kids on a simulator'.
"It's a bit of a challenge actually in a time where we don't have that competitive racing to challenge us and our personalities are hungry for a battle or a challenge or a race. It's actually filling that gap."
SUPERCARS MAKES RACING A VIRTUAL REALITY
Supercars will look at holding an Eseries championship with its star drivers alongside its real-world title fight next year after the early success of its virtual racing competition.
Filling a void for racing fans while the on-track action is on hold, Supercars has been buoyed by the level of interest in the first two rounds of its 10-week All Stars Eseries.
Supercars chief executive Sean Seamer was thrilled with the early success of the virtual racing and confirmed an Eseries could run again in off-weeks during its championship next year.
"That is something that we would be looking at," Seamer said.
"We've had a good (start), we've got to make sure that we deliver this series over the next eight weeks. That's our number one priority.
"But if it continues to be this successful, it's certainly something that we can look to execute on our off-weeks."
Last week's second round featuring Verstappen attracted a peak audience of 104,000 and an average of 74,000 viewers on Fox Sports.
Supercars has held an Eseries with professional gamers the past two years, but this is its first online title battle for its drivers.
Erebus Motorsport young gun Anton De Pasquale, one of the sport's keenest online racers and a race winner in round two last week, said he would definitely get involved in another Eseries for the drivers.
"I am always on the sim even after all this (Eseries during shutdown) I will still be on here having fun, racing everyone, having a laugh," said De Pasquale, who was tipped as the man to beat in the Eseries by Supercars champion Scott McLaughlin.
"If they were to do something else, I would 100 per cent put my hand up to get involved.
"It's quite a cool thing and something you can keep yourself fresh (for racing) and anytime you can drive or race, even though it is virtual, it is still fun and that's what we live for."
Originally published as 'It's another world': Inside the amazing virtual Supercars series