How A Million-Dollar Vegas e-Race Will Change The Game
Formula E’s Visa Vegas eRace could be the big chance sim racing needs to crack the mainstream.
"To my mind, this is the biggest sim racing event of all time."
Dom Duhan may not be a household name in the way Toto Wolff or Christian Horner are in F1, but in the world of sim racing, he's very much their peer.
"This is the highest profile sim racing event of all time, and when I say sim racing I'm talking about the whole of virtual racing. This is bigger than any Gran Turismo event, it's bigger than any Forza, Project Cars or sim racing championship event ever."
The owner and team manager of Team Redline is talking about the Visa Vegas eRace, the million-dollar eSports event organised by Formula E, the all-electric street racing series that has bold and ambitious plans to conquer the world of eSports too.
On Saturday 7 January, all 20 Formula E drivers will be joined by the 10 best sim racers in the world as they compete for the biggest prize pot that's ever been offered for an eSports race. Even the driver who finishes 30th is guaranteed $20,000. To put that in perspective, the total prize fund for the iRacing world championship – the blue riband event of the sim racing calendar – is $30,000.
In order to earn that $20k, the sim racers had to finish in the top 10 of the Road to Vegas Challenge, a four-round competition that brought together all the top racers from the notoriously partisan world of online racing and threw them into the rFactor 2-based game. For possibly the first time, the best of the iRacing, rFactor, Assetto Corsa and Gran Turismo racers all came together, lured by the prospect of scooping an unprecedented $200,000 if they could defeat all comers in Vegas.
The level of skill and professionalism of the sim drivers, coupled with the sheer number of practice hours they put in, means the odds are firmly against the real racing drivers in Vegas. And given that five of the 10 sim racers come from a single team – Redline – the chances are that Duhan and his cohorts will have plenty to celebrate when the virtual flag falls.
Remarkably, Team Redline has been in existence since 1998, which means it can trace its roots back to the very nascent days of online racing, where only those with the patience to put up with the latency created by playing over a 56k modem could survive.
"I saw that the internet was coming about and this brought with it the possibility to race online and I thought that was amazing, because up until then it was just me and my mate on split screen," recalls Duhan, recalling an age when a 28-inch cathode ray TV could take up an entire corner of a living room.
"So I bought a computer and downloaded TOCA 2 and a programme called Wireplay and I started competing online and I started doing really well and winning loads of things. At that time I was winning prizes of around £100 in vouchers."
Programmes like Wireplay and Barrysworld allowed players from all over the world to come together. It meant that small communities of likeminded players sprang up, and organising themselves into distinct teams was the next logical step.
"I got this thing called Grand Prix Legends, which at the time was super hardcore, get past two corners without dying and you've done well. But this was a game where you could have 20 people together and that was stunning.
"There was this other guy called Greger, this Finnish guy, and we were always head-to-head. He was super talented so I reached out to him and we set up the team there and then."
With Duhan bringing in his friends from TOCA 2 and Greger Huttu persuading the then GPL world champion onboard, Team Redline quickly established itself as the team to beat, and also helped to shape the direction of the sport with the formation of the Sim Auto Racing Association and producing mods such as GTP, which allowed players to drive iconic Group C sportscars like the Mazda 787, Sauber C9, Jaguar XJR9 and the Toyota 88C.
With Huttu acknowledged as the quickest sim driver in the world, Team Redline kept on adding to its success, with its reputation extending well outside the sim world. While initially a simulator was one of McLaren's top-secret keys to its 1990s success, by the late 2000s, even teams in the lower formulae were running sims based on rFactor Pro.
Redline's reputation meant it was in demand from drivers seeking to gain a competitive edge on the track too.
"Back in 2011, Richie Stanaway was on a sabbatical after hurting his back at Spa and he asked to join us to stay sharp," Duhan says. "We didn't really know him and said we needed a little more pace out of him and he started to develop that and re-approached us and we said: 'Yeah, come and join us'.
"One of our team is a Dutch guy called Atze Kerhof, who was a speedskater, so he knew about sport and top performance and he basically helped Richie and from that he won the iRacing Pro Series, which is a top level. Through Richie, Atze started working with people like Van Amersfoort and we saw the need for a lot of young drivers to train with us."
That relationship has led to drivers such as the recently crowned McLaren Autosport BRDC winner Lando Norris joining Team Redline, while a certain young Dutchman by the name of Max Verstappen is also part of the fold.
"In simulators in the factory, the drivers get to try new developments on the car, but this is getting used to the wheel, getting acclimatised to the cockpit. Yes it's about fast times too, but what they can learn is racecraft.
"Being on laser-scanned tracks and facing guys who are damn quick helps their sharpness. And that's what Max did immediately. There are a few videos of his outside move at Blanchimont [in iRacing] – he did that the next weekend in real life in the grand prix!"
Including Verstappen and Norris, there are now around 15 permanent members of Team Redline's sim racing squad, although the traditionally low level of prize money means that all the drivers rely on some other form of income to put food on the table and a roof over their heads (and make sure they have a super-fast internet connection, of course).
So for the team to have more than five of its drivers qualifying for the Visa Vegas eRace is a huge endorsement of the level at which Team Redline is operating.
Duhan, who has taken a step back from racing to concentrate on running the team these days, gives his assessment on his Famous Five Go Sim Racing.
"Firstly we have Greger, who's known not just in sim racing but outside too as the greatest sim driver ever. He's had the most championship wins (five) and is the man to beat. He is beatable, everyone is beatable, but he is the benchmark.
"Ollie Pakhala, is newish to the scene, a Finnish guy who's been doing it for a few years and he's won some championship races in iRacing, was very fast in rFactor 2 and actually was probably the fastest in the Road to Vegas qualifiers.
"Ollie is very [Keke] Rosberg, he's got a blonde moustache for Vegas and he's outgoing and a bit of a personality in the community. He's also president of the Finnish sim racing association and helped set up the international sim racing association.
"Aleksi Uusi-Jaakkola is another Finnish chap. He's also one of the fastest – if he's out front you just can't touch him. He's won many iRacing championships and was one of the drivers who crossed over to rFactor 2 to compete in their big championship, FSR.
"We have a Dutch guy called Bono Huis. Bono is five times FSR world champion. FSR is the equivalent of the iRacing world championship, but for rFactor 2, and it's super-high level. He's a young guy, 21 years old, who started when he was 15 and is incredibly quick.
"Finally, the Italian Mr Lover Lover, good looking superstar Enzo Bonito, who has been with us for a few years and he's been known as one of the most exciting drivers because he drives with the rear. We think he's probably the fastest guy in Gran Turismo and was one of the fastest guys in Assetto Corsa too."
All 10 of the sim racers have been paired with the 10 Formula E teams, so Huttu for example will be a part of Panasonic Jaguar Racing alongside Adam Carroll and Mitch Evans.
Graham Carroll, not a member of Team Redline, but a winner of the Road to Vegas Challenge, which was organised by Cloud Sport, is teaming up with Sir Richard Branson's DS Virgin Racing team.
In terms of the wider world of eSports, where prize funds for games like Dota 2 now surpass $20million, the money on offer for the Visa Vegas eRace is small change.
But this could be a significant shift in the perception of eRacing, especially given the presence of Formula E's professional drivers and the integrated use of marshals and race control, which will ensure that nerfing off your rival intentionally at the first corner is as frowned upon as it is in real life.