Inside the world of VIRTUAL Formula One: MailOnline goes behind the scenes with McLaren’s eSports team to find out what it takes to become a professional driver
- British automobile firm won its first eSports tournament in December last year
- eSports (electronic sports) is a term used to describe competitive video gaming
- MailOnline took a trip to its secretive global headquarters in Woking, Surrey
Not content with winning trophies in real life, McLaren is now competing in the virtual world for F1 glory.
The legendary British automobile company entered the world of eSports in 2017 and won its first tournament in December last year.
With two Brits on the team, McLaren saw off fierce competitors including Mercedes-Benz, Aston Martin, Red Bull Racing and Haas.
MailOnline has taken a trip to the global headwaters of McLaren in Woking, Surrey, to see what it takes to become a professional eSports driver.
The company is based at McLaren Technology Centre, a semi-circular building adjacent to McLaren Production Centre where its cars are manufactured.
MailOnline’s Jonathan Chadwick tries McLaren’s eSports simulators. As well as running eSports tournaments, the simulators are used by F1 racers to practice for the real thing
The entrance to the grounds is guarded by high security and the fact that McLaren even has its HQ here feels like a closely-guarded secret.
What is eSports?
eSports (electronic sports) is competitive video gaming. It consists of a multiplayer video game played competitively for spectators, typically by professional gamers.
eSports is competitive (human vs. human) and usually has an engaging spectator element to it just like traditional sports.
The world of eSports has grown in popularity in the last decade and there are now eSport competitions for football, NBA, Formula One and more.
There’s even eSports competitions for non-sports video games such as Call of Duty, Fortnite and League of Legends.
Slowly advancing up the long, looping drive I feel like I’m approaching the lair of a 007 villain in one of Pierce Brosnan’s Bond films.
As well as being the offices for McLaren staff, McLaren Technology Centre is home to Shadow HQ, the heart of its eSports efforts, where the Shadow team practice and compete in Formula One eSports Series.
The annual tournament, founded in 2017, is a professional eSports programme that sees fans and gamers from around the world battle it out to be the best virtual F1 driver, watched by fans online.
Between August and December, 10 teams race around 12 tracks that are stunning digital recreations of the real thing, including Silverstone, Circuit of the Americas in Texas and Yas Marina Circuit in Abu Dhabi.
The 10 three-person teams earn points both for themselves and their F1 teams in the quest for trophies and prize money, said to be around £75,000.
Like a stylish gaming arcade, Shadow HQ is lined with simulators comprised of ultra-wide HD displays, with steering wheels and seats replicating a real McLaren car.
Guiding MailOnline through the simulators was Lucas Blakeley, one of three members of the winning McLaren Shadow team in December.
‘F1 eSports is a very exciting arena – one minute it’s tactical racing, the next, it’s intense battles with outcomes changing so quickly,’ Blakeley said.
McLaren Shadow driver Lucas Blakeley demonstrates the simulators used during the successful F1 Esports campaign of 2022 at McLaren Technology Centre, Surrey
Construction of McLaren Technology Centre started back in 1998 and was completed in 2003 before being opened by the Queen the following year
Pass through the sliding doors at McLaren Technology Centre and you’re greeted by some of the most legendary cars in the company’s history
‘Due to the nature of eSports being online and therefore all the cars being equal, the racing is closer than physical F1.
Will eSports be added to the Olympics?
The International Olympic Committee stepped up their exploration of esports by sending an observer to the gaming events that were piloted at the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham.
Sportsmail revealed in February that a deal had been struck for the Commonwealth Esport Championships to run alongside the Games as a demonstration event on August 6-7, with the potential for esports disciplines to join the full medal programme in 2026.
Those developments stirred controversy among traditionalists, but the enormous, young audiences drawn to gaming has made it a compelling proposition for major sporting bodies, which includes the Olympics.
‘As a result, there is a tighter fight for the championships which makes it even more thrilling and exciting to watch as it can be very unpredictable.’
The three-man Shadow team is made up of Blakeley, along with fellow Brit Wilson Hughes and Iranian Bari Boroumand.
Shadow won the Constructors’ Championship (determined by the combined points accumulated throughout the season by drivers) while Blakeley won the Drivers’ Championship (as he was the driver who collected the most points individually over the season) on behalf of McLaren.
Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, 2022 was the first time the Shadow drivers were able to race together at McLaren Technology Centre since 2019.
‘Coming back here is putting memories in my head of last year,’ Blakeley said. ‘It was such a great experience just to be in this environment as a team.’
I tried out the exact simulators used by Shadow, which clinched the title in December at the expense of competitors including Red Bull Racing and Haas.
Unfortunately I’m more used to Mario Kart on the Nintendo 3DS, and my cack-handed control of the wheel, which seems to respond at the slightest touch, sends me crashing into the virtual wall.
Perhaps I lack the key qualities that are needed to be a top eSports driver?
‘Mentally you need to be sharp and be able concentrate for long periods of time under pressure, responding to situations proactively and reactively,’ Blakeley said.
The hyper-realistic simulators comprise ultra-wide HD displays, with steering wheels and seats replicating a real McLaren car
Blakeley, driver for McLaren Shadow, speaks inside Shadow HQ at McLaren Technology Centre
‘Your heart rate is always going to be up and in this high pressure environment, you need to be able to adapt very quickly to be successful.’
McLaren: A brief history
McLaren was founded by businessman Ron Dennis in 1985, a few years after his acquisition of the McLaren Formula One team in 1981.
The F1 team was established by New Zealander Bruce McLaren in 1963, who died after a crash at Goodwood Circuit in June 1972, at the age of just 32.
Construction of McLaren Technology Centre started back in 1998 and was completed in 2003 before being opened by the Queen in 2004.
Said to have cost around £300 million ($370 million) to build, it looks out over a manmade lake that’s almost 10 feet (three metres) deep and contains more than 50,000m3 of water.
The F1 eSports experience is intended to replicate real-life racing as close as possible, rather than augmenting it with unrealistic elements, and McLaren’s F1 racers even use the simulators for practice.
Lindsey Eckhouse, director of eSports at McLaren, said both the virtual and real-life formats of F1 are ‘closely tied’.
‘When the real-life F1 drivers are prepping for a race, all of their practice is done in a simulator, and of course our F1 eSports team are fully on a simulator.
‘So that’s sort of blurring lines of real-life racing and actual racing.’
Leaving Shadow HQ, I’m guided downstairs to the ground floor of the centre, where I’m greeted by the sight of some of the most legendary cars in McLaren’s history.
Among them is the very 1929 Austin 7 in which Bruce McLaren first learnt to drive and made his racing debut in 1954 as a teenager.
Not far away is a McLaren M8A, an experimental car model that Bruce McLaren died in at Goodwood Circuit in June 1972, at the age of just 32.
Although not the exact car involved in the fatal crash, it’s one of a fleet of the M8As that were built.
There’s also the Mclaren F1 XP5 prototype, which in 1998 set the Guinness World Record for the world’s fastest production car, reaching 240.1 miles per hour.
Pictured, Bruce McLaren’s 1929 Austin 7, in which he first learnt to drive and made is racing debut in 1954 as a teenager
Pictured, McLaren M8A, an experimental car model. Bruce McLaren died at Surrey’s Goodwood Circuit in June 1972 after crashing his M8A
McLaren was founded by local businessman Ron Dennis in 1985, a few years after his acquisition of the McLaren Formula One team in 1981, which was established by New Zealander Bruce McLaren in 1963
McLaren is already gearing up for this year’s F1 World Championship, which starts with the Bahrain Grand Prix on March 5.
Meanwhile, Shadow will be defending its title when the new eSports season starts around late summer or early autumn.
Also in the near future, McLaren will be focusing on the intersection between the two competitions, Eckhouse told MailOnline.
‘One of the things we’re looking at is how we utilise sim racing as almost a pathway into real-life racing,’ she said.
‘But the focus is winning championships, because at the end of the day we are a team that want to be the best in everything that we’re doing.’
MailOnline goes behind the scenes with Fnatic’s Counter Strike team to see how they prepare for a tournament – read more
If you were asked to picture a gamer, a vision of a lazy teenager slobbed out on the sofa may spring to mind.
But many of the world’s most successful gamers have turned their bedroom hobby into a career – and can earn millions for it.
So, what exactly does it take to become a professional gamer?
To find out, MailOnline’s Shivali Best went behind the scenes with Fnatic’s Counter Strike team in London’s Shoreditch to see how they prepare for a tournament.
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