@eRadioShow host and friend of FormulaeDiary.com @SpannersReady, headed off to Formula E’s first eSports event in London on Saturday – the Forza 6 #FERaceOff – to compete against a bunch of fans and a couple of world class racing drivers in Bruno Senna and Nico Prost. Let’s see how he got on…
I don’t know what I was expecting but when I walked into the Vue cinema, it was set up like a TV studio. Below the main cinema screen were two booths each holding four gaming stations. There were two stations outside the booths with a steering wheel set up. So you could choose to qualify on those but I went straight for the controller. The booths were very hot. The sort of suffocating heat that made you want to stand up and walk out frankly. But as Vettel said in Singapore, “you can’t hide from the heat”. So I endured, but let’s back up a bit.
As an 80s kid I was probably among the first generation that grew up with half decent gaming systems. I started with a Commodore 64, if that gives my age away, and loved it so much I rejected the early cartridge loaded consoles as a passing fad. I relented when the Super Nintendo ES was clearly superior and I wasted most of my GCSE revision time on Super Bomberman, F-Zero and Mario Kart among others. Back then, multiplayer involved actually inviting your mates over and them eating your best snacks.
By the time the vast world of online multiplayer gaming took off, the realities of life and family had started to become a major inconvenience as far my gaming career was concerned. It had become mainstream. No longer was it the preserve of the lonely nerds, arguing if Ryu was better than Ken. Online gaming has breached acceptable mainstream culture. I was born 10 years too late to fully embrace it but I was born just at the right time to appreciate how amazing it all is.
So here we are in 2016 about to go to a venue to play a video game that is being streamed live on the internet. The pressure was on. Apparently thousands of people tune into these events. I was told by twitter that a time in the 56’s was competitive so I loaded up the game at home and hit the long beach short track and instantly posted a time of 1 minute and 4 seconds. Bugger. I’m way off the pace with 4 days to go. What I really needed was a Rocky style 80’s movie montage. You know, the music fades in and you see lots of clips of me slowly improving despite initial frustration until I’m inexplicably an expert. Well I didn’t get that but I did manage to get down to 58.4 seconds. OK this could be embarrassing.
The staff on the ground did a tireless job ushering people around and sorting out the game stations. However they did make one error. They left the game settings with 24 computer controlled cars on track while we tried to set the first qualifying laps. The problem would be corrected in later attempts but this ended up working to my advantage. While the others complained about it being impossible to set a lap time, I stopped on track and allowed myself to be passed by all the cars. On the back straight I caught a long draft from an AI car and on the final corner I knew I couldn’t make a clean pass without losing time so I simply used the AI car as a brake and smashed into him at full speed bouncing kindly back onto the racing line. Boom. 57.2 seconds. Laughing to myself I sat back in my chair knowing I’d stolen over a second and that the setting was now being fixed. I would get a couple of other attempts that would serve only to highlight the advantage I had gained.
The cinema filled up nicely and the competition between the drivers was friendly but clearly everyone wanted to do well. Two of the attendees said they played Forza 6 every single night. They posted times just over the 55 second mark. This worried me but it turns out these two were really the only two pro gamer level guys there and they would finish 1st and 2nd. The rest were a mix of decent casual gamers and interested Formula E fans. None the less, at my level it was touch and go to see if I would make the semi-finals that were being broadcast live on Twitch. The event had a lovely buzz about it as the qualifying drew to a close at 2pm. It is here that my only real criticism of the event comes to light. The Twitch broadcast started at 3pm so there was an hour’s gap. The FIA guys and the Gfinity guys were busy sorting out the driver interviews and getting the live broadcast sorted and the in house punters where left to stew for an hour wondering if anything was happening not sure what to do. It’s not a massive grumble. If we were extras in a TV production this is exactly what you’d expect. I would have liked someone to stand up and say, hey guys, nothing is happening until 3pm, go grab a brew. Alternatively there was a massive screen. I’m sure something could have been chucked up there for the guys in the cheap seats to watch. It’s an inaugural event and they needed the production to be a priority. I get that. We did get to watch some of GT academy winner Jann Mardenborough’s qualifying laps. Yes that’s right he was in the pool for the main qualifying as well. Gulp. The atmosphere did temporarily fall flat but that was short lived.
At 3pm it all went live. The magical and impossibly well put-together Nicki Shields presented from a make-shift studio with Bruno Senna and Nico Prost as her in-house experts. These two pros would face the best 6 from the two semi-finals. The first 8 were called forward and the lights went down. The Twitch feed then switched to Karun Chandook and gaming commentator Alan Brice who delivered some absolutely stunning commentary that added an air of legitimacy to what would prove to be a mixed field.
Race one set off and (somewhat predictably to anyone who has ever raced online) there was a 6 car pile-up in turn one. Eventual champion Zak skipped though the madness to secure an easy win. Jann was involved in two further pile-ups before showing his class and finishing 3rd to qualify for the final. The quality of the racing (if not lap times) was surprisingly good (after turn 1) and as a spectator I was on the edge of my seat. This was a real actual event worth watching.
Then semi-final 2 came and my name was on the board along-side Formula E addict’s Edward Hunter. Well for the pride of eRadio and formulaEdiary I knew that beating Hunter was a must. I lined up as number 5 on the grid. Looking at the qualifying times I knew I had no real business being there on pace alone. My only shot at the top was to try and use the few years of extra cunning I had on my younger adversaries. I told them that I was going to do everything in my power to cause a turn one collision. Then I did the opposite. I slowed down off the start and allowed myself to go last. Five cars crashed into turn one and I slid through into third place. PJ Tierney waltzed easily into the distance in 1st place and I never truly bothered 2nd place. With one lap to go I had spent two laps ruthlessly defending the last qualifying spot but was eventually out-classed by a much faster driver on the last lap. I left it all on track and made my car as wide as I could but ultimately justice prevailed and the 3 best racers qualified.
Then the grand final came. The two pro drivers never stood a chance. The expectation was that they would hold their own but it was never going to be. Controlling a video game car has to be different to control than a formulaE car… It just must be. They were playing guys who played this game night after night and understand the simulated physics to a level the pro drivers had no chance of getting to grips with after a few hours practice. But the real kicker was that they were allowed to use the steering wheel set up while the others used the controller. I tried both. The controllers were an order of magnitude easier. For the casual entrants like me the steering wheel was adding 10 seconds to the times. I’m no expert but the steering wheels seemed very sensitive and made the car impossible to keep in a straight line. All things, I’m sure, that would be shaken out for a follow up event. Poor Nico Prost could not keep that car pointing forward and I had every sympathy as I watched him spin constantly. Bruno Senna fared a little better but was eventually timed out of the race beating only Nico Prost. After the champion was crowned, the two pro drivers faced off in a head to head. Credit is due to Bruno Senna because as soon as he realised that he was the faster driver instead of streaking away, there were a few mysterious lapses in concentration that kept the racers close on track. However he soon abandoned the act and some ‘playa’ style showboating finished off the first #FERaceOff with Senna victorious.
Once the dust had settled I realised one thing. I’d had a great day out. Much like Formula E’s first season, they had proved it could work. A couple of things to shake out but this was a brave lunge into a new field. Formula E is showing an energy and vision that should embarrass Formula 1. What I’m seeing from FiaFormulaE is a total lack of fear and a genuine passion to entertain the fans. I can’t wait for the next event but I fear this will now attract the cream of the online gaming world especially if prize money becomes a factor. This may reduce me to the side-lines next time. But I’ll try.
Thanks to the Mahindra Team for looking after Spanners who was frankly clueless in the art of live journalism.