Reality Check

Over the last decade, professional sim racing has become a serious motorsport discipline. We talk with two members of the Scuderia Ferrari Esports Team.

Photo: Reality Check 1
March 7, 2024

It would be unfair to start this story by claiming that Esports, a.k.a. sim racing, will be the next big thing—because it already is. Today’s Esports virtual arena features thousands of talented professional drivers, the backing of Formula 1, and a huge worldwide following.

Scuderia Ferrari officially joined the Esports ranks in 2019, and won the Esports F1 championship in its debut season. The Italian team also competes in several other important series, including its own one-make Cup, operating on the Assetto Corsa Competizione and rFactor2 platforms.

Ferrari actively leverages the young talents headhunted there, with the best proof being the two guys I’m meeting with—right in the heart of the Maranello’s factory, in between the racing simulators of the Scuderia Ferrari Esports Team.

Who are you and what do you do here?

AN: My name is Antoni Nicpon, I’m 19, I’m studying management in Poland, and in Ferrari I coordinate everyday activities in the virtual endurance racing series. I’m responsible for getting our drivers ready for the races, managing their time, and planning the strategies for each race and for the season overall.

TP: I’m Tom Poradzisz, I’m 18, I come from Krakow, Poland, and I’ve been involved with Esports all my life.
I’ve been on the Formula 1 Esports Series grid for a few years now. It’s virtual racing promoted by the same organization as the real F1, organized and sanctioned by the same bodies, and attended by the same ten teams. I’ve had the pleasure to cooperate with several of them; I started as an intern at McLaren, then I raced for Alfa Romeo, and now I’m with Ferrari.

Right now I’m a reserve driver, so my day-to-day activities revolve mostly around supporting the drivers from the main lineup and setting up the car for the races. An extra pair of hands is always welcome, as this way the team can try out four configurations of the car simultaneously.
The decision to move to the post of reserve driver was my own, as I need to share my time between racing duties and attending high school, which remains the priority for me.

How did you come to be chosen from the tens of thousands of young adepts all around the world?

TP: It all boils down to the measurable factor of results. I performed well in the top leagues of sim racing, which are closely followed and analyzed by the F1 teams’ headhunters, and I obtained the sim-racing license which made me eligible for participating in the World Championships. [Among other achievements, Poradzisz has won Poland’s F1 Esports championship three times in the last five years.—Ed.]

Photo: Reality Check 2

Antoni Nicpon

AN: Standing on the managerial side of the team, I have a tougher task of proving my worth. In this profession we don’t have any headhunters and we operate mostly behind the scenes. I caught Ferrari’s attention as I was leading my own sim-racing team. I gained some valuable experience there which allowed me to advance to bigger structures. It’s no different from real life; to achieve something you need a lot of hard work, years of experience, and a bit of luck.

How many years of hard work did it take to reach Ferrari?

TP: I’m 18 and I’ve been present in the top tier of sim racing for the last five years. My first pro contract was signed on my behalf by one of my parents. I then joined one of the Esports agencies, which represents me to this day.

Obviously, I was active on the amateur level long before that. I started really young even by the standards of this sport. I’m still one of the youngest drivers in the grid, even though I’m now one of the most experienced ones.

AN: I’ve been absorbed by Esports for seven years now, initially as a driver. Four years ago, I moved to the post of team manager. I turned pro two years ago, and I joined Ferrari in April 2023.

Why does Ferrari, the biggest name in F1, need Esports?

AN: There are so many reasons for this! According to the most recent statistics, there are already more people following sim racing than many well-known traditional sports, like tennis, and the number is still growing. It’s working for the benefit of motorsport in general, as the worlds of virtual and real racing intertwine more and more.

That’s how the situation looks now, so what to expect in the next ten years? Will we have the first F1 champion coming from the sim-racing world? We cannot foresee this, although we know that the future of Esports looks very promising, and exactly for this reason so many want to jump on the bandwagon—legends like Ferrari included.

Is the transfer between sim racing and real-life motorsport really achievable or is it just a cliché?

Photo: Reality Check 3

Tom Poradizisz

TP: There were already such cases before, however they’re still much more the exception than the rule. This will change in the coming years, though. Drivers coming from the sim-racing world are facing limited trust from the teams, even if those who were given a chance demonstrated good and repeatable performance in real cars from the very beginning. The teams’ confidence will grow as the simulators become truly realistic, and the gap is systematically narrowing. Based on this, I believe that we’ll soon see a big talent in the F1 grid who didn’t follow the traditional career path but the one leading through the simulator. The teams also believe in this, and that’s why they’re investing so much time and energy in sim racing.

In real life, F1 drivers must overcome serious physical challenges, including exposure to extreme g-forces. Do sim drivers need to stay as fit as athletes?

TP: Sim racing is more of a mental challenge. Here, your psyche is everything, as the difference in pace over one lap may be less than half a second between the first and last driver on the grid. All of the competitors show nearly identical levels of performance during practice sessions in the comfort of their own homes, but the real test comes when they face each other at the races.

During these events, we compete with heart rates of 140-150 beats per minute. We leave the simulators wet with sweat, although not because we are struggling with the steering wheels; it’s just how exhausting it is to keep focused and remain cool-headed throughout the whole race. Psychological support is a thing in sim racing, and those drivers who use the help of professionals in this area gain an advantage.

AN: In Italy, they still remember the Latin saying “a healthy body in a healthy mind,” so the Scuderia Ferrari Esports Team’s preparations for the racing season include arranging diet plans and gym workout plans.

What’s the main difference between racing on a sim versus in real life?

TP: I heard one good observation from Robert Kubica, who has massive experience both in real and virtual Formula 1. He said that sim racers base their reactions on what they see with their eyes, whereas real-life racers react to what they feel with their bodies, mostly the lower part of their backs and upper parts of their legs, so the forces acting on the seat. So even if both of these groups seemingly do the same thing—operate a car via a steering wheel and pedals—they do so based on wholly different types of inputs.

Learning these new inputs after transferring to a real race car is crucial, and the most difficult part for a driver who’s grown up on a simulator. Not because it’s not realistic in portraying the behavior of the car, but because it portrays only a part of reality as perceived by only one of the senses.

In reality, though, what makes the true difference are the costs. The budget needed for reaching Formula 1 and the F1 Esports Series is incomparable in any way. Once the simulators become truly realistic, and the last difference between driving on one and driving the real car evaporates, Esports will become a very effective tool for the teams to headhunt true talents who weren’t able to spread their wings before due to the prohibitive cost constraints.

Photo: Reality Check 4

A season in a European Formula 4 series costs roughly $500,000. What kind of costs do you face?

TP: Professional driving equipment can fetch prices of up to $5,000, but in reality you can easily start with stuff costing no more than a few hundred bucks, gain experience with it, and even achieve considerable success. I was lucky enough that, once a need for a bigger investment appeared, I could already count on the help of my team. It’s not like you can become a World Champion only with a keyboard and mouse, but the real talents will find a way to prove what they’re worth and the costs won’t stand in their way.

Where can such talents prove their worth? Where are the teams looking for them?

AN: Everything is easily available on YouTube and Twitch. Based on these streams, you’re able to get some very detailed statistics: race results, lap times, and repeatability. The competitors can be verified and compared in a fully measurable and objective way.

Is there real money to be earned in sim racing?

TP: For us, it’s a full-time profession. Our work is based
on the contracts negotiated by our agents, we have monthly salaries and bonuses for good results in given events. A person of our age can live a good life out of that. The winning team in the Formula 1 Esport Series receives $150,000.

We practice around six to seven hours each day while still attending school and fulfilling other duties. We have dedicated a large part of our lives to Esports, and yet we still need to confront the comments that we’re just some kids playing a silly arcade game. This perception is changing, though, and in some parts of the world, like in the Far East Asian countries, it has changed already.

Apart from the ability to produce good results on a
virtual racetrack, what do you need to have a career
in this discipline?

AN: Top-level professionalism in everything we say or do is a natural thing for everybody here, so that’s not something you can stand out with. The character traits which really make a difference are the interpersonal skills and ambition.

After dealing with many young talents, I’ve come to the conclusion that the only factor which is hampering them from making their dreams come true is just the basic fact that they give up too easily and don’t believe in themselves enough. You become a champion once you believe you can become one with all your heart, and that is as valid in real life as in the virtual world.

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  • Pietro Camardella interview
  • Electrified 330 GT 2+2
  • Tifosi: Passion Play
  • F12 Buyer's Guide
  • Ferrari wins at Daytona
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