Virtual racing series started by prominent Indian race drivers during the lockdown have given a teenaged gamer his big break — a move to real-world racing.
Amith Kutti, a 16-year-old from Chennai, sat on a plastic chair while driving with a gaming racing wheel in front of a PC screen at home when eRacing against some of the best drivers in the country. Kutti went wheel-to-wheel with Narain Karthikeyan – the first Indian to drive in Formula One – and Arjun Maini, a European Le Mans Series driver, in Ultimate E’s all-star race, an online series hosted on weekends during the lockdown.
Earlier this month, Kutti beat 31 racers from 15 cities to win the third season of the Indian Sim Racing League (ISRL), a virtual racing series that began in April. Consistent podium finishes in Ultimate E enhanced his reputation. His reward: admission to the karting programme at Karthikeyan’s racing academy and a training stint and test with Volkswagen Motorsport India. He will now get to drive real cars and karts on racing tracks.
“Now especially during the lockdown, there have been new virtual competitions paving the way for virtual drivers in India. I haven’t been offered anything (in the real world) before. This is the first time I have been offered a chance to train at the NK Racing Academy. Volkswagen Motorsport training is the prize for winning the Indian Sim Racing League season,” Kutti says.
Karthikeyan called him the ‘fastest gamer in India’ when he announced the tie-up between his academy and Ultimate E. “ERacing has become more relevant with the Covid-19 situation. In the first edition of this collaboration, we have decided to sign up Amith Kutti, who has excelled in multiple eSports leagues and has easily come on top as the fastest gamer in India,” Karthikeyan says. The objective, according to him, is to get Kutti a seat in the Rotax Max (karting) national championships.
Home-grown virtual racing competitions, open to anyone with access to a simulator or a console at home, were launched by professional drivers when race tracks became inaccessible because of the countrywide lockdown from March 25. ISRL is promoted by multiple-time national karting champion Rayomand Banajee while Formula 2 racer Armaan Ebrahim and Aditya Patel, who drives for Audi Motorsport, have created Ultimate E.
Both virtual racing championships held their inaugural seasons during the lockdown to keep motorsport addicts engaged. The driving experience mirrors real-world racing with practice and qualifying sessions for each race, officials watching every lap, drivers being penalised and having to enter the pitlane to repair damage and losing out on time.
When the coronavirus pandemic forced the cancellation of traditional races, Formula One, Formula E and Moto GP launched virtual competitions but they were restricted to professional drivers and teams. Formula One Esports series, which began in 2017, pits eSport drivers signed to F1 teams against each other. The Nissan GT Academy is one of the most popular virtual-racing talent hunt programmes in the world and enables gamers to make a transition onto the track.
ISRL and Ultimate E want to provide Indian drivers with a similar non-traditional route.
Kutti is confident of making the switch from the simulator to the road. “In the simulator, you feel (the physical force) through your arm and in the real car, you feel it through your body, especially when you brake,” Kutti explains. He got a first-hand experience of a racing car – his only one – when he drove an entry-level Formula LGB4 in Chennai in February. “When I first drove it, I was scared that I was going too fast. But I am comfortable now,” Kutti says.
The teenager’s initiation into gaming began when a friend convinced him to buy a Formula One game for the Xbox. A few months earlier, his father, a businessman, had taken him to watch the 2012 Formula One Indian Grand Prix in Greater Noida. He recalls being fascinated by watching the cars speed past.
Sitting behind the wheel of a vehicle, be it a kart or a modified car, will be challenging for a rookie like Kutti, experts reckon.
Banajee, founder of IR eSports, which runs ISRL, will train Kutti in a Volkswagen Motorsport car. The experienced driver talks about ‘speed’ and ‘braking’ being a whole new experience. “Speed at which you are going on the computer does not scare you but it will scare you in the real world. Getting your braking right too (will be key) because there is no real-world feel when you are racing here (simulator). Abroad, some eSports racers have done exceedingly well on the actual race track. In India, I think gamers who are talented need to be given enough of an opportunity. You can’t take the best gamer and tell him this is your one chance on track. We have to be patient,” Banajee says.
Sim racing, however, can help in the switch from a gaming wheel to a steering wheel. “For example, if you are getting a lot of understeer, how are you are going to tackle it with the steering. The process is going to be the same,” Banajee adds.
Twenty-year-old Sai Prithvi, the winner of the second season of ISRL, will also test drive with Volkswagen Motorsport. Prithvi comes with the experience of racing in both worlds. He has a number of track races under his belt, including podium finishes in the Formula Junior Rookie Series and Red Bull and ECR karting challenges.
“The first thing I realised when I started Sim racing is how similar it was and how far it has come (technology). I have been playing racing games since I was young and to see it evolve to what it is today was astonishing in terms of how accurate it can be. Except for simulating the physical forces on the body, everything else, going from setting up your car, tyre degradation or weight balance is almost perfect,” Prithvi, who made his virtual competition debut in the ISRL, says.
Ebrahim too acknowledges the advances in virtual-racing technology. “You can’t even call these games, games anymore. They are so realistic in a simulator,” he says.
Kutti would have had to wait longer for someone to give him a break but the lockdown opened the door of opportunity.
Ebrahim says the pandemic hastened the start of virtual leagues in the country. “I think we in India woke up a little late to the potential of virtual racing and how it can be a platform to identify talented drivers,” he says. Towards the end of last year, as part of the promotion for the X1 Racing League (custom-built cars on track), Ebrahim took simulators to six different cities to test waters. “We realised the appetite for eSports last year. The Covid situation accelerated the progress and we started hosting races every weekend on different platforms as part of Ultimate E, which people can play from home. The aim is to put drivers from the virtual track to the real track,” Ebrahim adds.
Kutti is currently brushing up his physics lessons as he starts Class XII, a crucial year, one which will also see him graduating to the racetrack with Karthikeyan guiding him.
Why e-racing connects with pro drivers
A skilled gamer may best LeBron James and Lionel Messi on NBA 2K and FIFA video games but stands no chance on the real turf. Virtual racer Enzo Bonito, however, already grabbed the bragging rights for his community when he beat Lucas di Grassi, a Formula E and ex-Formula 1 driver, in a real-world race last January. The G-force-driven, high-risk world of real racing demands enormous skill and bravery, but simulated racing is still incredibly realistic and difficult. It is the only esport that has parallels with the real world; the reason why it has connected with professional drivers. It starts with the gear. There’s no joystick or keyboard + mouse setup. Professional virtual racers train with wheels and pedals. Advanced simulators go even further, implementing cutting-edge aerodynamic and suspension research as well as real-world 3d technology.
“There is massive overlap and parallels between our real life and virtual worlds. The same cannot be said about many other sports,” Julian Tan, head of Formula 1’s esports division, told this paper. Red Bull driver Max Verstappen has been the intermediary between the two worlds and uses virtual racing to sharpen his skills. In gaming too, the 22-year-old remains milliseconds faster, focussing on real-life details such as steering angle, slip angle of the car, trail braking or downshifting. It’s not a 1:1 experience, but the process of tailoring the car to specific needs and using telemetry on painstakingly recreated circuits is a valid form of training for professional drivers, and a great jumping-off point for gamers looking to transition.
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