Feature: McLaren's 'Champions League' search

Feature: McLaren's 'Champions League' search

15 November 2017 – McLaren has already signed up Fernando Alonso and Stoffel Vandoorne for 2018, with Lando Norris in reserve, but its quest for a simulator driver is breaking new ground, as GPUpdate.net found out.

The last time McLaren won a Formula 1 title, dial-up Internet was still widespread, mobile phones were used for audial communication, while the likes of emojis and live streaming were a vision of the future. However, the technological world has developed at a rapid rate across the past two decades, and as part of its push to climb back up the Formula 1 grid, McLaren has moved into the virtual world to unearth its next simulator driver.
12 of the best online sim racers have gathered at McLaren's imposing Technology Centre in Woking this week, six qualifiers and six hand-picked by an expert panel, out of 30,000 entrants, for a series of races and evaluations as they vie to become a member of the Formula 1 team in 2018.

"It's an important platform for us, so I'm very happy that we were the first Formula 1 team to really embrace eSports," explains McLaren Executive Director Zak Brown from within the bowels of its space-age Thought Leadership Centre, more reminiscent of mission control than a conference room.

"We're going to embrace it for a long time, and we've got some great participants and we think they're going to really contribute to our Formula 1 team and that's what really motivates us."

Darren Cox, who was influential in Nissan's GT Academy, which launched the career of Jann Mardenborough and Lucas Ordóñez, is also involved in the project, and believes McLaren is breaking new ground with its approach.

"Motorsport has been a bit late to it but there's a lot going on," explains Cox of the gaming landscape. "WTCC and MotoGP had their eSports finals last weekend, but the great thing is I believe McLaren are leading, and our format is the one people will look and think, 'Why didn't we do that?'.

"It's champions of champions. This really is the Champions League, some of those other guys are having their Premiership battles let's say, the best guy in WTCC or Formula E or MotoGP, we're bringing all the best."

However, this is not a case of those with quick hands and quick feet rocking up, plugging in, switching on and having a race. The 12 finalists are, naturally, being assessed on their ability to drive quickly in the virtual world, and are in the process of completing Formula 1 Grands Prix, a full-length Indianapolis 500, and a full-length Le Mans 24 Hours (in teams) – but there is more to McLaren's desire than simply finding a fast e-racer. McLaren has taken eSports to the next level with a meticulous week-long evaluation, bringing in science, technology and several key figures from within its organisation to unearth the best all-round candidate for the lucrative job. Mark Temple, Mikey Collier and Oliver Turvey have joined Brown and Cox in assessing how the finalists perform on a human level, their cognitive and communication skills, and whether their ability can be transferred into the simulator.

"To be a good simulator driver you have to be a little bit unique," explains Temple, who has acted as Race Engineer in Formula 1 to the likes of Alonso, Lewis Hamilton and Sergio Pérez.

"More generally the environment is a bit different to racing; you're trying to develop the car and give good feedback to the engineers, there's a lot as an engineer we can do using offline simulations, etc, but ultimately the racing car is all about the driver getting the most out of the car, so the way he interacts with the car is incredibly important.

"They need to be quick, they need to be consistent – so they can do the same sort of lap times every time they go out – and give detailed feedback on what the car is doing in an intelligent and structured way.

"That's what the engineers need to decide what direction to take the car."

Collier has been a long-presence in the Formula 1 paddock as Jenson Button's trainer,

and this year took on the new role as the Head of Human Performance, using medical technology and data to ensure peak human performance, through a variety of strategies.

"We need to recognise it's a very different beast," says Collier of McLaren's simulator.

"The fact is that these guys are very familiar with racing, but the simulator is different, so what we need to do through a battery of assessments is identify the person who will adapt and make that contribution.

"So we're looking at three main areas: the first is stimuli recognition, because that's hugely important, the amount of information coming into the human body during a race is extensive, and what the best racers are able to do is focus on the important things and negate the noise.

"The second thing is cognitive processing, how quickly can they recognise it and then process that through the central nervous system, the final bit is the actuation, the end product, is it the desired end product, is it done in a timely and effective manner.

"We do that over three different environments. The first environment is sort of clinical and laboratory based, the second is through virtual gaming, the final bit is in the simulation environment, and each of those three poses significantly greater challenges to them.

"While someone could be very good in a clinical setting, you then start layering it up and put it in a game setting and you may find they can't handle that so well, so if you were to then put them in the simulator that's only going to be magnified."

Turvey, meanwhile, has completed over 600 days in McLaren's simulator as support to its race drivers, which has become an increasingly vital tool amid improved technology and the increased restrictions on testing, and affably describes himself as one of the best qualified to judge the situation.

"The speed is important, as they need to be pushing the car to the limit, because the F1 drivers are as well," Turvey comments.

"Consistency [is important], so any change they make on the car they [have to] recognise on the lap times, so they need to know about the feeling [of the car], and give good feedback."

McLaren's approach is ground-breaking in Formula 1 terms, but it will not be a one-off. Cox openly spoke of the desire to learn from this year's project, and did not shirk away from the obvious that all 12 finalists were male, with the bulk from Northern European countries. However, eSports is an ever-expanding market, and McLaren has been an early leader in the motorsport world, though its World's Fastest Gamer contest is no mere publicity project.

"It is a full-time job, it's very intense," says Brown of the Simulator Driver role that thebest all-round candidate will be offered.

"That dedication to our pursuit to win more world championships – that person will contribute and play a part of that.

"So they need to work as hard as the rest of the men and women that work here at McLaren."

Written by: Phillip Horton

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