It was probably a stretch to assume F1 rookie Lando Norris knew what dial-up internet was. After all, why would any 18-year-old?
The discussion was online racing — one of the British teenager’s favourite topics. When he’s not racing against the best in the world on track, the teenager is trying to find time to race the best in the world online.
« You can do it whenever you want, it’s great, » Norris told ESPN. « Unless there’s a thunderstorm or something and your electricity goes out. My internet’s cut out momentarily a couple of times… But that’s about it. »
When I then pointed out to him that it would have been a nightmare in the era of temperamental dial-up internet, he stared blankly back at me. Following an explanation of how often it would cut out and the crackly jingle engrained in the mind of anyone who grew up in the 1990s and remembers the daily pain of trying to get online, he laughed and said: « Oh really? That sucks. I feel bad for you guys! »
A discussion about esports is perhaps the perfect example of the generational divide that F1 and many other sports are trying to bridge today. F1 embraced this growing cultural genre by launching its own esports championship in 2017, something which is now into its third season and has evolved into a series which sees the grid’s 10 teams draft actual gamers at a live event in London. It was at this year’s draft that I caught up with Norris, halfway through what has been a stellar start to his first F1 season.
It’s a remarkable time in his life. Norris has already been signed for another season with McLaren, and he has taken to F1 like a fish to water, justifying the hype which has followed him from karting and his progression through the racing ranks. He traces much of his current success to the leg up he got from his favourite pastime.
« Even before I started in karting or anything, by racing online you learn how to drive a racing line, you learn how to brake, how to release the brake into the corner, apex, run wide on the exit, » he said.
« You learn that very basic thing, the most simple thing of all, on a game to begin with, then you keep developing it from there. So already since the beginning it’s helped.
« And even now you can learn good things from a strategy perspective and on set-up. For example, I’m able to go into every race weekend against Carlos [Sainz], I’m able to learn where I’m likely to be good, where I’m likely to be bad or the places I’m going to need to work on.
« Ninety-nine percent of the time it’s probably accurate — for example, we came into Silverstone knowing a few corners Carlos would probably be better than me, and he was, then through FP1 and FP2 we start working on it. But I already know about it on the simulator. So even until this day it’s a thing I use to change my driving, learn about how to drive in different ways to be fast in all areas, which is difficult to do when you’re just one driver. »
A few days after we spoke, Norris paired up with Red Bull’s Max Verstappen to contest iRacing’s Bathurst 12 Hours. Verstappen has been the star performer in F1 this season, claiming two memorable victories and fighting wheel-to-wheel with Lewis Hamilton at the Hungarian Grand Prix, and Norris has relished the chance to compare himself to F1’s hottest commodity.
« I didn’t really know Max that well beforehand, but I’d say we’re much better friends now because of it. So that’s a pretty cool thing.
« But it’s also seeing him, knowing he’s an actual driver too, seeing how he works on a simulator. He kind of struggles with the same things I do. It’s hard to drive them all exactly the same way you drive a Formula One car; you have to drive them in quite a specific way. It’s a good thing. We can have good racing, learn about different tracks, where to overtake and where not to overtake.
« But it seems more relevant going against an actual driver and trying to beat him not just on track but off track as well. That’s definitely helped me this year. »
The level of competition continues to impress Norris, who joked that he and Verstappen usually have a target on their backs whenever they decide to team up.
« I think of course people want to beat us if we race in an event. But it’s not fair to assume we just turn up and are better than everyone — they’re all extremely good drivers, better than me on sim driving, I would say.
« I can be good, but the accuracy and finesse they have from one lap to another is pretty insane, I think. That’s one of their big strengths is their consistency, for being a simulator driver, that’s something they can play and use as a big strength in sim racing. I get on the sim and I keep going wide, then nail it, then wide, but they’re really consistent, just laps and laps and laps doing the same time.
« There’s a lot of things they’re very good at and better than I am on a simulator, and Max, but that’s the cool thing for us. We have to adapt our driving, change it and try and beat these guys. »
The level of talent in online racing is hard to deny, and it’s little surprise esports has made a big splash in racing recently. In 2018, McLaren gave Dutchman Rudy van Buren, who won their World’s Fastest Gamer competition, a key role working in its F1 simulator, while esports star Enzo Bonito beat former F1 driver Lucas di Grassi in a head-to-head at the Race of Champions in January this year.
The rise of esports has led to the inevitable question about when an online gamer might one day be ready to join the proper F1 grid. Norris expects to see esports’ role in F1 continue to grow.
When I ask whether he could line up against a gamer-turned-racer in F1 one day, he said: « Absolutely. We’ve already had people going from driving on a sim to beating some extremely good drivers at Race of Champions.
« I know the guys who have done it, I know them very well, and it’s cool to see them going from just driving on the sim at home, or wherever they are, to seeing them racing in a car and doing well. I think that’s a lot of the point of it, trying to get more drivers from the sim driving into an actual race car and give them that opportunity.
« If this becomes much bigger, which I think it will, there will be more money in it and they’ll be more worthy of traveling to each event. Having practice sessions, qualifying sessions and the race on Sunday alongside our ones. I would see it as cool to have — maybe not all the other drivers would! But it’s something I would love to see in the future. »
But Norris sees more immediate benefits for F1 in the short term.
« I hope it works both ways — people who just watch sim racing and so on will start watching actual Formula One; people who watch Formula One will hear about this and see it and start watching. It’s getting bigger, and the bigger it is, eventually, I hope it runs alongside the actual championship — esports championship and the F1 championship, I think that would be a great to thing to have. »
The future of esports racing is hard to predict, but it’s clear that whatever happens, Norris is a perfect candidate to be the face of it for a long time to come. The rookie will continue his debut F1 season when racing resumes at the Belgian Grand Prix at Spa-Francorchamps on Sept.1.