Ever whizzed through a race on your PlayStation or Xbox and thought, “I reckon I could do the real thing”? Well, now’s your chance. The racing industry is looking to the new generation of gamers as one of its primary sources of future racing drivers.
One such person is Edgar Lau Shek-fai, a Hong Kong racing driver who has competed all over the world, including Le Mans. Lau graduated from the Nissan GT Academy in 2014; GT stands for Gran Turismo – like the racing video game.
“They have these timed events each year, and you have to put in your best lap over a two-week period,” explains Lau, 26, who was last year’s winner of the Asian Le Mans Sprint Cup Race. “The academy brings drivers without any real experience of racing, but who are good gamers, and turns them into professional race car drivers.”
Following the tests – a mix of driving, endurance and mental challenges – the top 32 in the region are whittled down to 12. However, it’s no easy task even getting to the last 32. “You have to drive an actual car through an autocross [a timed navigation course] as well as complete different games and competitions … and it’s all live-streamed around the world,” says Lau.
The final 12 then continue to Silverstone, the famous racing circuit in Britain, where the academy is based. “We did physical challenges, an obstacle course, driving cars of different disciplines – from buggies to Nissan 370Zs to GT-Rs,” says Lau. “It’s shown on TV as a reality show and, being a reality show, there’s an elimination process, too. The final prize is a contract with Nissan as a professional race car driver.”
The academy coaches mentor and fine-tune the key skills of the gamer-racers, such as their reaction times and racing tactics. And though they have been exposed to some aspects of racing through their game consoles, real-life racing is a different kettle of fish. “The biggest difference is actually being in a real driver’s seat, with the depth perception, the G-force, the smell, the heat … all of that is so overwhelming for someone who hasn’t been there before,” says Lau. His way of keeping calm when driving for real is by thinking about being in a racing simulator, where he has experienced the same track, car and speed, Lau explains.
On the other hand, Lau believes gamers have a certain edge over traditional drivers, who begin with go-karting. “We approach it with a totally different mindset,” he explains. “Before racing simulators were invented, people relied on their senses, but we start out learning the theories and physics of the car; we have that knowledge from the get-go. You can almost say we’re doing it the right way.”
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It’s a touchy subject for traditional drivers. “Some are jealous or they disapprove of the way we gamers got in [to racing], because they’ve done so much and feel like they deserve it more,” Lau says. “You have these gamers sitting at home all day, and all of a sudden, they are becoming professional racing drivers.”
It’s time for everyone to accept the new generational shift in the racing world, Lau says. “We’re approaching a point where people are looking to video game performances more than go-karting,” says Lau, adding that teams and organisers also reach a much bigger demographic through racing games.
The next time you pick up a controller, consider where your gaming skills might take you beyond a high score. Who knows, maybe your nimble hands could soon be wrapped around a real steering wheel instead.