The McLaren Formula 1 team just hired the World’s Fastest Gamer
After an exhausting week of fitness tests, engineering debriefs—plus plenty of racing games—the McLaren F1 team has crowned Rudy Van Buren from Leystad, Netherlands as the World’s Fastest Gamer. More than just a fancy title and bragging rights, that has earned him a year’s contract with the team as its new simulator driver. It’s the culmination of a search that kicked off in May of this year, as the F1 team conferred the most legitimacy yet on this corner of the eSports world.
And it’s a return to the sport for 25-year-old Van Buren. At age 11 he was Dutch karting champion—and karts are where young racing drivers usually start. But then as now, it’s a sport where talent often doesn’t shout as loud as funding, and by 16 his racing career—or the first chapter in it—was done. “You search for a replacement because you’ve still got that racing feeling inside you,” Van Buren said. “You want to go on, but there’s no option or route available. That burn inside to win, doing a lap quicker and quicker, lap after lap, it’s a feeling that you can’t express. Every boy that starts karting dreams about F1, and at a certain point that dream just vanishes. Now by winning World’s Fastest Gamer, I can relive that dream.”
Now Van Buren will switch his job as a sales manager in Leystad for one at McLaren’s otherworldly HQ in Woking, England. And make no mistake, simulator driver is a proper job in the modern F1 team. For the last few years the sport has heavily restricted real in-season testing of the cars, so there has been greater and greater emphasis put on driver-in-the-loop virtual testing.
The competition launched back in May, with opening rounds taking place online, including one with our old friends CJ Wilson Racing and TORA. Twelve gamers started the finals. Six were chosen from the judging panel, including some familiar names from the top level of eRacing; Bono Huis won $200,000 in the Las Vegas Formula E eRace in December, and Greger Huttu made headlines back in 2010 after winning the iRacing World Championship. The other six qualified online; three from Forza Motorsport 6, one each from Gear.Club, iRacing, and rFactor (Van Buren).
Finals week involved plenty more gaming, including virtual runnings of the Indy 500 and even the 24 Hours of Le Mans, complete with teams and two-hour driver stints. But McLaren put the competitors through a battery of cognitive and human performance tests and gave them a behind-the-scenes look at how an F1 team operates in what amounts to a heck of a job interview.
It’s difficult to imagine this sort of thing happening at McLaren until quite recently. Former team boss Ron Dennis was a legendary control freak who even forbade people hanging jackets on the backs of their office chairs in the gleaming white-and-glass McLaren Technology Center. But Dennis fell out with his co-owners and was forced to leave the team he led for so many years and so many championships. New team principle Zak Brown is a very different kettle of fish; in addition to taking eSports seriously (as well as hiring Van Duren, he just hired Ben Payne as director of eSports), he’s even letting his star driver Fernando Alonso try his hand in other disciplines like the Indy 500 and next year’s 24-hour races at Daytona and Le Mans.
We shouldn’t be surprised it worked, though. After all, look at the success of the Sony Playstation Academy, which has been using Gran Turismo as a platform to find new racing drivers for Nissan for a decade now. That program was the brainchild of Darren Cox, who was also involved in the World’s Fastest Gamer. “Rudy is a worthy winner, and his story of being lost to racing, then rediscovering his passion through gaming and having his talent recognised by an F1 team is almost a fairytale. World’s Fastest Gamer has established itself as the new reference for eSports racing, and McLaren has grabbed a huge first-mover advantage amongst the F1 teams,” Cox said.
It might yet be a while before thousands congregate to watch iRacing, Forza, or Gran Turismo the way they do Rocket League, and perhaps sim racing won’t ever be about huge crowds the way other eSports are. But the rest of the racing world is finally starting to properly engage with its digital offshoot; the FIA has officially sanctioned Gran Turismo Sport, and F1’s organizers are holding the series’ first official eSports final alongside the season-ending race next week in Abu Dhabi. Now with the World’s Fastest Gamer building on a decade of Playstation Academy, it’s quite clear that sim racing is the real deal.
Author Jonathan M. Gitlin