Sports Gazette

by sports journalism students at St Mary's University, London

“Anyone can use a sim to take a leap into real life racing”: Rudy van Buren on the blending of virtual and real motorsport

Posted on 24 March 2018 by James Pike
Rudy van Buren poses in his firesuit as McLaren’s official Formula One simulator driver. (McLaren photo)

The rise of eSports has been prolific in the past decade, with gamers earning millions of pounds for triumphing in virtual competition. In Autumn 2017, the virtual sport took hold of Formula One, as McLaren F1 Team created their own eSports competition, ‘World’s Fastest Gamer’.

World’s Fastest Gamer brought sim racers from across the globe to compete for a job as McLaren’s Formula One simulator driver. Rudy van Buren, a 25-year-old sales manager from the Netherlands, won the competition.

Though his sim racing ability won him a position with the team, van Buren’s background included some real-world experience: he was a Dutch karting champion in his youth before the funding to continue his racing career dried up. Knowing that the desire to race was still present, van Buren saw the move to sim racing as a natural progression.

“My sim racing career started about eight years ago. I started go-karting when I was eight and continued until I was 16. Then, my funding stopped and I started looking for a replacement. That was the moment the racing games were growing, back around 2007. I just rolled into it and I’ve been hooked ever since.”

Part of van Buren’s challenge in World’s Faster Gamer was proving his racing ability. This was gauged by his performance on four different simulation programmes. Three of them – rFactor, iRacing, and Forza Motorsport – are available to the public. The fourth was McLaren’s proprietary simulator, which is the same one that Formula One drivers Stoffel Vandoorne and Fernando Alonso use regularly.

But World’s Fastest Gamer also tested van Buren in areas outside of racing. He participated in fitness exercises, cognitive evaluations and media workshops. While not directly related to racing, they are all important aspects of a Formula One driver’s job.

The holistic approach McLaren took was one van Buren praised.

“World’s Fastest Gamer was a lot more than just driving one quick lap. All the different programmes made up one big spectrum. They didn’t just focus on one programme, they picked the guy who suited the whole picture and not just the pure hot-lapper.”

Since his triumph last November, van Buren has been busy. He took part in the 2018 Race of Champions in Ridyah, Saudi Arabia. There, he raced Le Mans legends Tom Kristensen and Timo Bernhard and former McLaren Formula One driver David Coulthard.

McLaren also brought van Buren to the second week of Formula One testing in Barcelona. There, van Buren learned more about his new role with the team.

“I’m quite familiar with driving but with a Formula One team there is a lot more to it than just driving and the same goes for the Formula One simulator,” van Buren said.

“It’s not a driving development tool, it’s a pure car development tool, so I need to be at my best in the simulator and I need to learn how to communicate with the guys. That’s one of the reasons why I’m here – to listen to how Stoffel talks and hear how Fernando talks, to see how they debrief and all those kinds of things.”

For van Buren, the media exposure to the sim racing world is only a positive. With real-life motorsport becoming more expensive, he recognises that more drivers will begin their careers in sim racing in the future:

“Anyone can use a sim to take a leap into real life racing,” he said.

“If you have real-life experience it could help, but there are enough guys out there – take Jann Mardenborough, for example – the guy never drove a car before he won GT Academy (a competition similar to World’s Fastest Gamer) and now he is living in Japan, racing for Nissan in Super GT.”

For van Buren, this year is all about living out the dream he worked so hard to realise.

“Everybody at McLaren, from the CEO to the marketing team, has been open and helpful to me. They gave me the chance of a lifetime and I’ll try to grab it with both hands and try to make everyone proud.”