Twelve months ago, Rudy van Buren was working a 9-to-5 job in the Netherlands.
When we sit down to speak, during the German Grand Prix weekend in late July, the towering 6″2 Dutchman — towering, that is, for a motor racing driver — is dressed in the orange, white and black kit of McLaren’s F1 team. It’s official gear — Van Buren is part of the team as its F1 simulator driver after winning the team’s World’s Fastest Gamer competition at the tail-end of 2017. The perks of the job are plentiful. Earlier that day he had thrashed around the Hockenheim circuit with me and other journalists in a McLaren supercar; a week earlier he had driven up Goodwood’s legendary hill in Emerson Fittipaldi’s 1974 title-winning McLaren. As life transformations go, Van Buren’s has to be one of the better ones.
Formula One teams will be granted official entries into the series’ second esports championship season in 2018, which includes an NFL-style draft and a $ 200,000 prize fund for the winners.
Mercedes has become the latest Formula One team to launch its own Esports team ahead of this year’s official F1 Esports Series.
It’s a remarkable journey, one made possible by McLaren’s decision to enter the world of Esports. The competition it launched and the incredible job offer waiting at the end attracted 30,000 applicants worldwide, all from a range of online racing platforms. That was soon whittled down to 12 who visited McLaren’s Woking headquarters, from which Van Buren emerged victorious when the series of tests were finished.
But when the Dutchman initially saw the advert last August he was just a sceptical, and slightly bitter, former driver. By his own admission, he spent much of his early twenties wondering what might have been were it not for the lack of funding and sponsorship which prematurely ended his racing career in 2009 after showing flashes of promise in karting. He needed persuading from his girlfriend to even apply in the first place.
Van Buren, now 25, remains philosophical about the career he could have had in different circumstances.
“I have a mixed view about things,” Van Buren tells ESPN. “At one point I decided to stick with sim racing, finish school, finish my degree, get a job.
“I’ve seen too many guys from my go-kart days going on into car racing with parents getting another mortgage on the house, ending up shovelling gardens, so to say. I didn’t want to be one of those kids. So eventually I pulled the plug, and sim racing was a perfect replacement. I could still do it and live a life I wouldn’t have been able to live away from racing.
“You always think about everything [that could have happened]. But there’s more to life than racing, and to be honest I never understood that until I left racing properly. I spoke to multiple guys who stopped at the same period and they all experienced the same. When you hear about the big-name athletes retiring at the end of the career they talk about the black hole they are going to fall in — I had that a little bit, but being so young you find other stuff to do. It doesn’t mean the racing blood isn’t still inside you, World’s Fastest Gamer last year just kick-started that and made me rediscover it a little bit.”
During his karting days, while he was the national Belgian champion, he even came into brief contact with a young, slightly chubby kid called Max Verstappen — as Van Buren remembers, “he was just a little bugger back then” — five years his junior. Verstappen has gone on to become one of the sport’s biggest names at Red Bull.
The lessons Van Buren learned in those early days were clear to see once he and his 11 fellow contenders were being analysed at the McLaren Technology Centre in Woking.
“It was clear there were some driving techniques I needed to get used to. As a sim racer you develop a certain style and there’s always the question ‘is this style realistic?’. Well, with me you could see I was a sim racer who had come from real racing, you could see in throttle application and those sort of things.
“If you put a sim racer in a real simulator, you’ll see on an exit of a corner he taps the throttle — bop bop bop bop — to manipulate the car in a certain direction. An F1 driver or any racing driver progressively goes on, stopping around 60/70 percent [full throttle] again, but not on-off, on-off, because it just messes up the downforce, weight transfer, everything. But in a simulator sometimes it works.
“That was something that was quite visible when we got put in the MTC — it was like, some of these guys have driven something in real life, some of these guys have come from the sim racing side. There is a difference. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that a guy with that background ended up being chosen as the winner”
What a day. Life time memories. Thanks to everyone who made this possible. Driving this best up the hill was a absolute blast. Thank you. @McLarenF1 @McLarenShadow pic.twitter.com/VijmSeswa3
— Rudy van Buren (@RvBuren) July 13, 2018
F1’s relationship with the world of esports is still in its infancy. The series hosted a successful championship in 2017, culminating in a highly-publicised finale during the actual Abu Dhabi Grand Prix weekend, and the format has been expanded for 2018. McLaren’s competition ran at the same time as that process, as did the creation of an entire Esports department, which this year has launched a follow-up to World’s Fastest Gamer — named Shadow Project.
As with anything new, or different, there is always bound to be a degree of scepticism about online gaming and F1. But Van Buren is not wearing papaya orange to make up the numbers — since starting his job he has slowly been integrated into the F1 race operation, a role that will take on most significance after the summer break.
Now that McLaren knows Van Buren is up to the job, his responsibility is growing. His simulator appearances will increase as the season resumes after the summer break, but will include a new role he trialled in the final races of July. When Formula Two driver and McLaren junior Lando Norris is not available, Van Buren will hop into the MTC simulator during a race weekend. That provides McLaren with real-time data during practice sessions, helps configure set-ups and troubleshoot various problems in what has been another challenging campaign for the team. Van Buren’s feedback and performance must be at an F1 calibre to continue. He would not still be around if it wasn’t.
There is a very obvious incentive for Van Buren, as there was during the competition itself last year — an extension into 2019 and a continued role with the team in some capacity.
“Everyone in the team needs to be convinced this ‘sim guy’ can do the job. That’s going well but it takes time. But the trust is growing.
“The initial plan was good, but the new plan, which goes through to December, is even better. I couldn’t have dreamed that. It’s going to ramp up after the summer break, there won’t be a two-week period where I’m not in the simulator. That also helps confidence, because it’s such a machine to drive, the more you’re in it, the more comfortable you feel in it. As soon as you stack up the day and you get a good period you feel confident in the simulator and also the guys working behind you looking at the data. That’s all I need to keep doing to get a contract into 2019.”
Four half-hour episodes of World’s Fastest Gamer powered by Millennial Esports will air on Saturday, August 25, beginning at 7 a.m. ET between live coverage of Practice 3 from the Belgian Grand Prix and live Qualifying. In addition to airing on ESPN2, the programs also will be streaming on the ESPN App.