Matt Edwards and Darren Garrod kicked off their British Rally Championship title defense in perfect style with an opening round victory back in February, beating Osian Pryce and Noel O’Sullivan with Rhys Yates and James Morgan back in third.
But little did Edwards know that four months later, it would be Morgan – a co-driver – that would be walking away with the British drivers’ title. And in terms of results at least, it wasn’t even close as Morgan swept to all four rally wins. Virtual rally wins, that is.
If there was ever a paragraph that perfectly surmised the 2020 rallying season, it’s the one you’ve just read. Esports has hogged the limelight in recent months, but there have been few series out there that have managed to create the buzz and excitement that the eBRC has done.
Launched back in April, eBRC capitalized on the DiRT Rally 2.0 hype, with several competitors jumping on Codemasters’ game as a means of passing the time. And the beauty of course with gaming is the barrier for entry is much lower, allowing you or I to compete head-to-head with our rallying heroes.
That’s exactly what the eBRC did, but it went one better in giving its outright victor the chance of testing a real-life Ford Fiesta Rally4. Scotsman Alan Scott is that lucky man, getting his very first taste of rally driving for real later this year.
However, alongside the eBRC was the eBRC Invitational – open to all real-life registered competitors – and this is where the British Rally Championship organizers really pushed the boundaries of what can be done.
As well as official post-event reports, the competition was turned into a fully-fledged highlights program with as-live commentary and end-of-stage interviews. If you haven’t seen it, check out the final two stages of the final round in Scotland below.
Junior WRC and 2018 WRC Esports champion Jon Armstrong was part of that commentary team alongside presenter Seb Scott and was a big fan of what he saw.
“I thought it worked really well, it’s as good as watching real rally highlights,” he tells DirtFish.
“It was a really cool concept the way the guys did it and hopefully they do more in the future. It did feel like a real event, you had all the real drivers doing it and the real drivers were all taking it very seriously as well.”
British Rally Championship manager Iain Campbell adds: “The viewing figures have topped over 400,000 views on our Facebook page for the four rounds. The quality of the programming I thought was excellent, but of course I’m going to say that.
“However when you get text messages to you saying ‘I can’t believe I just spent half an hour watching other people play a computer game and I’ve been enthralled by it’, you know then that you’re putting on something that is actually entertaining to watch.”
The competitors really bought into it too. In order for the program to be made, they all had to set aside a particular slot on a designated evening to not just drive the stages but record their replay footage and complete a quick end-of-stage interview.
Eventual winner Morgan thinks this actually spurred them all on as it made it feel more like a real event than a game.
“When it’s a competition with your mates, people you know and [fellow] competitors as well, I think that’s what drives everybody to try and do better. It was a bit of a laugh,” he tells DirtFish.
“I don’t really get nervous on a real rally, maybe a little bit at the start but then it goes away. But for some reason on the game, maybe you don’t get the adrenaline rush because there’s no danger, so the nerves kind of stay there all the time.
“I found myself more nervous driving there than I did competing as a co-driver. I stayed nervous throughout the whole of the stage on the simulator.”
Nerves certainly didn’t show in Morgan’s driving though. His performance on home turf in Wales was imperious, but from there his rivals caught up. Morgan only just edged James Williams in Spain, was set to be usurped by fellow co-driver Richard Crozier in Germany before his inspired tire call was negated by a mistake, and only beat Edwards in a final stage thriller in Scotland.
Armstrong admitted it was “funny” seeing a co-driver come out on top, but realistically nobody should be too surprised. At least those taking part in the contest weren’t, as Morgan was tipped for success in the internal WhatsApp group.
But did Morgan himself expect to be so quick? “I didn’t expect to be a frontrunner but I’m a pretty competitive person,” he says. “My girlfriend’s family own a go-kart track so I’m there quite a lot, so I’m still quite sharp at karting.
“I practiced quite a lot for the first round but to be honest after that I didn’t get a lot of time to practice the other rounds [because we’re building a new house at the moment].
Morgan did have some competition experience to fall back on though. A karter in his youth, he has even done some national rallies as well as the odd navigational event as a driver.
Armstrong was fascinated to see how well the co-drivers mixed it with the drivers in competition, with Crozier also impressing with fifth in the championship.
“That’s the great thing about it, Esports, is the co-drivers can have a go at it as well and we can see how good they are behind the wheel,” he says.
“I was quite surprised by the pace of some of the co-drivers like James Morgan and Richard Crozier, they’re putting in some really good times, and I’ve seen some other co-drivers outside of the eBRC that are really good on simulators too like Alex Kihurani, so maybe we’ll see these guys do some real rallies in the future. That would be awesome wouldn’t it?
“I think even Noel [O’Sullivan, Armstrong’s co-driver] would be quite good, he reckons he’d be quite quick anyway. He needs to put the money where his mouth is.”
There is of course a natural psychological advantage to a driver versus co-driver battle. Armstrong concedes it would be “frustrating for me, 100%” if he was beaten by his navigator, while Morgan adds: “Oh yeah I’m sure I’ll mention it [the win] every time and I can, and I’ll make sure Matt [Edwards, who almost won Scotland] knows at the start of the next recce!”
But what about a Morgan versus Armstrong battle? Armstrong said in commentary that he’d been “keen to have a crack” at Morgan; a throwdown Morgan would be happy to accept.
“Jon Armstrong was on about doing some sort of shootout against each other, I’d probably get my arse kicked by him!” Morgan says.
“He’s like the benchmark or real world versus sim, he’s done both at world level but I’d like to have a go, have a battle with Jon, would be a bit of a laugh one day.”
As for the future of the eBRC itself, naturally organizing the series will be more difficult going forward with real-life rallying back on the agenda. But Motorsport UK has already committed to making the regular eBRC an annual title, and Campbell believes running the Invitational alongside that is vital.
“I think that the eBRC competition in a lot of ways worked because of eBRC Invitational,” he says. The two went hand in hand.
“The eBRC title will become an annual title, so I think we need to continue with eBRC Invitational but there are different things we could do with the format. We learned a shedload with this and there’s lots of things we can do to improve it.”
Watch this space.