There was concern in Oliver Solberg’s voice. Gambling on the weather, he’d run a softer tyre for the loop. He’d gambled and lost. The 18-year-old talked of dropping 20 seconds – more than enough to cost him what would have been a hard-earned rally win.
My question was, to me, the obvious one about how quickly the car had started to move on the tyres; how quickly had he lost that initial bite on turn-in?
There was a pause.
“Oliver… are you still there?”
There was laughter on the line.
“This is a proper end of stage interview,” he said.
On the line?
Yes. This was DirtFish’s interview with Solberg after five of 12 Rally Argentina stages in The Solberg RACE.
There were no tyres to go off and no car for them to start moving around beneath. It was all in the virtual world.
This, I must admit, wasn’t a world I had any serious interest in until recently. Recently comes in two stages. The first was 18 months ago at Rally Germany where I watched Jon Armstrong win the 2018 WRC Esports title.
More than 250 hours of practice on WRC 7 had brought the likeable Northern Irishman to a six-way final held in the Bostalsee service park. And then he won. I went to that final ready to write a light-hearted column scoffing at this simulation sham.
Going into the final stage, my screen-staring focus was just as intense as it had been a couple of months earlier when Thierry Neuville beat Sébastien Ogier to victory by seven-tenths of a second in a Sardinian powerstage that still ranks among the most stressful in the history of time.
Honestly, I was hooked. Virtually and literally.
The second spike in my interest came following that conversation with Solberg.
Talking through his options to try and work with high tyre wear and what his plan was for the second half of the event was an incredible eye-opener.
The roads in South America were rough and getting rougher and Solberg was surprised by the speed his rivals had found.
“I know how hard I have to go to make those times,” he told me, “and I know the risk those guys are taking. So far, I didn’t take that risk. Maybe the time has come. But the weather is warm and the temperatures will be getting higher, so all the time I have to think to the tyre management.”
On the other end of the phone, I was fully immersed in that world. Talking through potential suspension set-up solutions, at one point, I was close to asking if we should bring Petter in to talk through all the possible scenarios to find more speed and to better balance that knife-edge trade-off between grip and precision.
I relayed this conversation to my DirtFish colleague Colin Clark and he was quite rude.
The foundations of the Scottish tirade lay in the fact that this thing’s simply not real. It’s pretend. And how can people get excited by something that’s pretend.
I can completely see that point. I love rallying because of the sensory assault standing at the side of the road brings. The noise, the smell, the breath-holding, heart-in-the-mouth moment as the car flirts with disaster, wags its tails in the face of apparently impending doom. Only to be brought under control by a genuine sporting hero.
And that’s from the outside. If you’re lucky enough to be in the car, then that’s another dimension. Another world.
Col’s right. You can’t recreate that in your bedroom.
“I’ve never got it,” Clark reckoned. “I never played that bloody Pacman thing when I was young and I’ve never had any interest in computer games. They’re just not me and just because I’m a fan of rallying, it doesn’t mean I have to be a fan of sim racing. It requires zero bravery because there’s no inherent danger. It’s a nonsense. I can only get excited by things that a real in this world.”
It’s impossible to argue with the absence of danger. Of course it is.
But having wound himself up into another shouty outburst, he questioned the skills demanded.
There, I have to disagree. The skills demanded to get through a stage on a sim are entirely similar. The precision, the hand-eye co-ordination, they’re all there. Armstrong is living proof of that. Talk to him and he’s adamant, his sim work helps make him a better driver.
It’s not for everybody. Jenson Button famously disliked simulators despite their usefulness, so you’re in good company there Colin.
But, right now and for the next few weeks, looking back, talking and competition in the virtual world’s as good as it’s going to get for us.
Time to embrace it, Col.
He’s still shouting.