How “immersive” Esports can reflect real rallying

Skeptics remain, but Esports WRC champion Armstrong explains why practice was perfect for 2017 Rally Germany outing

Jon Armstrong

The Solberg World Cup in association with DirtFish starts next week. Excited? Yeah, so are we. Colin? Less so.

Colin is, of course, DirtFish’s very own voice of rallying Colin Clark. Our smiling Scot’s not one for sim racing. And he’s not alone. There are a few out there who don’t see the point, the relevance or the spectacle.

One man who’s got a better idea than most is Jon Armstrong. That’s world champion Jon Armstrong.

In 2018, the Northern Irishman lifted the Esports WRC title and remains at the very forefront of gaming and sim racing. No doubt, he’ll be among the pacesetters when the first of six SWC rounds kicks off next week.

But Armstrong’s one of the few who have experience of both sides. In 2016, Armstrong won a pair of WRC 2 drives in a DMACK Ford Fiesta R5 the following year. The first of those came in Germany.

Never having driven anything like the Fiesta R5 before and with no budget to hire a car for a test, Armstrong turned to the virtual world.

“With the virtual reality headset on it’s really like sitting in the seat of car,” Armstrong told DirtFish. “It’s so immersive. I used that a lot before I did Germany in 2017. I had a Fiesta R5 set-up in Tarmac trim and using the VR headset, it was just like sitting in the real thing.

“The physics we were using were so like the car when I actually went to drive it. At the end of that event we were posting fastest stage times in WRC 2 and it was my first time driving a four-wheel-drive car on Tarmac and [my first time in] an R5.

“I couldn’t really put this down to anything else other than the hours that I’d put in with the VR on the simulator in an R5. I just put in the hours like I was practising for an Esports event, but it was just pure enjoyment practising to drive the real car.

“If you get into a really good rhythm in a Mk2 Escort on DiRT Rally 2.0 it’s very realistic. It puts a smile on my face, so it must be doing something correctly.”

While Armstrong defends the use of simulators in motorsport, he understands the ultimate realism of a blind stage is almost impossible to achieve in a virtual rally.

“If there was no place for simulators in motorsport, then why do all the F1 teams have state-of-the-art simulators?” he said. “There are so many different levels: there’s the gaming level, then there’s the simulator level and it’s how far you push it and how seriously you take it, it’s what you get from it.

“For driver development I think it’s really good.

“For Esports, I can see why people criticise it, it’s maybe not exactly the same. For instance, in a rally game in Esports you basically learn the stage off-by-heart and then you’re taking every tenth you can because you’re not listening to the pacenotes.

“That’s going to be very hard to improve because it takes so long to develop the stages, we’re talking maybe four months to do one location, unless we could have stages the eSports drivers had never driven before and then make them drive it at the final completely blind… that would be a nice situation.”

Next week’s the start of the Solberg World Cup in association with DirtFish, where real drivers meet the virtual world. Can we agree it’s virtually real? Does that work, Colin?