7 automakers that are serious about online racing
The popularity of simulator racing has skyrocketed in the last two years. From Formula 1 to dirt tracks, nearly every form of motorsport is represented in the virtual world—and realistically, too, from vehicles to track layouts to physics. The competition is attracting not only talented drivers but audiences from around the world who consume Twitch streams of popular esports personalities.
Racing drivers from all disciplines use sim racing to keep their skills sharp and stay competition-ready, and some esports racers are making as much money as real-world pros. The rest of us dream of virtual victories and avoid digital defeats as much as we can.
Growing audiences attract plenty of brands into virtual racing sponsorships, but car manufacturers aren’t just observing, either. They’ve been supplying engineering data for their race cars to many virtual racing platforms, and now they’re involved in virtual wheel-to-wheel competition. In April of 2022, Lamborghini announced a factory-backed esports team, making it the most recent automaker to put real muscle (and serious dollars) behind online racing. Here are six more manufacturers who helped set the precedent.
This Japanese brand has been serious about esports for years, beginning with the Nissan GT Academy competition in 2008. Based on Gran Turismo for PlayStation, the program graduated drivers from virtual racing to the real world, elevating several pilots to the top echelons of motorsport.
In 2015, Nissan GT Academy sent regional winners to compete in the legendary Nissan Micra Cup. Thailand’s Thanaroj Thanasitnitikate and India’s Abhinay Bikkani were uprooted from their home countries and sent to Canada for the racing season. Both drivers proved their mettle, with Thanasitnitikate finishing second and Bikkani finishing fourth in the championship.
Another GT Academy graduate, Nicholas Hamman, raced for the Micra Cup championship in 2016 and subsequently went on to compete in NASCAR’s Xfinity Series. The most accomplished Nissan GT Academy graduate, Jann Mardenborough, went from winning the virtual competition in 2011 to racing British GT in Nissan GT-R the following year. Mardenborough subsequently raced for Nissan at Le Mans and in Japanese Super GT.
Sadly, the virtual Nissan GT Academy competition ended in 2016.
In partnership with J.A.S. Motorsport, the Italian company that builds the Honda Civic Type R TCR and Acura NSX GT3 Evo race cars, Honda Performance Development has jumped into esports with both feet.
In 2021, the HPD JAS Esports Academy program was formed with team drivers coming from North America and Europe. The North American squad is led by real-world hotshoe Karl Wittmer, who provides guidance to drivers Zach Patterson, Josh Staffin, and Cardin Lu. In Europe, the HPD JAS Academy assembled drivers German Nicolas Hillebrand and Ben Creanor from England to represent the brand.
HPD JAS Academy drivers piloted the Acura NSX GT3 Evo in Assetto Corsa Competizione-based GT World Challenge Esports virtual championships.
Observing the popularity of GT3-based virtual championships, the Munich-based company embraced esports with the release of its latest generation M4 GT3 racer for iRacing. Leaning on the skills of factory pilot Bruno Spengler, BMW worked directly with iRacing to replicate the car’s physical data points and dynamics in the virtual model.
While BMW Motorsport customer teams like Samantha Tan Racing began to receive their real-world M4 GT3 racecars early in 2022, iRacing drivers were driving their virtual counterparts for nearly a year before the real cars hit the asphalt.
As expected, the most storied brand in sports-car racing has a significant footprint in esports much like it does in the real world. Since 2019, virtual competitors follow in the footsteps of Porsche’s Supercup championship by competing in local and international iRacing series in spec 911 GT3 Cup race cars.
For 2022, Lamborghini has formed its first sim-racing squad, welcoming three top esports drivers to the team, which receives the full support of the company’s in-house motorsport department, Squadra Corse.
The Sant’Agata-based manufacturer hired South African Jordan Sherratt, Italian-Venezuelan Gianfranco Giglioli, and Italian Giorgio Simonini to drive Lamborghini Huracan GT3 Evos in Assetto Corsa Competizione-based sprint- and endurance-racing championships.
In addition to representing the legendary supercar brand, drivers benefit from engineering and data analysis from Squadra Corse specialists.
Not to be outdone by the other Italian supercar maker, the famed Maranello brand has formed its own squad, the Scuderia Ferrari Velas ESports Team, hiring top drivers Brendon Leigh, David Tonizza, and Kamil Pawlowski. The team will compete in the F1 Esports Series Pro Championship as well as some sports car–based series in 2022.
The Affalterbach-based performance division of Mercedes-Benz competes in the F1 Esports Series Pro Championship along with the other nine real-world Formula 1 teams, but it also supports drivers in virtual sports-car championships.
Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona winner, Daniel Morad, drives a Mercedes-AMG GT3 in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship and competes in the virtual version of his race car in several. One of the few drivers who competes in the top levels of real and virtual racing, Morad is part of a roster of Mercedes-AMG esports factory drivers who are chosen to represent the marque in different events, series, and leagues throughout the year.
In addition to his IMSA and esports driving duties, Morad works with Mercedes-AMG on future virtual-racing car projects. This year, Morad’s got dibs on the Mercedes-AMG GT3 in the virtual 24 Hours of Spa and Suzuka 10 Hour races.
Bonus round: Skip Barber
A legend in racing driver education, the Skip Barber Racing School lends its name and a half-million dollars in prizes to the 2022 Skip Barber Formula iRacing Series. Drivers compete in a six-round championship and the winner earns a five-day racing school course, driver coaching, and a full ride in the real world 2022 Skip Barber Formula Race Series championship.