You might not have heard of Darren Cox, but you've likely come across some of the projects he helped foster. In his tenure at the head of Nissan's motorsports division he oversaw ambitious, often outlandish ventures such as the DeltaWing, a beautiful dart of a car that's still campaigned in the US, and the ill-fated GT-R LM P1, a front-wheel drive car intended for Le Mans that turned racing conventions on their head.
Cox was also behind GT Academy, the collaboration between Nissan and PlayStation that turned players of Gran Turismo into real-life racers with a considerable measure of success. Its most famous alumni, Lucas Ordóñez and Jann Mardenborough, found their way on to the podium at Le Mans, while Wolfgang Reip has flourished outside of the programme, being picked up last year by the works Bentley team.
Now, Cox has decided to go all-in on virtual racing, setting up the first fully professional virtual racing team dubbed eSPORTS+CARS. I spoke to him briefly after the announcement about his plans for the team, and how gaming can help introduce more people to the world of motorsport.
What's the plan with eSPORTS+CARS?
We want to jump to the next level and hopefully raise the profile of everybody - the gamers, the race teams that exist, the platforms that exist and the championships.
We need the establishment to look at this, and the establishment to understand this is a new route into fandom of our sport. There's a brilliant research paper we keep referring to, about how mainstream soccer in America has grown, and one of the key drivers is gaming. When I was a lad, I kicked a ball around in the garden and watched it on TV. At some point down the line I played online - these kids in America are playing online, watching the game on TV and then kicking the ball around.
We did a survey ourselves a few months ago, and 72 per cent of gamers said their interest in motorsport came through gaming. Dwindling audiences of traditional motorsport, and we feel we can bring a new audience to that by raising the profile - hopefully we can help everyone out.
Your point about football - the profile is definitely raised by that and it's helped by FIFA, which sells phenomenally well. In the world of gaming, though, the impact of driving games has diminished.
First of all, Gran Turismo is still in rude health - I'm sure Gran Turismo Sport will be another record breaker. But something like iRacing, it's nicher than niche. It's a fantastic community, but that's not going to drive interest. We're working with a number of platforms, and one of them is Real Racing 3. Traditional gamers might turn their nose up, but from where we are 200 million downloads in 18 months provides a good platform to communicate around motorsport. The dynamic is changing, absolutely. People talk about how Gran Turismo got them into cars. Us old guys have got to recalibrate our brains in terms of how people do interact with sports these days.
Are you going to be targeting any games in particular or applying yourself to as many as possible?
Our analogy is Red Bull athletes when they started out in adventure sports or extreme sports. They didn't hold championships - they had the Athertons in mountain biking, people flying down mountains on wingsuits, they did all those type of events across genres
We'll go across all the platforms. Probably the one we'll avoid at the moment, there are some fantastic teams in there already, is iRacing. We want to go for the mass participation like Gran Turismo, Forza, we will support in future the Formula E championship, WRC, MLG has its own championships. Our plan is to take part in the most high profile championships. Again, a rising tide raises all ships. Hopefully we can bring some focus onto other teams who are doing amazing jobs. Redline's a team that's a leader in this area, and we'd love to duke it out with them in the next few years.
Redline have Max Verstappen onboard, right, which helps their profile.
Yeah, he's an ambassador for them. We'll have people in the next few weeks and months who are ambassadors. We're sure the motorsport community will cover this going forward as well. The overriding communication is people asking how they can join the team! We've signed 12 so far, and we're holding off decisions for who else is out there. We think we've got 12 of the best, but you never know. That's part of the process - looking out and seeing who's out there, and building the right group of people that we can work with going forward.
You were instrumental in GT Academy, though that was about getting gamers into racers. And it had phenomenal success. Is this a different kind of thing - it's not about getting people into racing cars. The ends of this is virtual racing, right?
You've hit the nail on the head. When I came up with GT Academy 10 years ago, everyone thought I was completely mad. Last year 130 million watched the TV show, we were on podiums around the world. If we'd have done this without that, people might have said it's crazy why do that - what about online racing. Because we've done it, there's credibility there. There's absolutely no desire to take people into the real racing world. We think the size of the pitch online is big enough to justify this. Just look at other teams in eSports - whether it's Counter-Strike or League of Legends, with big structures around them. That'll come into traditional digital sports, that'll happen and we just want to be ready for it.
I spoke to Gran Turismo creator Kazunori Yamauchi a while ago and he spoke about how he wants to use his series to help introduce people to motorsport, which sounds quite similar to what you're doing. Are you still close with that bunch?
Absolutely, I count Kaz as one of my friends and we normally meet up at events around the world. Also we were at Lucas Ordóñez' wedding. We'd love to be part of the Gran Turismo Sport championship. He's ticked the box on GT Academy - Gran Turismo Sport is very different, and it's about getting all people into racing life rather than the elite. If you look at what he's set up, that's exactly what he wants to do - he wants to get more people into real motorsport. I think we've got the same objective in a similar way. We've been there done that on GT Academy, and it's about what's next.
Some eyebrows were raised when Wolfgang Reip moved out of the Nissan programme. Is GT Academy a done thing now?
You'd have to speak to Nissan about that. I look back fondly on what we achieved, and it's now for other people to take that forward. I'm very proud of what we did and I'm sure they'll carry on shining a light. I think the exclamation mark for me was Wolfy moving to Bentley. He's done a fantastic job - he should have won at Paul Ricard last weekend but the car caught fire - the guy looks at home amongst those six drivers in those cars. There aren't any slouches in that Bentley team, so I'm proud of everything we've done.
What's the end game with eSPORTS+CARS, then?
I think there'll be more blurring of the lines. People are talking about virtual reality - I was with the guys from Real Racing 3 at Le Mans, they had millions of people playing their Le Mans update. There's things going on in virtual reality, Formula E is leading a charge. It makes the playing field bigger, and long may that continue. Motorsport is very good at adapting, and it'll grasp this opportunity. How long that'll take, I don't know, but we want to be in the mix.