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With Gran Turismo, racing esports has come of age

Monte Carlo or bust.

What an exquisitely busy weekend of racing it's just been. The impossible spectacle of Macau's street races, the intermittent spells of racing that broke out in-between the showers in China for the last 2018 round of the WEC Super Season and the 24 Hours of Cota. My own Sunday started with a 3am wake-up call for the 6 Hours of Shanghai, and ended up watching an ex-BTCC Toyota Avensis slowly lunch itself over the course of Brands Hatch's two hour Race Into The Night.

The best race I saw all weekend, though? There's not really much of a contest; it was Friday night's Repechage for the Gran Turismo Championship World Finals, a last chance effort to gain a place in Sunday's grand finals that was beautifully tense. With only the top four qualifying, the real action was to be had in the battle for fourth and fifth, and good lord did it deliver, the Brit Adam Suswillo and the Portuguese Carlos Salazar endlessly swapping positions in the improbable pairing of a race-ready Ford Mustang and Bugatti Veyron. It's a scrap that went right down to the wire, Suswillo eventually winning out in a robust fight.

Okay, it wasn't quite the real thing, but if the weekend's action has taught me anything it's that that doesn't matter so much; racing is racing, and the world of esports has some of the best racing you can find at the moment. There are epic tussles, rivalries and drama that's easily the measure of anything you'll find in the world of motorsports, and while it lacks the raw thrill of hardcore machinery being pushed to the limit, it goes towards compensating by being a little more human. This is racing that doesn't need a full-face helmet, after all, so you can see the raw emotion - the strain and the jubilation - on the driver's faces as they compete.

So on Friday night you saw the focus and determination - as well as some of the frustration - on the faces of Suswillo and Salazar as they duelled over that all-important fourth place. On Sunday, you saw the release of emotion when Igor Fraga completed his remarkable drive in the final race from 10th place to the very front of the field, earning himself the inaugural FIA Gran Turismo World Champion. And the whole thing felt like an event, and one befitting of its official FIA status - and one that, set against the backdrop of the ever-glamorous Monaco, looked like it cost a pretty penny too.

Gran Turismo Sport or real life? Actually it's real life - the Brands Hatch Into the Night race, this photo courtesy of Outside Xbox's Mike Channell.

Gran Turismo Sport's high-class looks are certainly worthy of the principality, creator Kazunori Yamauchi's eye for detail paying dividends in a stream that, at times, almost looked better than the real thing (and you can probably thank Yamauchi's photographer's eye, and Gran Turismo Sport's insistence on holding races in only the most photo-friendly conditions, for that - although an atypically beautiful Kent autumn afternoon at Brands on Sunday did run Gran Turismo Sport close when it came to sheer beauty). That's one of the key advantages that racing esports have over their competition, really - this looks exactly like the kind of thing you'd tune into on TV on any given Sunday afternoon, and the kind of spectacle that'll be familiar to millions more than the more abstract worlds of other video games.

It helps when the production is the measure of all that, and that was certainly the case at Gran Turismo's finals, the stream backed up by knowledgeable and enthusiastic commentary from the brilliant Jimmy Broadbent. Over in the slightly less glamorous Fulham across the same weekend, the Formula 1 esports series wrapped up its second season with a production that was more extravagant still, complete with the official endorsement implied by the presence and involvement of real-life F1 stars, and a stream that benefited from BBC F1 commentator Jack Nicholls and Sky Sport F1's Davide Valsecchi (a man whose enthusiasm is infectious - the former GP2 champion could commentate on the 6pm crawl on the South Circular and have me on the edge of my seat).

The F1 esports set-up is lavish, and it's helped by well-known talent being fully invested in what's going on and taking you along for the ride.

The racing wasn't bad either, even if the show might have suffered a little with Mercedes driver Brendon Leigh walking away with the title for himself and his team with a round to go (suggesting that, even though all the cars in the esports series are on an even keel, it's always hard to get away from the real thing). Still, the final race - a half-distance race around Abu Dhabi - was electrifying, Leigh's tires slowly fading as Toro Rosso's Frederik Rasmussen reined him in, only for Leigh's Mercedes teammate Daniel Bereznay to come and steal the victory from both of them at the very last. Breathless stuff, made all the more exciting thanks to Valsecchi's excitable commentary ('This race has deeessttrooooyyyyyed me' he exalted at the very end, understandably given how much of it he'd spent in a state of frenzy).

By the end of it all I was utterly hooked, so much so that my only real criticisms would be that the timing of both events - the climax of each respective series - was a little short-sighted, not only for the proximity to each other but also to other real-life events. This was a weekend that could, if you so desired, be spent in front of a live motorsport event for any given hour, be that from Shanghai, Macau, The Circuit of the Americas or the well-equipped cinema screen in the Fulham Broadway shopping centre that now goes under the name of the Gfinity Arena. Surely these are events best suited to a weekday night, when there's not much else going on in the world of motorsport. It's surely only a good thing, though, that next time I'm presented with the choice of watching an esports race or the real thing, it's going to be a tough decision.

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Martin Robinson avatar

Martin Robinson


Martin worked at Eurogamer from 2011 to 2023. He has a Gradius 2 arcade board and likes to play racing games with special boots and gloves on.