The boot camps and ‘brutal’ pressure behind McLaren’s latest F1 champion

McLaren and its Formula 1 team have an impressive hall of fame when it comes to champions.

The boot camps and ‘brutal’ pressure behind McLaren’s latest F1 champion

The likes of Lewis Hamilton, Ayrton Senna, Alain Prost, and Niki Lauda have all brought trophies back to Woking.

But now added to the roster is 21-year-old Scotsman Lucas Blakeley, who, as well as winning last year’s F1 Esports championship, helped McLaren Shadow secure the constructors’ championship too for the first time since it joined the sim racing series.

The success is McLaren’s first championship since Hamilton’s F1 title in 2008, and, for Blakeley, the biggest achievement of his career – even more so than when he famously beat Sebastian Vettel in a Race of Champions heat last year.

“It's probably one of the hardest things I've actually had to process, possibly in my life,” he tells Autosport about the triumph. “I struggle to get the grand scale of it all.

“I don't think it's going to hit home for quite a while. Maybe it never will. The scariest part is I'm just trying to comprehend that I've achieved one of the biggest dreams I've had in my life.

“I've actually got to the top of the mountain. It's very surreal.”

Beyond the achievement though, what stands out about Blakeley and McLaren’s triumph is the effort that went on behind the scenes to deliver it.

What is perhaps not fully appreciated by many is the intensity and competitiveness of the official F1 Esports championship – a series where just one tenth of the second can be the difference between pole position and getting dumped out in Q1.

Lucas Blakeley, McLaren Shadow Esports team

Lucas Blakeley, McLaren Shadow Esports team

Photo by: McLaren

There still remain many sceptics about the legitimacy of sim racing, with some still believing it’s the domain of kids who spend hours per day locked in their bedrooms hot-lapping to try to make themselves quicker.

The reality, however, is much different. While the hours of commitment each day are certainly true, what really goes on behind the scenes is more akin to the kind of commitment F1 teams put in at the highest level.

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That means a lot of intense practice, endless engineering debriefs, honing strategy simulations tools from the same Splunk platform that the F1 squad uses, the poring over of data, and mental preparations to ensure performance does not dip on the day.

“This extra effort is what will ultimately make the difference, because the margins in F1 Esports are just so, so small,” adds Blakeley.

“I remember one of the key points of this season was Zandvoort in qualifying. Between P1 or P2 to P18, I think was just about one tenth. And that is massive,. You get one corner wrong, you are out.”

Blakeley explains that the preparation for each round of the F1 series is not just about jumping on the rig and doing a few laps to get up to speed. There is a regimented programme that McLaren lays down to ensure that no stone is left unturned.

The McLaren Technology Centre in Woking, where Blakeley prepares for his sim racing

The McLaren Technology Centre in Woking, where Blakeley prepares for his sim racing

Photo by: GP Racing

“We will be at MTC [McLaren Technology Centre] for two weeks, doing a boot camp,” he says. “We will arrive around nine o'clock and then often leave past 11 o’clock or close to midnight. Some days you are in early; some days you leave late. You sleep, you repeat.

“It is seven days a week, and there's no day off. When we're here, we mean business. And we're here to work very hard, and push the limits of making sure we're prepared for every scenario.”

With the performance margins so small in F1 Esports, and overtaking difficult, it means a perfect qualifying and nailing strategy is absolute king. That is why this is such a core area of focus here in the build-up to each weekend.

Blakeley continues: “We're working on the regs, working on the setups, quali runs, and working on the strategy. As a team we will be doing test races, experimenting on various setups, various strategies, and gathering bulk data, so when I jump off the rig I can speak to the engineers and strategy.

“There's a lot of depth to it. It's not always what people see that makes a difference. It's a lot of details, tiny things that will make that monumental difference come race day.”

Just like in the real F1 world though, teams can put in all the preparation they want, and make use of all the data they need; on the day of the race it still comes down to how a driver performs.

The psychological aspect of being a racing driver is endlessly fascinating, and Blakeley admits that the pressures involved in the F1 Esports series are immense; because if you go into an event and don’t perform at your very best, then it means guaranteed failure.

“I think a lot of drivers would agree the mental side is possibly the hardest part of F1 Esports,” he says.

“When you're sitting static in a rig, it's very, very easy to overthink simple processes, such as where am I going to brake, how early am I going to turn in? It's very easy to get in your own head.

“Mentally, it's brutal. It can eat you up, spit you out. It's very hard to explain it, because every single person is different, but you have just got to find what works for you.

“It's not easy, and to be mentally there every time, with no mistakes and constantly being at the top, that's one of the hardest parts, if not the hardest part.”

McLaren Shadow Esports team

McLaren Shadow Esports team

Photo by: McLaren

The relentless preparation and batting away the mental stresses were all worth it in the end for Blakeley, though, who has received plenty of encouragement and congratulations from Lando Norris in his fight for the crown.

But perhaps the biggest ultimate endorsement of the validity of top-level sim racing is the growing trend for F1 teams to take onboard many of the stars as official simulator drivers.

At Red Bull, both Rudy van Buren and Sebastian Job have been given formal F1 simulator roles, with the Milton Keynes-based operation well aware of the cross over of skills. It’s something Blakeley is very happy about.

“I love seeing fellow sim racers succeed when they jump in that environment, because they're breaking down that barrier idea that they are not driving in real life," he explains.

“I started in go karts, but I think the skills I've learned in sim racing and the work ethic, how detail-orientated I need to be with the effort, and all of these things that I've equipped myself with from competing at the highest level I can in sim racing, is definitely transferable – whether on a simulator or a car.”

And it is the breaking down of barriers with sim racing’s sceptics that Blakeley thinks will happen quickly as people better understand the challenges of being successful.

“I guess people sometimes maybe don't understand why we put our life into it,” he said. “They say: ‘You're just playing a game.’ But this is so much more than just a game.

“We don't take it seriously for nothing. We do it because we want to win and be competitive. So I think through time that will become more and more clear.”

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