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Digital Motorsport comes of age in the midst of the global pandemic

In the mid-90s, there was a resurgence of motorsports when the Subic International Raceway was opened by Sports Values Incorporated. This organization composed of veteran race car drivers rekindled the passion for circuit racing. Led by Philippine motorsports icon, the late Pocholo Ramirez, SIR’s democratic (read as affordable) access to those who aspired to race cars, played a key role in discovering fresh new talent for a new generation of racing drivers.

At about the same time, the video game culture exploded with the introduction of the PlayStation console by Sony. One game, in particular, took advantage of the platform’s new 3D polygon graphics technology to deliver a realistic virtual driving experience – Gran Turismo. As a racing video game, Gran Turismo showcased various cars and racetracks for players to compete in. Using a simulation format of driving cars, it allowed players to virtually be inside the cars they are racing with. It also gave them the opportunity to “experience” driving and competing in various iconic racetracks, a feat many of them would never have achieved in real life. Because of Gran Turismo and the simulation racing culture that followed it, aspiring racers learned how to take the racing line, long before they even got a license to drive.

More than two decades since then, racing video games have evolved into an all-encompassing online sports category – Digital Motorsport. The ease of access to the Internet has allowed gamers from all over the world to race together in the comfort of their own living rooms. And with various manufacturers such as Nissan, Toyota, and now Mazda collaborating with the game’s creators over the years, Gran Turismo has now become a sporting platform fully recognized by the world governing body of motorsports, the Federation Internationale de l’Automobile or the FIA.

The Automobile Association Philippines (AAP), is the FIA’s arm in supervising motorsports development in the country. It now acknowledges the potential of digital motorsports in discovering new racing talent. “For AAP we see digital racing as a hopeful stepping-stone from the virtual world to actual motorsports,” shares Ivan Isada, the AAP’s Motorsports Manager. With two sets of simulators donated by the FIA, the AAP has earmarked a plan to further support the growth of virtual racing. Isada explains, “The simulators are symbols to make known that times change quickly, and the virtual world is a consideration to integrate the digital world of racing and real world of 4-wheel motorsports. Locally we are affiliating with local digital races, an example will be Tuason Racing’s Race for Frontliners. Their path was not only relevant to the pandemic nowadays but was also a venue to initially find talent to represent the FIA Digital Motorsports Games. AAP will eventually host local digital racing games.”

Digital motorsports is indeed proving to be a fast-growing venue for discovering fresh racing talent. In 2008, Nissan started to use the platform to turn gamers into racers who would drive for the brand. The Nissan GT Academy program even saw Philippine contingents vie for the top prize of its Nissan GT Sport Cup collaboration with Gran Turismo. Mazda Philippines likewise took the same route when in 2014 it lunched the previous generation Mazda3 by doing a Gran Turismo showroom elimination event. The finalists eventually raced a real Mazda3 against Michele Bumgarner in a mirror-track live racing event.  Recently, Mazda Japan announced a partnership with Gran Turismo to have its Mazda RX-Vision GT3 Concept available for racing in the game’s FIA-sanctioned GT3 series. And in July, Toyota will conduct its own PlayStation-based GR Supra GT Cup Asia-Philippines E-sport program. With these developments, the future for Filipino online racers has never been so bright.

Now that real racing events are on hold due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns, virtual racing has become a viable and engaging pastime for many gamers. Leading the forefront of organized online racing in the country is Sim Racing PH, the Philippines’ premier online motorsports community. Composed of young and active online racers who have a real passion for motorsports, Sim Racing PH pioneered online grid racing in the country. According to Allen Escoto, one of the founders of the group, there is a clear-cut path for anyone who wants to pursue an e-racing career. “If one would like to pursue a sim racing career, he or she should first have a gaming PC or a gaming console. Second, a stable Internet connection is key for them to stream their content online.” He adds, “A steering wheel controller is highly recommended if they are to pursue this career as using such makes the cars in-game easier to drive than using a handheld controller or a PC keyboard.”

Sim Racing PH is currently hosting an online GT3 Series, one-make races, as well as Formula One, endurance and sprint races. Escoto laments however, that digital motorsports still has a long way to go in the country. “Players from our neighboring countries are more supported with their E-sport Sim Racing careers than those here in our country. Countries like Singapore and Hong Kong have their international teams fly out to other countries whenever they need representation.” Escoto adds, “But with regard to racing, what we can say is, we Filipino Sim Racers are very dedicated to get that top spot up the leader boards. We’re all extremely competitive and keen on winning.”

Fortunately, there is hope for Filipino online racers according to the AAP’s Ivan Isada. “Another option is to have a separate discipline for digital racing where GT-Sport and FIA Motorsports Games already have become an end goal to those dreaming of creating a racing career under the affiliation of the FIA.” Isada adds,  “The AAP helps sanction these digital races for the national association of motorsports to find talent and people who can represent the Philippines well in such events.”

As governments around the world respond to the COVID-19 pandemic by telling people to stay at home, there is a growing demand for activities that resemble normality now brewing.   For driving afficionados, it seems that racing virtually is the immediate fix to their craving to hit the road. Armed with racing seats, force feedback steering wheels, pedals, and shift knobs mounted on rigs and a racing game that allows all these to be used to the hilt, race car driver-wannabees and even seasoned Formula 1, touring car, rally and sports car professional drivers have now resorted to the virtual racing world to keep the flames of competition alive. If there is anything this pandemic has taught the world, it is that people will find a way to do what they love doing. It just goes to show that even in racing, passion knows no bounds.

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