July 2020

The understated Formula E ace taking sim racing by storm

One would presume that having the experience of developing Williams' Formula 1 simulator and leading Nissan's Formula E venture would serve as the perfect preparation when virtual racing took centre stage following the postponement of all real-life motorsport.

But despite all evidence to the contrary given his recent success in Esports competitions, Oliver Rowland says that's not the case. The 27-year-old scored his maiden victories in both the BRDC Esports Championship and Formula E's Race at Home Challenge series, run in partnership with Motorsport Games, within the space of three days last week.

After a string of points finishes in the series, he scooped his maiden win at the virtual Berlin Tempelhof Airport circuit in opportunistic fashion. His victory chance came when Stoffel Vandoorne (Mercedes) battled with Audi's Daniel Abt - whose virtual car it later emerged was actually being controlled by Esports racer Lorenz Hoerzing - resulting in an opportunity for Rowland to squeeze by the battling duo and take his maiden virtual FE win.

It was a fortunate break that Rowland will be hoping to enjoy when the real-life season restarts - while Abt's actions have left him suspended by Audi as he looks set to lose his place at the German manufacturer.

PLUS: Why Abt's deception left Audi with no choice

Having performed strongly with the DAMS Formula 2 team in 2017 - a season in which he was Charles Leclerc's closest challenger - Rowland was the natural choice to fill the vacant seat at Nissan e.dams when Alexander Albon received a shock F1 promotion with Toro Rosso for 2019.

Despite only having one FE race start in the previous-generation car - when he stood in for the injured Nick Heidfeld at Mahindra in Punta del Este in 2015 - and just one day of pre-season testing prior to the first race in Riyadh, Rowland scored points on his debut with the team.

He was the 2018/19 season's standout rookie, scoring two pole positions (one fewer than team-mate Sebastien Buemi) and two second-place finishes, which left him 10th in the standings. Although he's yet to stand on the podium in his second season in the championship, Rowland has four points finishes to his name from five races and is ahead of Buemi in the points.

"My target this Formula E season was to be much more consistent in terms of qualifying, results and scoring points more often," Rowland tells Autosport. "To start the season the way I did was pretty good, it was a bit like my first three Esports races.

"A lot of the sim work I do is actually about trying to make the feelings as realistic to real-life as possible, so it's the first time for me that I'm in a simulator trying to compete for times and fight to be fast. It's a different mentality"
Oliver Rowland
"I was always there on speed, but I never really had that break where you get a bit fortunate and everything goes for you. I was in group one qualifying every race which is always a disadvantage.

"Nothing ever quite swung my way, in terms of luck, there was a couple of times where I just missed superpole and I crashed in Santiago, so I would say it was positive but there was a lot more potential there to do a lot better. I'm hoping and looking forward to getting restarted and showing what we're capable of."

Until then, Rowland will have to satisfy himself with sim racing, but although he has extensive simulator experience from his time as a development driver for Renault and a junior driver for Williams - with whom he managed two test appearances in 2018 - as well as from developing Nissan's new FE powertrain, he has limited experience of competitive virtual racing.

As Rowland explains, there are fundamental differences between his function on a professional simulator - where repeatability is the aim of the game - and trying to be the fastest driver in Esports championships.

"In terms of home sim experience on iRacing (the platform of choice for the BRDC Esports series) and rFactor 2 (used by FE's Race at Home Challenge), I had never been on them four weeks ago, so I have very limited experience," Rowland says.

"Of course, we do our preparation for each [real-life] race, but a lot of that is not about getting fast on a game, it's about trying to reproduce what it's like in reality.

"A lot of the sim work I do is actually about trying to make the feelings as realistic to real-life as possible, so it's the first time for me that I'm in a simulator trying to compete for times and fight to be fast. It's a different mentality.

"When I'm helping to develop a sim, I'm developing physics, and understanding the tyre models to match it exactly to the track. [Gaming] is a lot different, it was actually very difficult [to adapt to].

"At first, I was feeling like I was doing some really good laps but I was missing a lot of laptime, so it was very frustrating. My girlfriend doesn't really like me anymore, because I spend all my time in the spare room on the simulator!

"It's been a tough three or four weeks, but at the same time, I've had to adjust and adapt and find different and better ways to be more competitive. That's a good thing."

Rowland is among 40 drivers racing in the five-round BRDC Esports Championship, which features a mix of up-and-coming drivers from the BRDC Rising Stars and SuperStars programmes and top-line professionals, some also with experience in a development capacity.

While Rowland finished second in the opening race at Silverstone and dominated the second round at Monza to earn victory and the championship lead, ex-F1 driver Anthony Davidson, a regular on the Mercedes sim in recent years, could only manage 14th on his BRDC Esports debut. Two McLaren sim aces, Gary Paffett and Rowland's FE rival Oliver Turvey, have not bettered 16th. This serves to highlight that prior experience as a well-respected long-term simulator driver for F1's top teams is no guarantee of success in sim racing.

Unlike the majority of the BRDC sim racing field - including the aforementioned trio - Rowland never raced Formula 3 machinery in real life, having exclusively raced up the Formula Renault ladder in the formative years of his career while backed by the Racing Steps Foundation.

"When I first started it was not easy, but then slowly I've been getting better," he says. "I think it helps if you race the car in reality because the sims are very accurate these days. It's something I missed, racing F3. I'm actually really enjoying the sim stuff, I'm thinking about racing every day, which is probably more than what I'd be doing during the normal season."

"What they're showing is good for everyone, it proves that generation when we were growing up was extremely competitive"
Oliver Rowland on Carlos Sainz Jr and Charles Leclerc at Ferrari
Rowland won the McLaren Autosport BRDC Award in 2011 - one of eight Award winners in the BRDC Esports field - following his first full year in car racing where he was beaten to the Formula Renault UK title by second-year driver Alex Lynn.

Lynn, who made 21 FE starts before being released by Jaguar at the end of the 2018/19 season, was one of five drivers Rowland beat to win the Award that he still draws motivation from when competing against those more recent recipients in the BRDC Esports field, including Tom Gamble and Johnathan Hoggard, the winner of round one.

"It's a massive day in your life," Rowland explains. "The drivers that have won it before, the prestige of the Award, it's a long time ago now but it spurs me on during these races. There are all these other kids that have won it and they're probably a bit younger doing F3 in the real-world and it makes me hungry to beat them.

"Obviously the support from the BRDC, Autosport, from everyone, Derek Warwick [former president of the BRDC] helped me massively through my single-seater career, that came off the back of the Award. Without him, I wouldn't be where I am today. That was a massive step in my career."

Rowland's sim racing success has not been limited to the more realism-focused platforms, as he returned to F2 in the series' virtual series for the opening two rounds with DAMS on Codemasters' more-accessible F1 2019.

"I didn't do too much practice," he admits. "I downloaded the game the day of the first race, and I had two feature race podiums, so that went pretty well. If I'm honest, I'm not as keen on the F1 game in terms of the physics and the car model, it's a bit more like a game than a simulator. But I enjoyed it, it was nice to be back in F2 in the DAMS car."

Prior to his F2 fights with Leclerc in 2017 - which included feature race wins at Monaco and Hungary - Rowland had previously been in the mix for the 2014 Formula Renault 3.5 title against Leclerc's new team-mate Carlos Sainz Jr, only for mechanical woes to derail his rhythm. Although Rowland never got his F1 opportunity when so many of his junior single-seater rivals did, he insists he's happy in FE.

"I'm very happy for both of them [Leclerc and Sainz]," Rowland says. "What they're showing is good for everyone, it proves that generation when we were growing up was extremely competitive.

"Most of them have gone to F1 now and competed at the sharp end straight away, that's a good thing to know. Unfortunately, I didn't quite get that opportunity, but I have a really good opportunity in Formula E, which I think is growing - and it's already big - so I'm happy with where I am."

Rowland's more consistent start to his now-postponed second season in FE, and the demonstration of a rigorous work ethic that has yielded success across the sim racing spectrum, is indicative that Albon vacating the Nissan e.dams seat was a richly deserved and overdue lucky break for an understated talent.

The third round of the BRDC Esports Championship at the virtual Spa-Francorchamps circuit will be live-streamed on this Thursday at 7pm BST.