The challenge continues for McLaren’s Rudy van Buren. Fresh from triumphing in the inaugural World’s Fastest Gamer contest at the end of last year, the 25-year-old faces an entirely fresh challenge at the start of 2018: racing real cars in February’s Race of Champions.
The Race of Champions (RoC) is a knockout competition contested by a veritable Who’s Who of motorsport. Held in Riyadh, this year’s entry list will feature former and current McLaren alumni Juan Pablo Montoya, David Coulthard and Lando Norris, as well as luminaries such as Tom Kristensen, Petter Solberg and Josef Newgarden.
Rudy will be thrust into the midst, first partnering the winner of the inaugural eRoC virtual racing contest in the Nations Cup, and then competing for victory behind the wheel of a proper race car for the first time in almost a decade.
We caught up with the Dutchman to find out just how he’s readying himself for the new year.
So, Rudy, when was the last time you raced a car?
“I think it must’ve been back in 2010. It was a Westfield [a nippy little sportscar, a bit like a Caterham – Ed], probably at somewhere like Zandvoort. I’d stopped karting back in the winter of 2005 - ’06, then I’d had a two and a half year break before I started to get involved in the Westfield series, first as a racing instructor, then actually racing them.
“Back then, I didn’t even have a driving licence, but it was a good way to learn. Westfields are a low-budget car, and there are plenty of drivers at the same level. In that first year, I got my racing licence, and then I did a couple of guest race appearances in my second – I never managed to do a full season. Then, in 2009 and 2010, I did a couple of Formula Ford drives.
“The Westfield is a great car in which to develop your driving – it doesn’t have too much power, but you’re sat low in the cockpit, with your head buffeted around by the wind, so it feels super-quick! Also, it’s quite easy to get up to speed, but finding that final one second – through technique and learning how to really use the car through the lap – is quite hard.
What are your preparations for RoC?
“First, I’m super, super excited. It’s a one-off opportunity that’s ordinarily completely out of reach for a regular driver, so to get this close, and to be able to show my hand, is really exciting. I want to get the chance to show people that I’m more than just a gamer. More importantly, I just want to go out there, enjoy the opportunity and have fun.
“Obviously, I’ll be on the back-foot compared to the experienced drivers. Having said that, the RoC format and the track means that everybody will be out of their comfort zone. It’ll be a more equal playing field; easier than, say, jumping in a car during a test at Barcelona.
“I’m not nervous; I’m excited.”
What advice would you give to the eRoC winner? Will you work alongside them?
“Yeah, we’ll be working together in the Nations Cup. I think it’ll be a big surprise for people to see how we fare against the other teams and drivers. Let’s just wait and see – but we’ll definitely push as far as we can in the heats. I already have a plan: each heat consists of three races, so we’ll put the fastest driver in the first and last races to maximise our chances. That’s what a lot of the other teams do, and I think that’s the way to go, too.”
Looking past RoC, when do you get your first 2018 sessions in the McLaren simulator?
“I’m actually heading back to McLaren at the end of January for some media training, some fitness evaluations, and a photoshoot. For me, that opportunity will be useful to get to put faces to names – obviously, I’ve been in contact with a lot of people via phone and email, so it’ll be nice to get to know them personally.
“As for the sim, I think I go back into it feeling a lot more physically and mentally prepared than I did during the World’s Fastest Gamer finals. As with any racing driver, whenever you start a new challenge, you always hit something of a brick wall at some point in your development. Your brain can only take so much, then it needs a break. For me, I hit that wall at the end of my first run in the sim, but as soon as I walked away from it, I started to process everything and apply my knowledge and experience.
“Since the WFG finals, I must have re-driven those sim laps more than 500 times in my mind! You don’t stop thinking and learning from it.
“For my next session, I’ll be fitter and lighter: I’m quite tall, so that will help to make me more comfortable. And I think I’ll be able to pull together all the little things I’ve learned. I’m pretty confident that, on my second go, I’ll immediately be quicker – that tends to be how it works in a real car too. So I’m excited and looking forward to it.”
Nearly two months on, how do you look back at your success in the WFG?
“It’s still a feeling of pure excitement. When I stand back and analyse it, I think my approach to the whole event was the right one. Going into it, I knew I was weaker than some of the other guys on some of the platforms. But I knew I could perform in the actual simulator; that was where I could really show my hand. So I wouldn’t have changed much – you just have to stay calm, hit your marks and perform on track.
“Also, it was important to have fun. Across the finals week, there were 12 of us and we really got on well. It was a fantastic time and we did it all while having a proper laugh.”
Finally, any advice or tips for people considering entering WFG2?
“Stay true to yourself. Be a team player. Prepare for things you won’t necessarily expect - it’s about much more than just driving a quick lap; they’re looking at the bigger picture. So work on your fitness – your body will get you results.
“And don’t focus on being super-good in just one area or on just one platform. Like I said, I knew I wasn’t the outright fastest on some of the platforms, so I didn’t get too worried if I wasn’t winning – finishing third or fourth can be just as important, and it shows you can adapt to things.
“Most important: stay consistent and don’t make mistakes!”
Follow @TheWFGamer for the latest content from Rudy and McLaren's esports programme. Watch this space for WFG2 announcements!