I've just returned from one of the most enjoyable and rewarding weekends of my career. Just over a month and a half ago, I was asked whether I would like to be a commentator on the Esports discipline of the 2022 FIA Motorsport Games at Paul Ricard in the South of France - I of course said yes and jumped at the chance to work on such a high-profile event.
The thing is, I didn't know from the start, quite what the scale of the event was like - there was over 70 nations present, taking part in 16 disciplines of motorsport, from GT racing, to touring cars, karting, rallying, slalom events and of course, Esports. For some reason though, it doesn't appear to be widely recognised by fans and spectators as a major sporting event, but it really deserves to be.
It's been that good a weekend, to save a number of you hearing the stories a million times over, I felt that I'd write about it on my website, and make use of this blog, so here we go.
It started on Thursday morning, arriving at Manchester Airport at around 11:30am, getting through security in good time, and waiting to meet my commentary colleague for the weekend - the excellent Paul Jeffrey, who has redifined the phrase "bursting on to the scene" with his commentary on real-world motorsport this year. We'd spoken a lot before and worked together, but instantly hit it off, agreed on a lot of life's elements, and had a laugh. So much so, that we got nattering and nearly missed our flight...
We arrived in Nice just before sunset, and set off in our Toyota Yaris Hybrid hire car, which we fell in love with, despite the accelarator pedal being more useful for braking than the actual brake pedal. The journey to our hotel should've been about two hours, but the sat nav in the car had told us it would be closer to four... after two hours of driving on some very dark, very windy country lanes, knowing there was a large highway that connected the airport to our destination that we should've probably been on, we pulled over, and realised that some evil sod had not just ticked "avoid tolls" on the car's sat nav, but "avoid motorways" too... swines!
Once we overcame this, we arrived at the hotel and met our good friends - and producers for the weekend - Mike Yau and Steve Proudley. It was very exciting to finally meet them in the flesh after working together so many times before and not quite having our paths cross in the real world. Again, we instantly had a good time. Paul and I got a kebab as it was late, then we went back, had some beers and played pool. I lost by a pathetic margin in every game I played.
Before we knew it, we were up and at 'em on Friday morning, heading to the circuit through a breathtakingly gorgeous sunrise over Le Castellet. As we arrived at the track, we were happy to see that our car park was right near the Mistral Hall, where we'd be working all weekend - it's the little wins...
We took some time to take in each element of the event - the GT cars, touring cars (TCR cars), rally cars, and all the great attention to detail that the organises had paid to make everything look top-notch. Part of this was of course getting acclimatised with the hall itself, the incredible stage that AK Esports and Weave had put together, and the team that would be behind the broadcast, all while getting ready to start commentating in the afternoon.
Our colleagues DJ Clark and Jesse Lee covered the Quarter Final races, which we watched from our commentary position, taking notes and getting used to liveries, nations and drivers. The excitement and buzz from the arena was magical - something I haven't experienced before. There were many moments where I felt goosebumps rush up my arms as the reaction in the room matched the drama on track, and the commentary blasting out of the speakers. I was in my element.
Very soon it was our turn - we were commentating on the "Last Chance Qualifiers", of which there were two, sending five drivers through to the semi-finals at a time. The grid would be made up of the drivers that had finished outside of the Top 10 Qualifying positions in the Quarter Finals, so a lot of them we wouldn't be seeing again. Still, we had to work hard to get all of the corresponding car numbers, liveries, nations and driver names correct in our heads. It all went well though, and we were treated to two cracking races, setting everyone up for a thrilling Saturday, with two semi-finals and the final, made up of 40 drivers representing their nations, not just themselves and their corresponding sim racing team.
That night, we met up with the legend that is Alessio Cicolari, boss man of AK Esports - another person I'd wanted to meet for so long, after working together and communicating often online. It was a miracle that we were all able to finish our food - which was top-drawer snap, as Paul would call it - amongst all of the laughter and great stories that were traded over the table. Soon enough, after a long day, it was time for bed, and already we headed into the day of the finals.
Paul and I had both woken up with great excitement, and arrived at the circuit very early, just after sunrise. We took another opportunity to walk around the paddock and pit lane, taking it all in once again - it was something that could never get boring. Paul Ricard is certainly a beautiful circuit in an incredible location. I have to say it's far from my favourite circuit, but really did make an impression and exceeded expectations. The facilities are very good in every aspect, which makes the whole experience of being there, pleasant.
One thing that made the pair of us very giddy, was the delivery of our branded FIA Motorsport Games shirts, given to us by hand by Max Ratel, son of Stephane. We were wearing the logos of SRO, the event itself, and the FIA. It may not mean much to some people, as realistically it's just some stitching, but it was an honour to wear such brands in a high-profile environment, surrounded by a glistening roster of people.
It must be said that Max was great too - he was effortlessly gliding around the event, keeping a keen eye on many elements and getting involved, sharing ideas and checking we were all happy - top bloke.
The first semi-final came and went rapidly - Paul started by introducing the show up on stage in flawless fashion, bringing drivers up on stage one-by-one, before handing over to me briefly, then the show was on the road. We had a great time during that first semi-final, and the excitement was building and building all the time. We'd organised things so that we would present the beginning of one semi-final each, from the stage, and interview the winners. Paul would then introduce the final with some guests, and we'd both end up on stage together.
There's spoilers ahead.
The buzz that filled the arena when the final came around was electrifying - everyone was well up for it - the crowd, the crew, the drivers, and of course us two! The main protagonists were the United Kingdom, Czech Republic, The Netherlands, Spain and Brazil - the latter had been fastest during Qualifying and dominated their Quarter Final, but started 5th in the final due to a 5-second penalty in the semi-finals.
Things didn't get better as they (Igor Rodrigues) were pretty much out of content by Turn 2, after getting caught up in the aftermath of some contact between Harteveld (NED) and Kadlecik (CZE) ahead... it was devastating as we were all hoping for an exciting comeback drive amongst the prospective front runners.
I'll avoid writing too much about the final, but as it came into the closing stages, Paul and I realised that we may be looking at a win, and a gold medal, for the United Kingdom - we would have to remain professional, and hide whatever bias may be lingering in the back of our brains. No, really.
Fortunately, we managed to do so as the brilliant James Baldwin took a convincing victory for our nation, and crossed the line with the national anthem blaring. As it filled the hall, combined with the rapturous applause of the crowd, Paul and I quickly made our way up to the stage. Add in the mad light show, and the whole moment, standing on the stage at such a major event, feeling the delight of second-hand victory, in front of a hyped up, applauding crowd, was unreal. As Paul turned to me and said "remember this moment", my body was flooded with goosebumps. It's definitely one of the most incredible things I've even experienced.
It took some time for the buzz to die down, and our evening was spent doing some laps for ourselves in the sims while the team packed down, before heading for a lovely meal with everyone to celebrate the epic show that we'd put on.
Paul and I then concluded the adventure with our drive to Nice airport on Sunday morning, and subsequent flight back to Manchester. We'd clicked all weekend, had each other in tears laughing, and most importantly worked very well together, and enjoyed doing it, so I sincerely hope we get more chances in future.
There's a huge number of people that may not have got a mention yet, but I met so many people for the first time and saw them at their best over the course of the weekend, and to them, I say thank you, for your great company and time;
It was good to bump into David Addison again, albeit for about thirty seconds, as he was a man that was incredibly busy throughout as you'd expect.
Nicolas Rubilar, Jonathan and Jay Wong, who I recognised from the Gran Turismo World Championships. Was great to finally meet face-to-face and have a good laugh.
James Baldwin, for doing his country proud by winning a gold medal, and being an all-round good guy, whether it came to on-stage interviews or off-air chats.
Thomas Smets from Autosport.be, who I'd been working and communicating with for a long time, thanks to the Virtual Belcar series on iRacing.
The great people from Kunos and Fanatec, for not just showing their faces but getting so involved and really helping maintain the buzz of the event.
Mike Yau and Steve Proudley for their endless stream of amazing work all weekend on the production side of things - they're really top people with unbreakable work ethics.
Alessio Cicolari and his magical AK Esports squad, and Weave who helped set up the entire stage, all the equipment and the ridiculous amount of cabling that came with it. Alessio was a great laugh, and you can tell he truly loves what he does. I also learned he's a big fan of Porsches and bidets.
...and most of all, Paul Jeffrey. A man that I've known for a while now, but only worked with once prior, remotely, on Esports commentary. We met in the airport, instantly had each laughing out loud, and that didn't change even after we'd left Manchester Airport on the way back! It was Paul that recommended me for the role, and I owe him everything for that. I'm incredibly grateful for the opportunity, and hope that we get to work together in future.
By now I've probably used all of the superlatives in the world with many repeats, so I'll sign off here, but wanted to once again thank everyone for the support for what I do, and hope you enjoyed reading this (what was supposed to be brief) re-cap of the weekend.
I only have one more "real-world" weekend left on my schedule for 2022 and can't believe it's already coming to an end, but all good things do.
See you soon,