Last week's F1 Esports Pro Series 2018 debut showed a big step forward for Formula One esports, bringing in nine of the 10 official F1 teams to vie for the $200,000 prize pool and both team and drivers' championships. Following a Pro Draft event to find the world's best digital drivers this past summer, the teams are ready to prove their racing prowess in Codemasters' F1 2018.
Red Bull Racing is one of those nine squads competing to rule the F1 Esports world, and one of its drivers took an uncommon road to the sim-racing showdown. Graham Carroll has immense skill behind the wheel of a simulator, certainly, but the Scotsman built that talent upon years of real-world racing competition – including multiple Formula Ford championships. And while the circumstances might be different, his thirst for victory hasn't subsided one bit. We caught up with the 28-year-old to talk transitioning from road racing to esports, being picked by Red Bull Racing, and what will elevate the team this season.
A new road forward
Graham Carroll grew up around – and increasingly within – race tracks. His father managed a small Formula Ford team in Scotland, and as an eager kid, Carroll soaked up as much of the experience as he could. At age eight, he got a go-kart and started to hit the track, eventually racking up Scottish karting championship wins before making the leap up to Formula Ford.
As the back-to-back winner of the Scottish Formula Ford Championship in 2007-2008, along with other club victories, Carroll seemed poised to continue his ascent in professional racing. However, amidst the global credit crisis soon after, he struggled to find the funds needed to keep going. Carroll begrudgingly put his racing dreams on hold. "I was hunting for sponsors for a couple of years and just found nothing, so I couldn't continue my racing career," he said.
Discouraged, Carroll eventually became a joiner and carried on with his life. In time, he turned to video games to try and recapture the thrill of racing and competition, playing games like Gran Turismo and rFactor, "just to see a leaderboard on there and be at the top, like I used to do back in the day," he recalls. Before long, he was on the top team in iRacing, competing against the world's best simulation racers.
When he was offered another Formula Ford driving opportunity in 2015, several years removed from his real-world racing heyday, he should've been rusty. Instead, those hours logged in front of his computer kept him fresh and elevated him all the way to the top of the podium at the Formula Ford 1600, clutching the Walter Hayes Trophy.
"This was one of the biggest Formula Ford races in history at Silverstone, with all of these Formula Ford champions of the past," he said. "I hadn't raced for six or seven years, and I turned up and I won the whole event. And that was purely just from sim racing."
Following that incredible result, Carroll redoubled his sim-racing efforts and began entering as many tournaments as he could find. "That basically led me to join any competition that was out there," he said, "and the biggest competition at the minute is F1 Esports."
Getting his wings
After winning $20,000 competing for Virgin Racing in Formula E's 2017 Visa Vegas eRace, Carroll entered last season's debut Formula One Esports Series, where he reached the semi-finals. He wasn't satisfied with the result, to say the least.
"There are a couple of settings that you can have in the game that were set to realistic instead of equal, so if you've got a rubbish car, you're going to do rubbish," he explained. "That's how my last season sort of went. It was just bad luck, and basically a bad ending. I just wanted to come back stronger. To get picked up by Red Bull is some crazy motivation for me."
Carroll was Red Bull Racing's second pick in the Pro Draft, behind Finnish driver Joni Törmälä, last season's 10th-place finisher. Meanwhile, Red Bull's sister team Scuderia Toro Rosso chose Cem Bolukbasi, Patrick Holzmann, and Frederik Rasmussen. "I've always been a bit of a Red Bull fanboy with Max [Verstappen] joining," Carroll admitted.
The teams have been practicing hard to get ready and get in sync for the season, and Carroll believes that collectively, they have the makeup to be elite. He noted that they've been rated the five fastest drivers in the pack, although they'll have to maintain cohesion to actually finish atop the podium at the November championship. "I'm just hoping that there isn't one guy who wants to be the one guy," he says. "It's a team event. We've all been signed up by Red Bull to work as a team."
Asked if his real-life racing experience brings him any real advantage on the F1 esports tracks, he demurs. His racing pedigree might pay dividends in longer sim races, when it comes to making his tyres last or being fuel-efficient, but not so much in the shorter F1 sprints. If anything, the sim-first drivers might have a slight edge, he suggests.
"One of the things I think that some of the guys, who have never driven in real-life, is that they don't have the fear factor," he says. "I get into a first part of a race and I don't want to take anyone out, I don't want to damage my car. Some of these guys, that thought doesn't go through their head."
Everyone racing in the F1 Esports Pro Series 2018 is talented, obviously, and they've been chosen from a pack of thousands to compete at the highest level. Carroll suggests that what will really set them apart is grinding out hours of practice in the game to hone their technique, which is exactly what he and his team-mates were up to when we spoke to him ahead of last week's first competition.
"You really, really need to put in hours. That's going to be the biggest thing, and working together with your teams and working on race strategies," he says. "It's a bit of a sweat-fest at the minute as opposed to normally in competitions, but if you want to win, you need to do it."
Ready to win
Last season didn't go according to plan for Carroll, but now with Red Bull Racing backing him as F1 Esports reaches new heights, he is motivated to win for his team and try to take it all. Asked what he expects from the competition, he exclaims, "First place!" And it all hearkens back to a motto that's propelled him forward ever since he was a kid behind the wheel of a go-kart.
"If you don't think you're going to win it, then you're never going to win it," he says. "I've always said that since I started, when I was eight years old. If you think you're going to finish last, you'll probably finish last."
After the first event, Carroll sits in fifth place overall, while Tormala is close behind in seventh – with a pair of Toro Rosso drivers in the Top-10, as well. Mercedes-AMG Petronas Esports are off to a commanding start, but there’s still plenty of time for the Red Bull Racing and Toro Rosso drivers to make a run for the top. And that’s exactly where Carroll wants them all to be, no matter the order.
"Listen, I'm happy to finish fifth on the track as long as it's behind my four team-mates. I'm not fussed about racing against each other. I know there's a small driver's championship, but that really means nothing to the prize money. The prize money is all in the team championship," he continues. "I'd love to win the overall driver's championship as well, but the main thing is getting the team up there as much as possible."