Irvine Esports whizz-kid becoming a driving force with McLaren

GROWING up in the west of Scotland, Lucas Blakeley never imagined, even in his wildest dreams, that he would one day rub shoulders with the biggest names in motorsport.

But thanks to the rise of esports, that is exactly what he is doing.

Blakeley last month was revealed as one of McLaren’s new esports drivers and as part of the McLaren Shadow Project, a virtual racing programme that shadows the team’s real-world equivalent, Blakeley has hit the big time.

He can barely believe he is now an integral member of the team which played such a significant role in the careers of Lewis Hamilton, Fernando Alonso, Mika Hakkinen as well as Blakeley’s compatriot, David Coulthard.

“This is something that if you’d told me as a kid would happen, I’d never, ever have believed it,” the 21-year-old says. “McLaren is one of the first teams to launch an E sports team so it’s very exciting to be a part of it. It’s a massive privilege to be in a team with such an historic name within the world of motorsport and I’m massively excited to get stuck in.

“This is a big step up in my career; it definitely feels like I’m starting the next chapter here and I can’t wait to embark on this journey.”

Blakeley’s motorsport career began racing cars not computers with his initial goal being to become a real life driver.

However, having tried his hand at go-karting, competing nationally, he had to hang up his helmet as a teenager due to the prohibitive cost.

That was it for his dream, he feared. But as esports grew, Blakeley realised his other love – playing computer games – may yet allow him to forge a career in his favourite sport.

“The arrival of e-sports happened in 2017 and that was the first time I realised that what I did at home, for fun, could be translated into something much bigger,” he says. “I began to take it much more seriously and dedicated a lot of time to it and tried to make that dream of being a race driver a reality, albeit in e-sports.”

Blakeley, from Irvine, quickly forged a path in esports and established himself as one of the best virtual drivers in the world.

His niche is “sim driving”, which involves a steering wheel controlling the car on the screen and while there are a few very obvious differences from real life Formula One racing, Blakeley says while there are also many similarities.

“You can’t replicate that sense of speed and that adrenaline rush you get from real life racing,” he says. “But in terms of the competitive element, there are some very real similarities.

“The mental toll, the stress and the pressure in e-sports are massive. I actually feel under more pressure in esports than doing the real thing. I think that’s because in a sim, it’s very, very easy to get inside your own head. Sim racing is very hours intensive, even more so than real life racing because there’s only so long you can spend on a track. In a sim, you can prepare for anything because you can replicate everything.

“A couple of hundredths can be the difference between winning and losing and so any mistakes are severely punished so I’ll do hours upon hours of practice – on a day to day basis, I could be driving six, seven or eight hours but at its height, I’ll be driving from first thing in the morning until I go to bed. It’s very intense. I could be sitting in my chair for over 12 hours.”

Blakeley is one of only 30 professional esports drivers in the world and the opportunities his virtual success has presented have been incredible.

This year, Blakeley was invited to compete in the Race of Champions, a real life race in which he found himself driving against four-time world champion, Sebastian Vettel and his co-driver and fellow F1 driver, Mick Schumacher.

Unsurprisingly, the F1 legends were heavy favourites but Blakeley proved just what a talent he is, defeating the German pair by the narrowest of margins to take the biggest scalps of his career.

“It was terrifying and exhilarating to race Vettel,” he says. “I was thinking how on earth am I, this kid from the west of Scotland, looking across and seeing Vettel and Schumacher – it’s crazy to think that opportunity came from sim racing. I’ve never been so hyper-focused in my life and it was one of the coolest experiences I’ve ever had.”

Blakeley has timed his rise to perfection. Just as he is hitting his stride, esports is gaining in momentum with talk even of an invite into the Olympic Games.

There has been significant pushback to such a suggestion but Blakeley believes his sport is more than worthy of a place.

“The lines between virtual and reality are very blurred when it comes to racing and there’s so much crossover. So in many ways, I’d say it is real competition that would be worthy of being involved in something like the Olympics,” he says. “Things have come so far in the past five or six years so it’s very exciting to think where it could go in the next few years.”

While Blakeley’s ambitions in esports are high, he also retains the hope he can try his hand at real life racing again too.

But with the start of the esports season – he has already won three of the opening three rounds – he has only one focus and is confident he will be challenging for the overall title.

“Within esports, I see myself being around for quite a while,” he says. “I still have the dream of doing some racing in real cars too but esports is the priority for me and that’s the thing I absolutely do not compromise on.”

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