This F1 Esports season has been the closest ever. With super fine margins in qualifying and races, and drivers endlessly improving their pace, mentality, and approach it has created a compelling and chaotic racing environment.
What's added to the brilliance of the 2021 F1 Esports Series Pro Championship has been the addition of James Baldwin to the usual presenting personalities of Matt Gallagher, Tom Deacon, Natalie Pinkham, and Nic Hamilton.
James is a seasoned sim racer and took his talents to British GT3 in 2020, claiming a race win and 4 total podiums. He also competed in the 2020 F1 Esports Pro Series with McLaren Shadow.
His personal experience and insight have added a lot to the broadcast since he joined the crew in Event 2 this season. We sat down with James ahead of the F1 Esports Final to talk about his involvement with F1 Esports this season, how he's enjoyed his time in front of the camera, and just who he thinks will walk away with the title.
Out of the frying pan, into the fire
F1 Esports is not a series you can race in part-time. Baldwin mixed his 2020 F1 Esports participation with preparing and racing in British GT3 as well as other sim racing series, and that saw him collect just 10 points last year. Had it been his sole focus, as is the case with Sebastian Job's move into the series this season, who knows what he could have achieved. But that wasn't the target for James, who wants to continue racing across platforms and classes, and is looking to get back into a real race seat too.
As a result he stepped away from F1 Esports for 2021. Or at least, he thought he did.
"It came about very last minute ahead of Event 2" He says, "I got a call the night before the Wednesday saying 'do you want to jump on the show, as a pundit/expert?' and I couldn't really turn down that opportunity."
"I've done two events with four shows and it's been really cool. It's completely different to anything I've ever done."
Racing fans may be used to seeing Baldwin behind the wheel rather than presenting, but his time in front of the camera for F1 Esports has seen a hugely positive reaction from the community.
With his knowledge of the F1 games as well as the training and mental preparation that goes into world-class sim racing, he has become an invaluable piece of the team.
"A lot of us sim racers have Twitch streaming experience, so we know what to say and what not to say!" Jokes James, "But it's different, you're not sat behind a rig, in your environment, your room. You're in a studio surrounded by professionals [...] it's a different sort of pressure. You have to say something constructive, that people want to listen to."
James has done that alright, adding detail about in-game performances, track bumps, and mechanics that players can exploit or avoid. He's also been able to shed light on the hours of preparation that go on behind the scenes as well as the drivers and their personalities.
"It's a different sort of pressure, it's not really in my comfort zone. Driving, racing, the pressure on a qually lap is more in my comfort zone. That's what I do." said James when asked about life in front of the camera, "It's hard, it's daunting. But it is a bit of a buzz. [...] I've heard there's been good comments [...] if they are liking it great, I'm glad people are enjoying the insight I do bring. I'm very much integrated into the scene."
While not looking to move into presenting or casting any time soon, James has shown his value to the sim racing space even when not behind the wheel.
Season of surprises
It's safe to say that the 2021 F1 Esports season has not followed the expected script. While two of our championship protagonists, Jarno Opmeer and Frede Rasmussen, were the favourites to be fighting it out, a third challenger has arrived on the scene while others have moved up and down the field too.
"Bari Boroumand has been a bit of a surprise to many people. Not to me [...] I knew he'd be up there. To be honest I thought he would be in the hunt for the championship. He's been a bit unlucky at various points in the season." Said James, who has spoken very highly of the man that jumped into his former team. Another McLaren Shadow driver has been a surprise of a different type though.
"Dani Bereznay is the biggest surprise for me. He's not had the form he's had in previous seasons, it's very strange what's going on there."
Changes from year to year with the Formula 1 games play a part in the rise and fall of drivers to a certain degree. "This year it's a bit more oversteery, a bit more twitchy. The cars are more unpredictable." Says James. "That is probably the main reason why drivers peak or drop off, but there is also the element of preparation, they've taken it more seriously, they've matured and found something in themselves that they didn't have last year."
Speaking of someone peaking, that third title contender is Aston Martin's Lucas Blakeley, who before this season had not won an F1 Esports race.
"Lucas has found something in himself mentally. He's more consistent than he was before, he's quicker than he was before. They've clearly upped the preparation at Aston Martin because even Dani Haddad has made an improvement from last year. Whatever he's done he needs to keep it going!"
Blakeley took his first F1 Esports win in the season opener in Bahrain, and stormed to victory at Portimao too. He hasn't finished lower than 6th all season, and sits just 5 points behind Jarno Opmeer.
So, who does James think will walk away with the F1 Esports crown?
"Anything can happen in F1 Esports [...] you just don't know who will be strong at the event, who will be in the right headspace." Says James.
With Imola, Mexico, and Interlagos still left to race on there are plenty of incidents and other fast drivers that can get in the way of the title battle.
But who does James think will come out on top?
"I think Frede Rasmussen will just pip it. He's only 8 points off [...] Looking at previous seasons he's always been reallly strong in the final event." Says James.
"He's always there. He's been there for every season pretty much of F1 Esports. He's the only driver really that can say he's been at the front every single season. The guy's an animal. He should have won one already [...] I think he will do it this time round."
"But whoever wins it out of those three will fully deserve it, they've been the stars of the field this season."
James admits he could be wrong though "Any one of them can win it, it's going to be so close to call but it's going to be good to watch!"
F1 Esports Final
The action starts at 3:30pm GMT on Wednesday, 15 December with qualifying from Imola & Mexico. The two races will then be run in the evening, starting at 7:30pm GMT.
Qualifying for the final race at Interlagos starts at 3:30pm GMT on Thursday, 16 December, with the race show starting at 7:30pm GMT.