There is no more successful driver in F1 Esports than Brendon Leigh. Winner of the first two drivers' championships, he also led Mercedes to the first Teams Championship in 2018.
Any casual observer of the sport will recognise his name and his face. But he kicked off a wild 2021 offseason for driver moves when he left Mercedes for the FDA Esports Team, better known as Ferrari.
We see F1 drivers dream of wearing the scarlet and winning with a Prancing Horse on their chest, but there is less storied history in F1 Esports. Not only that but FDA had their own champion, 2019 Drivers' Champion David Tonizza, the man who dethroned Leigh.
Ahead of Event 3 we sat down to speak with Leigh, who has come a long way since hoisting the first F1 Esports championship in Abu Dhabi in 2017.
Swapping Brackley for Maranello
We see a lot of driver movement between F1 Esports seasons, but one driver we never expected to move was Brendon Leigh.
One of the biggest contrasts in motorsport is surely going from a quiet Oxfordshire town to Italy, but Leigh has taken to his new environment well.
"I'm enjoying my time at Ferrari." Said Leigh when we spoke with him. "They introduced me at the start of the year and they've treated me like family ever since. I'm loving my time here."
Leigh declined to give a thorough reason and motivation for his move, but alluded to a declining relationship with Mercedes.
"I think the answer can be judged by how much I was smiling in the last two years to how much I'm smiling now." Said Leigh, with a broad grin on his face and a scarlet polo shirt on.
Leigh's social media presence has certainly been one of positivity and self-improvement over the last 12 or so months, and it appears as if a weight has been lifted from his shoulders now he is racing under the FDA banner.
A team of champions
Of course, he stepped into a team that had all its support behind David Tonizza. The first pick in the 2019 Pro Draft, Tonizza went on to blitz the field and lift the Drivers' Championship in FDA's first year competing in F1 Esports.
Walking into a team with such a clear #1 driver would be a great risk in Formula 1, but in F1 Esports things are a little different.
"Working with David has been very good." Said Leigh, "It's been a great experience. We've been able to use our experiences and own strengths and weaknesses to make strengths even stronger and develop our weaknesses as well."
There is far more driver collaboration in preparing for F1 Esports than one might think. With unlimited practice laps it's often about grinding out scenarios and finding marginal gains on setup. Having two champions that can co-exist and work together is a huge advantage.
Started from the top but now we here
Brendon swept all before him in the first two years of F1 Esports. But we are now in the fifth season and Leigh hasn't tasted victory in an F1 Esports race since COTA in 2018.
"F1 Esports has become bigger, it's become much more present and known in the mainstream media over these last few years." Said Leigh.
Since his title years the Formula 1 teams themselves have become far more invested in F1 Esports, with teams providing facilities within their headquarters and developing driver talent, while the pool of those coming up independently has only grown.
"I think of course the depth of talent is getting bigger and bigger each year as more participants sign up." That has been proven out as drivers like Marcel Kiefer, Lucas Blakeley, and Nicolas Longuet entered the series and quickly established themselves as competitive right at the top, along with the most recent champions David Tonizza and Jarno Opmeer.
But Leigh feels like the improvements elsewhere on the grid have been matched by his own. "I know I'm driving the best I ever have in my career, the data shows that behind the scenes."
Leigh's positivity and strong mental fortitude are something that can make all the difference and are traits that we are seeing more and more in esports drivers.
"This is really where F1 Esports is exceptional in its own right. You have the best of the best. The whole field is separated by two or three tenths, that's one lockup, one mistake. I think a lot of people have the talent to get to F1 Esports, quite a few have the talent to win F1 Esports but it's really that final few percent mentally that makes the difference to go and win."
Brendon has been pushing himself off the track, sharing his regular running sessions that started in England and have continued in Italy. It's seen a transformation seemingly physically and mentally for Leigh, and one that appears to have him in a happier place than ever before.
While Jarno Opmeer was full of praise for the setup at Mercedes when we spoke with him earlier in the season, it is clear that the move to Ferrari has re-invigorated Leigh, who has used the opportunity to dive into commentary with the Ferrari Esports Series among other things.
With COTA on the calendar for Event 3 this week, could we see Leigh back on the top step of F1 Esports? You'll have to watch to find out!
Event 3 of the F1 Esports Pro Championships kicks off on 24-25 November and is available to watch via official Formula 1 channels on Facebook, YouTube, and Twitch. For full information about the Pro Championship visit: https://www.f1esports.com/