What's it like to race in a Virtual GP? Johnny Herbert's rookie review
From having five hours practice to overtaking 15 cars into Turn One, Sky F1's Johnny Herbert - a three-time F1 race-winner - gives us the Virtual GP lowdown; Watch Sunday's race live on Sky F1 at 8pm
By Matt Morlidge
Last Updated: 05/04/20 12:37pm
He drove for seven different teams, partnered Michael Schumacher and recovered from horrific injuries to compete in 161 Formula 1 races - so it's safe to say Johnny Herbert has encountered his fair share of challenges.
But as the popular Sky Sports F1 pundit explains, adapting to the world of Esports - with little to no practice - to battle against current F1 stars and online sim-racers in a Virtual GP was anything but easy.
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In his debut, Johnny crashed in qualifying before providing one of the most memorable moments of F1's inaugural championship Esports event as he moved from 16th on the grid to 1st... by cutting the first corner entirely.
Ahead of the second race - which is live on Sky Sports F1 on Sunday night at 8pm and has the likes of Charles Leclerc, Jenson Button and Ben Stokes taking part - we spoke to Johnny about his baptism of fire, how virtual racing compares to the real thing and his preparations for the weekend...
How confident did you feel going into the first race?
JH: "Not very! I only had five hours of practice before the race, and I've never really done any sim stuff before. Nor have I ever raced left-foot braking. My left ankle hardly moves [from his 1988 accident], there's hardly any feeling there at all, but with the way these pedals are set up there's no other way of doing it.
"I found that if I put on brake assist, that helped me a lot with my time trial before the race. I practiced doing laps and laps and laps, going flat out, and the times came down. But then went to qualifying on the Sunday and the car was completely different! F1 turned off brake assist - there's only a few assists you're allowed - so all the practice I'd done totally went out of the window."
So that explains a tricky qualifying!
JH: "I crashed twice or three times in qualifying, so I actually never did a lap without any damage on my car!"
We've got to talk about Turn One...
JH: "There was lots of talk about the first corner - that it was going to be mayhem and there was going to be crashing all over the place. So I always knew I would have to be aware. As I was going towards Turn One, I think there was a McLaren that slammed itself into the left-hand side. I knew then that there'd be a little bit more going on as we went into Turn One itself.
"I know it's a game, but my racing brain kicked in and said, 'why put myself and others in danger?'. So I played safe and cut the corner - the decision was almost made before I went off the line. As soon as I saw the mayhem start that was where a thought - or some people say a 'cheat' [Johnny was handed a time penalty for the move] - came into effect.
"It was just keeping out of trouble. It was actually just common sense and a racing brain to say right, I'm keeping out of the way. But I benefited from it!"
Did you ever think you were going to hold onto first place?
JH: "Not a chance! I was so out of my comfort zone with the car, my braking was awful. I think I held on for about a lap but then they overtook me and I spun when I was in third or fourth. Then I got going again, and I spun again and ended up 13th.
"In my head I thought, yeah I want to hold them off, but I could just tell from what I'd been doing before and in qualifying, compared to what those guys had been doing, that I was nowhere near their pace.
"I didn't just let them past me, I had a wheel-to-wheel battle with Zhou [who won the race], and I gave him a ram up the back when he overtook me. That damaged my front wing anyway, so that didn't help either!
You've driven plenty of F1 cars, and on plenty of F1 tracks. How does this compare?
JH: "It's never going to be the same to driving an F1 car as it's a visual feel. It's a different skill. You have to reprogramme your brain to how the sim is visually giving you the information, because you don't get any sensations in a physical way. Because of these sensations disappearing, the feeling - for me - was a million miles away at first.
"But as you get used to how the game and the simulator itself works, and your technique gets better, it weirdly shifts round and starts coming back towards the real thing.
"The tracks look great, but do drive a little differently to what I'm used to. There are kerbs for example which you can use when you drive in a car, and in the game you're thrown straight into the wall! That means you're doing a line your brain never did.
"I raced an F1 car in Australia so I remember where you could and couldn't clip kerbs, but in the game there are places that you can clip which are not like it was when I did it for real. So you've got to learn where you can clip and then take advantage of the track. A couple of gamers told me if I go through 11 and 12 - which is the very quick left and right flick - you can use a lot of kerb. When I was racing, you could never, ever do that - you'd be straight into the wall.
"It's all about learning how the game reacts."
It must have felt odd - as an ex-F1 driver - to get advice!
JH: "It didn't feel normal asking for advice. I never had a driver coach during my career - I was able to work it out. This is a little bit more complicated, probably because of the limited time I had to practice. I had five hours of this, whereas I had 10 years of practice before first racing a Formula 1 car.
"I've tried to get a bit of advice, on where I was going slow, why does it keep doing this, and the guys have come back and been very helpful. A lot of them look like they use a lot of the back to slide and drift around the corners - I haven't mastered that yet!
"You know you can adapt to it because others are going fast. And that's my challenge. If they can do it, I can do it. At the moment, I'm failing! But I will get there."
Liam Payne competed in the first race, Ben Stokes is racing alongside F1 stars this weekend. Do you think F1 has got the balance right with its grid?
JH: "Some comments I saw after [the first race] were, why don't we have the whole grid of current drivers. Then there were others that said we need to have more gamers. But I think you've already got that, an F1 championship and a gaming community.
"This is serious, but a little bit of fun at the same time. I think if you had the current crop, you'd lose the entertainment. By having celebrities, sportsman, and ex-F1 drivers such as Anthony [Davidson, Sky F1 pundit], Nico Hulkenberg and myself, and the mixture of gamers, I think it adds something.
"Should it be easier [for the non-drivers] to allow the pack to be closer? Maybe. But then you'll get people saying it's not like the real thing. There's a fine line."
How do you feel about Sunday's race?
JH: "I've been practicing Grands Prix, so I hope by Sunday I've put myself in a better position and better equipped to deal with the sim world that is out there! But it's challenging. To adapt to it, it takes a lot of time."