One would presume that having the experience of developing Williams’ Formula 1 simulator and leading Nissan’s Formula E venture would serve as the perfect preparation when virtual racing took centre stage following the postponement of all real-life motorsport.
But despite all evidence to the contrary given his recent success in esports competitions, Oliver Rowland says that’s not the case. The 27-year-old scored his maiden victories in both the BRDC Esports Championship and Formula E’s Race at Home Challenge series, within the space of three days last week.
After a string of points finishes in the series, he scooped his maiden win at the virtual Berlin Tempelhof Airport circuit in opportunistic fashion. His victory chance came when Stoffel Vandoorne battled with Daniel Abt – whose virtual car it later emerged was actually being controlled by a professional esports racer – resulting in an opportunity for Rowland to squeeze by the battling duo and take his maiden virtual Formula E win.
It was a fortunate break that Rowland will be hoping to enjoy when the real-life season restarts.
Having performed strongly with the DAMS Formula 2 team in 2017 – a season in which he was Charles Leclerc’s closest challenger – Rowland was the natural choice to fill the vacant seat at Nissan e.dams, when Alexander Albon received a shock Formula 1 promotion with Toro Rosso.
Despite only having one Formula E race start in the previous-generation car – when he stood in for the injured Nick Heidfeld at Mahindra in Punta del Este in 2015 – and just one day of pre-season testing prior to the first race in Riyadh, Rowland scored points on his debut with the team.
He was the 2018/19 season’s standout rookie, scoring two pole positions and two second-place finishes, which left him 10th in the standings. Although he’s yet to stand on the podium in his second season in the championship, Rowland has four points finishes to his name from five races.
“My target this Formula E season was to be much more consistent in terms of qualifying, results and scoring points more often.” Said Rowland. “To start the season the way I did was pretty good, it was a bit like my first three esports races.
“A lot of the sim work I do is actually about trying to make the feelings as realistic to real-life as possible, so it’s the first time for me that I’m in a simulator trying to compete for times and fight to be fast. It’s a different mentality.”
“I was always there on speed, but I never really had that break where you get a bit fortunate and everything goes for you. I was in group one qualifying every race which is always a disadvantage.”
“Nothing ever quite swung my way, in terms of luck, there was a couple of times where I just missed Superpole, and I crashed in Santiago, so I would say it was positive but there was a lot more potential there to do a lot better. I’m hoping and looking forward to getting restarted and showing what we’re capable of.”
Until then, Rowland will have to satisfy himself with sim racing, but although he has extensive simulator experience from his time as a development driver for Renault and a junior driver for Williams – with whom he managed two test appearances in 2018 – as well as from developing Nissan’s new Formula E powertrain, he has limited experience of competitive virtual racing.
As Rowland explains, there are fundamental differences between his function on a professional simulator – where repeatability is the aim of the game – and trying to be the fastest driver in esports championships.
“In terms of home sim experience on iRacing (the platform of choice for the BRDC Esports series) and rFactor 2 (used by Formula E’s Race at Home Challenge), I had never been on them four weeks ago, so I have very limited experience,” Rowland says.
“Of course, we do our preparation for each real-life race, but a lot of that is not about getting fast on a game, it’s about trying to reproduce what it’s like in reality.”
“When I’m helping to develop a sim, I’m developing physics, and understanding the tyre models to match it exactly to the track. Gaming is a lot different, it was actually very difficult to adapt to.”
“At first, I was feeling like I was doing some really good laps, but I was missing a lot of time, so it was very frustrating. My girlfriend doesn’t really like me anymore, because I spend all my time in the spare room on the simulator!”
“It’s been a tough three or four weeks, but at the same time, I’ve had to adjust and adapt and find different and better ways to be more competitive. That’s a good thing.”
Rowland is among forty drivers racing in the five-round BRDC Esports Championship, which features a mix of up-and-coming drivers from the BRDC Rising Stars and SuperStars programmes and top-line professionals, some also with experience in a development capacity.
Prior to his Formula 2 fights with Leclerc in 2017 – which included feature race wins at Monaco and Hungary – Rowland had previously been in the mix for the 2014 Formula Renault 3.5 title against Leclerc’s new team-mate, Carlos Sainz Jr, only for mechanical woes to derail his rhythm. Although Rowland never got his Formula 1 opportunity when so many of his junior single-seater rivals did, he insists he’s happy in Formula E.
“I’m very happy for both Leclerc and Sainz,” Rowland says. “What they’re showing is good for everyone, it proves that generation when we were growing up was extremely competitive.
“Most of them have gone in to Formula 1 now and competed at the sharp end straight away, that’s a good thing to know. Unfortunately, I didn’t quite get that opportunity, but I have a really good opportunity in Formula E, which I think is growing – and it’s already big – so I’m happy with where I am.”
Rowland’s more consistent start to his now-postponed second season in Formula E, and the demonstration of a rigorous work ethic that has yielded success across the sim racing spectrum, is indicative that Rowland’s Nissan e.dams seat was a richly deserved and an overdue break for an understated talent.