As James Baldwin sat behind the wheel of his McLaren 720S GT3, ahead of the opening race of the British GT Series, his career had already reached its latest milestone. But the race would soon exceed even his wildest expectations. On August 8, Baldwin and team-mate Michael O’Brien crossed the line in 1st, as Jenson Team Rocket RJN got their campaign off to a perfect start.
The 22-year-old earned his spot on the Jenson Button-owned Team Rocket RJN as part of his prize for winning the World’s Fastest Gamer tournament, last November. Having proven himself on the international stage in esports, the GT Series represents Baldwin’s first chance to transfer his sim racing skills into the real world.
After initially qualifying in pole, the team were pushed back to 4th for a track limits infringement. Though, Baldwin remained unfazed and maintained position before handing over to team-mate, O’Brien. Following the changeover, the team capitalised on mistakes as others faltered, greeting the black and white flag ahead of all their opponents. Dreamland.
“I didn’t really know what to expect, but I did learn a lot. Being patient in GT racing is pretty key. I got told that a lot before the race, but you don’t really ever believe it until it happens”, Baldwin explained.
“So, I didn’t make any courageous moves, I stayed in 4th. I did everything right, like the pitstop and all that sort of stuff. It was quite a steady approach, but it just worked. Whereas, some of the sim racing I do, you have to make moves early on and you have to be brave to get a result.”
It was almost as if the win had been scripted for Baldwin, whose route to getting back behind the wheel has been anything but straightforward. He began karting from an early age and competed in Formula Ford, but was forced to quit, aged 16, due to the amount of money needed to compete.
His interest in sim racing began in 2017, when he spotted a gaming rig whilst browsing in PC World with his girlfriend. Three years of esports tournaments followed, including a win in the inaugural Le Mans series for Veloce Sports. His sim racing successes led to Baldwin deciding to quit his engineering job and postpone going to University, in order to concentrate on esports full-time.
“It was a big decision because I had the people at my work saying, ‘you’ve got to think about when you’re 40, James.’ ‘You’ve got to put food on the table for your family.’ ‘You need to make sure you’re doing the sensible option.’
“My parents weren’t really sure what I should do because they didn’t want to crush my dreams, but they also didn’t want to make a massive financial mess of my life. It was a complete gamble. I decided to go for the one that I loved and for the moment it seems to be paying off. I don’t want to get complacent and end up making it seem like a bad decision.”
Winning the prestigious World’s Fastest Gamer in November didn’t just provide Baldwin with a golden-ticket opportunity to restart his racing career, it could potentially help shape the future of racing; forging a new path for the next generation, who would ordinarily be priced out of a future in the sport.
For James, esports was an accessible alternative to go-karting and provided unlimited practice laps. It’s a bold outlook, but the 22-year-old is acutely aware of what his success would represent:
“I think in the future you’ll see that transition and see the scales tip towards sim racing over karting. It’s a lot more affordable and the sims are going to improve in terms of realism. I think it teaches you a lot, even at this early stage of sim racing. The hardware and software you can use is pretty insane. [Max] Verstappen, [Lando] Norris and a few of the other F1 racers, they’re using it all the time, just to keep sharp more than anything.
“Three years ago, before I started sim racing, if you put me in a GT3, I guarantee you I would have had a spin, a crash. Now, I think a lot more, I drive a lot smarter, I adapt to situations quicker, and it’s all because of sim racing.
“That’s why it feels like I’m holding a baton for it, I guess. I want to do it proud. I know plenty of other people want sim racing to be shown in a good light. It adds a bit of pressure but it’s a good pressure.”
Continuing to break new ground, Baldwin will become the first racer to compete at the top of both esports and GT racing simultaneously, when the Formula 1 Esports Championship gets underway in October. Having signed with McLaren earlier this year, if he can maintain his success in both the real and virtual worlds, it could be a significant moment for motorsport.
Whatever the next few months have in store, James is delighted that he has already been able to fulfil his lifelong dream:
“It’s fantastic how it all turned out. I mean, it’s quite a reassuring thing that even if it all stopped today, I’d be absolutely chuffed with what I’ve been able to achieve. The family, their efforts when I was younger, just trying to fork out the money to get me into any form of go-kart, it’s not been wasted. But there’s plenty more to achieve and hopefully it’s a long journey that’s going to continue for the next decade or more. Who knows what’s going to happen?”
~Jake Bayliss (Esports Press – Staff Writer)
Image: @JaaamesBaldwin Twitter