FILE PHOTO: Formula One F1 - Japanese Grand Prix 2017 - Suzuka Circuit, JapanFILE PHOTO: Formula One F1 - Japanese Grand Prix 2017 - Suzuka Circuit, Japan - October 7, 2017. McLaren's Fernando Alonso of Spain during a practice. REUTERS/Toru Hanai/File Photo
By Alan Baldwin
WOKING, England (Reuters) - McLaren's next Formula One simulator driver could be a man who has never driven a car before, let alone competed on a real racetrack.
The 12-man shortlist for the job includes a Danish doctor who races on an iPad, a 41-year-old French father of two and a 23-year-old employee of Britain's Department of Work and Pensions -- who holds only a provisional licence
McLaren, the team of double world champion Fernando Alonso and past greats like Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost, are looking to tap talent from virtual racing to go faster in the real world.
The finals of the "World's Fastest Gamer" competition are playing out at McLaren's Woking headquarters this week and the winner will get a one-year contract to work in one of the team's state-of-the-art simulators.
Some, like Dutch 23-year-old Bono Huis who collected a $200,000 (£152,366) jackpot in January after winning a virtual race between gamers and drivers of the Formula E electric series, are known names.
Others, like Danish doctor Henrik Christian Drue or French dad David Le Garff, are not. And nor is British civil servant Harry Jacks, who has yet to drive a real car.
McLaren say this is a serious search for someone who can become a real asset to a team fighting their way back from troubled times. They also feel the appointment will be good for business.
"We’re very committed to eSports," says executive director Zak Brown, whose team recently became the first to appoint a director of eSports.
"For our entire marketing department, our technical team, it is another form of motorsport for McLaren. So we’re taking it very seriously. We’re very committed to it," the American told reporters.
"We’re finding a lot of our partners...want to cross over and are very relevant to the eSport space. So we’re finding a lot of commercial interest in it."
Formula One launched its own eSport world championship this year, with the finals scheduled for Abu Dhabi next week, but the McLaren competition is multi-dimensional.
Gamers are subjected to fitness and mental assessments as well as racing virtually on a variety of tracks from Indianapolis to Interlagos.
The competition is the brainchild of Darren Cox, whose Nissan GT Academy initiative took gamers out into the real racetrack with professional works drives, and taps into a demographic that Formula One has targeted.
"The average fan of motorsport and F1 is getting older," said Cox.
"The audience for this, both in terms of the content and the competitors, is exactly where Formula One and other motorsports need to be. It’s that genius millennial demographic that everyone’s looking for and can’t find."
The McLaren competition has shown also that reality and the virtual world are not so far apart. Formula One drivers Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen would not be surprised to see Britons and Dutch racers making up five of the final 12.
There are no women, as on the real Formula One grid, even if the virtual world should offer a level playing field for the sexes without any physical constraints. That is something organisers hope to change with time.
"There are a lot of female gamers. If you actually look at casual gaming, it is 50-50. It absolutely mirrors the population," said Cox.
"Like in normal sport, it’s all about the amount of time you spend doing it. These guys are spending six to eight hours a day, six days a week, trying to be the best online gamer. At the moment there isn’t that big group of female gamers doing that.
"Somewhere in the region of 85 percent of people that play racing games are male. So therefore you have a bigger talent pool effectively."
(Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Pritha Sarkar)