On the up: Jess Hawkins talks esports

Jessica Hawkins was languishing in 15th place in the W Series Esports League table after what she called an ‘iffy’ opening round at Monza where she scored nine points. Her improvement since then has been stark, with the 25-year-old earning 29 points at each of the next two rounds – at Circuit of the Americas and Brands Hatch – to climb to eighth overall. In this exclusive blog, the Briton explains why things are looking up…

It’s a relief to now be firmly inside the top 10 in the W Series Esports League table having put in so much hard work and made big sacrifices to improve. I had such a bad round at Monza and was on the back foot straight away. Since then, I’ve been trying hard to avoid crashes and keep my nose clean, and that has helped me in the last two rounds at COTA and Brands Hatch. I’m not playing it safe, but I’m focusing on getting decent, consistent results that will pay dividends in the long run. Pick the right battles and you can win the war.

I’m not taking anything for granted now though. The first round at Monza showed how much luck, just as in real racing, can play a part in sim racing. There are more crashes in these races because drivers are braver and more willing to get closer than in real life. It can be difficult to judge how far away other cars are, especially in the bunched midfield, because you’re relying on vision much more than your other senses. I’m used to feeling G-force, undulations and judging a circuit using touch and feel. I’ve come to accept that there will be times when I get caught up in incidents through no fault of my own. I can’t control that, so I’m concentrating on things I can control, like practising hard. If I do that, I’ll maximise my chances of doing well. 

We’ve seen during the first three rounds how important the starts of races are, with lots of incidents and position changes. To improve my chances of getting a clean start and gaining places, I’m working hard on qualifying. We get three qualifying laps, so I’m trying to get a banker lap in first and then push hard. I hadn’t qualified higher than 10th before Brands, but I started the first race there from ninth. I then had my worst qualifying result so far, starting the third race from 17th after a spin on my final run. Lesson learned. Although I finished that race eighth, coming from the back is no fun, especially as lots of the girls have had issues with their starts. 

It hasn’t happened to me yet but, if you come off the clutch too quickly, the rear wheels spin and it almost spins the car around. That’s what happened to Beitske [Visser] in race three at Brands when she struggled to get off the line. At Monza, you saw drivers darting off sideways on the grid because they released the clutch a fraction too much. Once that happens, you’re a sitting duck. It’s so nerve-wracking, especially if you’ve made a mistake in the previous race and need a good result. My legs are shaking throughout the races, which never happens in real racing. 

The W Series Esports League goes out to a big audience across the BBC and W Series’ digital platforms every week so, while it is fun for us all, it is really competitive too. I want to perform well and, as a group, we want to entertain people, so the closer the racing is the better. Even though we’re not together, all of the drivers are very close and so, just as we would at real races, we’re sharing information – like brake bias, for example – to help each other improve and keep the races competitive. You saw that bear fruit in the last round at Brands Hatch when some of the wheel-to-wheel action was epic. It was great to hear W Series Esports League commentators Luke Crane and Billy Monger describe it as some of the best sim-racing they’ve ever seen, because it certainly felt that way.

W Series raced at Brands Hatch for real last August, so it was great to race there on the sim and compare. We’re using iRacing’s Formula Renault car for the W Series Esports League whereas, in real races, we use a Formula 3 car. In the latter you only have six gears, so in the sim races we were approaching some corners in seventh, and the aerodynamics are slightly different too. I took a bit more kerb through some corners and a bit less through others, but the lines are so close to the real deal – this truly is as close as you can get without actually being there. When we resume on-track racing next year and visit some of the circuits we’ve raced at in the W Series Esports League – like COTA – this knowledge we’ve gained on the sim will be invaluable. It will just be a case of readjusting to that heightened feel you get through the pedals and steering wheel. 

Before the W Series Esports League started I had never done a sim race before, so I’m enjoying it and it has pretty much taken over my life! The Logitech rig dominates my lounge as I’m using the TV in there. After each round, I take it apart for one day just to give myself a break when I can watch some TV and relax. Then, it’s back to practice. I had a job as a delivery driver which meant I had to go to Scotland and back overnight, but it ruined two days so I quit to have more practice time.

I’m proud of the improvement I’ve made. I’m not as quick as the frontrunners yet, but most of them have been sim-racing for a long time so I’m playing catch up. There is a little knack to this, a sweet spot that just takes time to find, but it’s worth a tenth of a second or two in each corner. I haven’t quite found that yet but I’m getting closer. My eyes are turning square from the hours I’m putting in, so hopefully I can keep working my way to the front. The next round is at Interlagos and I cannot wait!