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ESL R1 – Round 1 – IEM Katowice

By Marc Faulkner
February 13, 2023

Stormforce Gaming have recently joined forces with Apex Racing Team to enter the sim racing arena. With no Stormforce Racing ART action in the PESC this weekend we instead tuned into the opening rounds of the new ESL R1 tournament running on new simulator Rennsport, which is still in the alpha testing stage. With a big budget launch at IEM Katowice, and attracting some of the biggest names in eSports – Crimsix we’re looking at you – along with champion sim racers of all colours including a 4 strong team fielded by our friends at Apex Racing, it was sure to be a spectacle, but nothing could quite prepare us for what was about to unfold in front of a global audience.

Read our roundup of the round 1 action below, with round 2 coming soon. 

ESL R1? Rennsport?

So what’s it all about? With backing from motorsport heavyweights Audi, BMW, Mercedes, Porsche and Williams we were always confident that the cars would be impressive, and the drivers have proven themselves countless times in the big leagues, but what about the game?

Under development by Competition Company GmbH, Rennsport is a racing simulator with a strong emphasis on ultra-realistic graphics and race day experience both for the driver and the audience, built on the Unreal 5 engine but with bespoke physics which have been integrated with the engine to give a unique experience and response unlike anything seen in racing sims already on the market. 

The game is still early in the development stage, with the very first glimpses of an early alpha build unveiled at a summit in May 2022 hosted in Munich. Less than 12 months on, and still very much in the alpha testing phase with a closed beta planned in 2023 and further open beta testing currently scheduled for 2024 it’s clear that this game is very early in it’s lifecycle, so to be confident that it was up to being put through its paces by elite sim racers as the focal point of a major worldwide tournament was both brave and impressive in the extreme! 

ESL R1 brings together 12 leading sim racing and eSports teams – FAZE Clan, FURIA, G2 Esports, Heroic, R8G Esports, MOUZ, Team Redline, Porsche Coanda, BMW M, Mercedes AMG, Apex Racing Team and Williams – and pits them against each other over 8 regular season rounds on the Rennsport platform followed by 2 major events, competing for a 250,000 Euro prize pool and the ultimate accolade of being crowned the inaugural ESL R1 champions. The series will take in some of the greatest motorsport circuits in the world, from the  Hockenheimring Baden-Württemberg to Spa-Francorchamps, with new tracks being released as the tournament progresses.

Following the spring season, the teams will regroup for a second run of races in the latter half of the year, culminating in a 3 day major at the DreamHack winter event in Jönköping, Sweden between 23rd-25th November. 

The Format

The first 2 rounds were played live at the IEM Expo in Katowice as part of the launch LAN party, with R1 taking the drivers to Spa-Francorchamps on Saturday 11th February and then Hockenheimring on Sunday 12th. Rounds 3 to 8 will take place remotely in a first real test for the Rennsport infrastructure with teams and drivers competing from their own facilities, including Apex Racing Team at their state of the art sim centre in Corby. Finally the season draws to a close with a 2 day, in-person extravaganza in Munich on 27th and 28th May.

The regular season rounds see 4 quarter final races, each with 1 driver from each team and play out in an elimination format with the drivers first setting a sprint lap qualifying time after a brief practice session, and the top 6 from each progressing into the semi finals. 2 semis, each following the same format as the preliminary round, then whittle that down to a final 12 who compete for the podium and the points.

In the first major event at the end of the season, the 24 top drivers from the regular season will be split into 2 groups using a snake draft system and will compete in 4 races per group (8 in total) with all drivers on the grid in each race, and their points added to the regular season tally.

Major day 2 takes the top 6 drivers from each of the 2 groups the previous day and pits them against each other in a marathon of unlimited races until one driver hits finalist mode, and then it’s all on with just 1 win needed to secure the title! 

Intel Extreme Masters Expo - Katowice

IEM needs no introduction, a major event in the Intel Grand Slam and the absolute pinnacle in competitive gaming where the very best of the best gather at the 11,500 capacity futuristic Spodek Arena in Katowice, Poland to compete in one of the largest Counter Strike:Go tournaments of its kind for a cool million dollar prize pool  and qualification to the next ESL IEM event in Cologne.

The founders of ESL wanted their tournament to be taken seriously by the wider eSports world, and it doesn’t get more serious than IEM. Talk about the ultimate setting in which to launch ESL R1, with the eyes of the world watching on! 

The production for the ESL R1 auditorium was just as impressive as the main event, with high spec staging and the very latest sim rigs from VRS. Hosted by Luke Crane, Wil Vincent & Youtube legend GAMERMUSCLE and with commentary from George Morgan and Lewis McGlade,  the entertainment value was high, even if Wil had lost his voice entirely by the end! There were a few teething problems as you may expect, but nothing at all which detracted from the racing and one feature which really stood out to us was that ESL were not only asking for live feedback in the official Twitch channel chat but also acting on it, with many notable improvements race by race and round by round as the event progressed.

Day 1 - Round 1 - Spa-Francorchamps

3 of the 4 quarter finals were absolutely dominated by their eventual winners, Team Redline’s Jeffrey Rietveld, Maximillian Benecke for MOUZ and Joshua Rogers in the Porsche Coanda car respectively, with Coanda’s Dayne Warren spinning out when looking sure to take the lead which eventually went to Luke Bennett.

The Apex Racing Team guys put in an excellent showing in the quarters, taking all 4 drivers through to the semi final stages, one of only 3 teams to do so.

Jamie Fluke finished P3 in QF#1, with Kevin Ellis Jr P5 in QF#2, Peter Berryman P6 in QF#3 and Yohann Harth P3 in QF#4

The racing really heated up in the semi final rounds, with every driver giving it their all, eyes on the prize and prepared to take risks and drive aggressively to get there. Moritz Löhner for MOUZ put in an astonishingly fast qualifying lap to start on pole in the first, and always looked the favourite to win despite strong challenges from Jajovski and Csincsik. The race was littered with penalties early on, but eventually ended quite calmly with Löhner  topping the podium followed by Csincsik, Jajovski and Bennett in much the order that the race had taken. For Apex, Jamie Fluke managed a respectable P5 with Kevin Ellis Jr on his tail in P6, both progressing to the final and giving Apex a 100% record so far.

With the 5 forerunners of Toman, Rogers, Baldwin, Holzmann and Bonito quickly breaking away and opening up a 3 second gap ahead of the 6th and final qualifying spot, all eyes were on the middle of the pack throughout the early stages of the race, until Baldwin for Mercedes-AMG Petronas Esport found himself in the middle of a rucus and incurred a 5 second slowdown penalty which saw him drop to P9, promoting G2’s Isaac Price to P6 which he clung on to for dear life despite fierce challenge from Redline’s Bonito. Toman took pole, followed swiftly on the podium by Benecke and Apex’s Yohann Harth. In the other Apex car, Peter Berryman had struggled from early on but salvaged a respectable P10.

 

The Final

Qualifying for the final raised a few interesting BoP (Balance of Performance) questions, with the entire front half of the grid comprised of Audi R8 cars. Benecke set a blisteringly fast lap time of 2:14:493, the fastest of the day to secure pole for MOUZ, with R8G’s Toman in P2 and Jajovski in P3, Löhner for Redline in P4 and Csincsik completing 3/3 for R8G taking P5. 

Löhner earned himself a 5 second slowdown penalty straight off the grid in the final race, causing Jajovski to spin off onto the gravel with a dangerous veering maneuver which really shook up the standings. Max Benecke looked in control of the race from the off, with little in the way of a serious challenge and much focus instead on the battle between Price, Harth and Rogers for P4 until, that is Isaac Price got a bit carried away and incurred a 1 position penalty for his trouble. 

Benecke topped the podium, which had never really seemed in doubt given his near flawless drive, with Toman and Csincsik completing the top 3, followed by Rogers in P4, Löhner who had battled his way back from a lowly P9 to take P5 at the chequered flag, and Apex Racing’s Yohann Harth in P6.

Apex’s other 2 final contenders Kevin Ellis Jr and Jamie Fluke finished the race in P9 & P10 respectively, giving all 3 ART top 10 spots after the first ever ESL R1 round, what a great result which was sure to leave them sitting well in the standings!

How They Stand

But what about CRIMSIX?

Ahead of the ESL R1 first round, much talk online had been about Ian Porter (CRIMSIX, C6), the world renowned professional Call of Duty player perhaps most famed for his performances as part of the Optic Gaming and Complexity teams who unexpectedly threw his hat into the ESL R1 ring for team FaZe. Perhaps more comfortably clutching a controller than a wheel, everybody was wondering just how he’d perform given his absolute dominance in CoD, and Halo before that. Some argued that his inclusion alongside sim racing heavyweights who’d dedicated their lives to becoming the very best at what they do was a mere gimmick, but if it was then nobody can deny it was pure marketing genius! The viewing figures speak for themselves, with the official ESL R1 Twitch steam easily doubling the spectators we’ve ever seen on any other sim racing broadcast, and thousands more watching on other content creators own channels.

Sadly the race performance didn’t quite live up to the hype, with Ian trailing the pace by 6+ seconds a lap throughout and taking some stick across social media, but to be fair it was a bit like pitting a world tennis champion against Lewis Hamilton in a F1 race and expecting them to challenge him for pole! There’s no denying Crim is committed to the challenge of making it big in sim racing, and her presence alone in the tournament has probably brought in more new fans than a million pound marketing campaign could have managed, so we’re not complaining.

A proud weekend for the sim racing community - catch the action here!