A championship-winning combination falling from grace isn’t uncommon in motorsport, but Brendon Leigh and Mercedes’ catastrophic Formula 1 Esports title defence in 2019 was particularly surprising.
As with any champions, they’re not content staying defeated for very long and Leigh believes the path back to the top of F1’s virtual world in 2020 is clear.
Prior to the 2019 season, Leigh was the indisputable face of F1’s Esports series. He’d clinched the inaugural title in controversial fashion in 2017, before the entrance of nine real-life F1 teams for 2018 meant many believed Leigh would struggle to retain his title.
Mercedes quickly snapped up Leigh and the team devastated the field by winning eight out of the 10 races. It seemed to mirror its real-life counterpart in being an unstoppable force in the series.
However, Leigh and Mercedes took a bruising blow last season, with just two trips to the podium in the expanded 12-race calendar. Leigh finished fifth in the drivers’ championship – and was one of only nine drivers to compete in every race – with Mercedes an unthinkably low eighth in the teams’ rankings.
Leigh puts the 2019 failures down to an unaltered approach, which failed to address the changes made for Codemasters’ latest instalment in the F1 franchise – F1 2019.
“2019 was a lesson really,” Leigh tells The Race. “We did the same things as we did previously, it just wasn’t enough really.
“We were always lacking a tenth in qualifying that put us down the grid. This year, we’re looking to learn those new tricks and develop them to be back at the front.
“The difference between F1 2018 and F1 2019 was that it took a new way of thinking. We sort of employed the same tactics to learn the car and learn how to go quick as we did in 2017 and 2018, and with those new fundamentals, it became difficult to maximise everything.
“The tyres are very different in 2019 compared to 2018. The way you drive the car is very different as well. You have to look much closer at your own interpretation of what you think you can do, not so much what is quick in real life.”
2019 proved to be a humbling experience for Leigh, but as expected – since his remarkable physical and mental transformation with Mercedes – he accepted the blame for the failures.
“To be honest, this one was on me,” he adds. “I didn’t, as a driver, look hard enough at the details of everything that was going on, and improve my own driving ability to what the car demands. I was driving the car to what I was wanting it to demand.”
“Unlike Lewis Hamilton or Valtteri Bottas, I haven’t had that karting experience. I haven’t gone up the ranks and spoken to a race engineer every week of my life” :: Brendon Leigh
The loss of Mercedes’ advantage was evident from the opening round, where series debutant Ferrari scooped wins in two of the three races while Leigh could only manage a fourth and fifth place.
“The natural feeling is to be disappointed,” he says. “We knew the key areas to improve. Our race pace, all along, has been one of the best, if not the best.
“It’s just in qualifying, we haven’t been able to put the lap together or just have the raw pace, in general, to put the car in the top five or top three consistently.
“We only knew about us being off the pace in event one. There isn’t much time between event one and event two. It became this thing of trying to catch up. There’s not enough time to catch up, it became a difficult situation there.
“I walked away with a mixed emotion; a bit upset but I was also really motivated. This is the first time I’ve had to find time.
“I’ve been very fortunate in my position over the past couple of years, to be at the top straight away. This is the first time I’ve actually had to start chasing someone.”
That same motivation also runs through Mercedes’ Esports division. Make no mistake – unlike a couple of its competitors, its involvement is far from just a Mercedes logo slapped on three drivers. It has a dedicated Esports facility within its Brackley base as well as expert driver coaches.
It set the standard for just how an F1 team should run its Esports division. Leigh is a full-time Mercedes employee and has been since 2018. In that same season, rival drivers hadn’t even been contacted by their respective teams until a couple of weeks prior to the races starting, such was the difference in commitment from the F1 team side.
It was no surprise that in 2019 the other teams attempted to match Mercedes’ resources. For example, Renault relocated its leading two drivers from mainland Europe to work full-time at its UK base in Enstone.
The aforementioned mental training from Mercedes was crucial into turning Leigh from an extremely quick but slightly erratic driver to a consistent champion, and it may be equally important in returning the Silver Arrows to the top of F1 Esports.
“You speak to anyone at Mercedes, and they all have the same mindset,” Leigh says. “They are all very determined. They’re six-time champions in a row.
“You pick up little bits of inspiration, and how to go about stuff. What I draw from Mercedes is how their work ethic is, they’re just relentless with what to do. It maximises everything.
“Mercedes helps with the mentality side of things. They’ve worked with some of the best drivers in the world. They’ve given me that knowledge that I’m lacking.
“Unlike, for example, Lewis Hamilton or Valtteri Bottas, I haven’t had that karting experience. I haven’t gone up the ranks and spoken to a race engineer every week of my life.
“Mercedes is great at filling in that knowledge that I’ve missed from not doing, let’s say, F4 or F3 growing up. Equally, they have a facility in the factory that we go and train in.
“We have that factory feeling, amongst champions all of the time. It’s just a very good vibe with them, it’s very supportive. It feels like a bit of a family.”
“I would sometimes take seven positions, because my racecraft was able to get me those positions. There were a few moments of ‘sending it’” :: Brendon Leigh
Leigh identified his one-lap speed as the biggest weakness. A deficit difficult to overcome when often the field was separated by under a second in qualifying. Moreover, the races were run at 25% race distance and were all one-stop races, giving little room for Leigh to use any strategic advantage he or Mercedes might have had.
His racecraft still stands out within the highly competitive field. It was rare to see Leigh going anywhere other than forwards even during his difficult 2019 season.
“It’s very easy to look at negatives, that we went from winning to not winning, but there’s a lot of positives when I look at myself,” he says.
“We had very good race pace and racecraft. Most of the overtakes I was doing in the midfield weren’t broadcast. A lot of the races were decided on lap one.
“On some lap ones, I would sometimes take seven positions, because my racecraft was able to get me those positions. There were a few moments of ‘sending it’, but generally the race pace was very good.
“Seven or eight of the races, we couldn’t have finished higher considering where we started.”
Mercedes was undoubtedly hurt by the loss of Daniel Bereznay to Alfa Romeo prior to the 2019 season. The Hungarian finished as runner-up to Leigh in the ’18 season and was critical in manufacturing the race set-ups for the two drivers.
Bereznay was replaced by reserve driver Patryk Krutyj, who managed to score just six points last year. Mercedes may need to sign a stronger second driver to properly support Leigh and improve on eighth in the teams’ standings. On the other hand, drivers’ champion David Tonizza’s Ferrari team-mates failed to register a single point, so clearly, the weaker team-mates factor isn’t everything.
A stronger team-mate coupled with the relentless work ethic from both Leigh and the team makes their return to fighting at the front almost inevitable.
It’s not going to be straightforward but with the resources and fundamental understanding of how to be successful in motorsport regardless of whether it’s real or virtual, Leigh and Mercedes won’t stay beaten.