What separates F1 Esports from many other racing esports competitions is the emphasis on teamwork and having drivers working together before and during each race.
Given the ever-increasing prize pool, up to $750,000 last year, that’s distributed according to the teams’ championship standings, it makes complete sense.
Red Bull won the teams’ championship in both 2019 and 2020 but none of their drivers have won a drivers’ title, with Frederik Rasmussen having finished runner-up in 2019 and 2020.
Marcel Kiefer joined Rasmussen at the team last year and in his first Pro Series with Red Bull he finished third in the drivers’ championship.
The pair get along personally and professionally they’ve both benefited from working with one another, with Rasmussen telling The Race that “it makes it a lot easier to win when your team-mate is so good”.
Kiefer expanded upon that, going into detail about how much collaboration there is between them in the run-up to each race.
“We communicate basically everything because we rely on each other and also the performance of the other driver,” Kiefer told The Race.
“In the end we always go for the teams’ title and to finish as high as we can as a team, if that means one has a worse race than the other then that’s what it means.
“We see each other’s strategies, we communicate set-up settings, if someone has a question about ‘what did you change there?’ we are just honest because we know that if the other also benefits from it then it will be easier for us as an individual to achieve the goal we had in mind.”
— Red Bull Racing Esports (@redbullracingES) December 17, 2020
The best demonstration of their teamwork was in the Austrian round of the 2020 Pro Series, where the Red Bull drivers finished first and second.
They started the race on the second row but were able to lock-out the top two positions early in the race with Kiefer in front.
In the latter stages of the race, 2020 champion Jarno Opmeer caught up to the back of the duo with the softer tyres but he was unable to get past either Red Bull driver.
Kiefer went on to cross the finish line in first and take his only race win of the season, and he insists that having his team-mate behind and helping him was instrumental to his victory.
“It was much easier, that position where we were, it doesn’t matter if it was Frede leading or me, if there would not have been a second Red Bull Jarno would’ve won that simply by being on the better strategy,” Kiefer said.
“So I think without a team-mate it would not have been possible, so it was definitely easier but it was still not easy.
“I had to rely a lot on Frede and I could do that because I know what he is capable of and I think it’s the same for him with me.
“We did kind of the same in Spa but it didn’t properly work out, I finished third because Dani Bereznay got past due to a lack of energy deployment on my side – I didn’t have enough energy left in the tank.
“I think it just shows if you really coordinate and put your ego behind you can definitely make your life a whole lot easier and achieve what you are aiming for.”
The level of collaboration between team-mates comes across as strange when compared to real-world motorsport, and it’s particularly odd given the specifics of F1 Esports.
In F1 Esports, each team has to have three drivers in its line-up, with one dropped at the end of each year to make way for someone to come in via the Pro Draft.
So given that only two drivers from each team can take part in a race and that at least one driver will always leave each team every year, it would be easy to understand a certain degree of selfishness.
With Rasmussen in drivers’ championship contention at the time of the Austrian race he could’ve passed his team-mate to better his personal title chances.
However not only was that not something he seriously considered doing, instead he was communicating with Kiefer throughout the race to ensure they both finished as high as they could.
“Of course it crossed my mind but I knew it would be a stupid idea because then third place could ruin the 1-2 so I just stayed behind,” Rasmussen recalls.
“We usually don’t plan before qualifying what we’re going to do in the race, we usually plan after qualifying so we know what we can do in the race.
“During the race we made a lot of calls of what we will do next and stuff like that.
“I remember saying ‘if you overtake this guy into this corner then I can get him on the next straight and then we both overtake him at once’.”
Before each race there’s also a lot of work that goes into fine-tuning car set-ups and experimenting with different possible race strategies.
Again it’s conceivable that one driver, in a bid to get an advantage over their team-mate and avoid being axed at the end of the year, could hide an advantage they’ve discovered.
Neither Kiefer and Rasmussen do this and ultimately they rely on their speed in the game to keep their seat.
“There’s a risk but that doesn’t affect the fact I’m sharing stuff,” Kiefer said. “In the end I know how good I am, I know I’m one of the best, so I don’t see a reason for getting dropped anyway.
“But of course this is a risk, it’s a part of our job and we have to live with it and we’re professionals.
“We shouldn’t start acting up like little children and stop sharing stuff, we’re a team and as long as we’re working together as a team there’s not an issue.”
Given that all the cars are at an equal performance level in F1 Esports, it may seem like there’s minimal reason for a driver to leave one team to join another.
But when Kiefer left Racing Point and joined Red Bull for the 2020 Pro Series, he found that there was a massive difference between how invested both teams were in their esports operations.
“Sure the cars are equal but still the performance behind matters. I mean Red Bull just took it to a whole other level, which I haven’t been used to before, which is also what I was having in my mind when I joined F1 Esports,” Kiefer said.
“The team dynamic around you makes a huge difference and if you don’t have the right dynamic and the right people behind you and supporting you, then you can never unleash your full potential and go for these titles that you’re aiming for.
“With Red Bull we have the Red Bull Athlete Performance Center in Austria and that was definitely a game-changer, analysing our bodies, our problems we have which affect our performance in a bad way, and work on these things.
“So stuff like that makes a huge difference and then we can connect with these experts all the time if we need it.
“And other people inside Red Bull, if we need something they always listen, which is just great to have because it makes our lives easier and focus more on racing.
“So I believe team performance is key to making it big in F1 Esports, I don’t think there’s any driver that will ever be great or go for something big and achieve something in this industry if they don’t have the right people behind them.”
Red Bull isn’t the only F1 operation to have a physical fitness programme integrated into their esports team, with Brendon Leigh famously getting into better shape after his first F1 Esports championship.
However it’s representative of how quickly racing esports have become professionalised and that professional simracers are treated, to an extent, the same way as real-world racing drivers.
For this year’s F1 Esports Pro Series though the aim remains the same as Kiefer and Rasmussen both target taking home the largest slice of the prize money again in 2021.
“We just want to win three titles in a row” Kiefer said, “maybe beat the real team with consecutive titles [Red Bull won four consecutive F1 constructors’ titles between 2010 and 2013], that would be quite cool.”
Even Rasmussen, who’s been within a race win’s worth of points of taking the drivers’ championship in the previous two Pro Series, isn’t too concerned about personal glory.
“It bothers me a little bit but it doesn’t keep me up at night, I don’t mind it,” Rasmussen said.
“We’re going for the teams’ championship, that’s the big money, that’s the priority.”