One of the surprise victors from the F1 Pro Exhibition races held alongside Formula 1’s Virtual Grand Prix series was 2019 Pro Draft reject and now Racing Point esports driver Shanaka Clay.
He was the only driver to win a Pro Exhibition race who wasn’t in last year’s main F1 esports championship, but his proven speed in both dry and wet weather conditions helped land him a spot on the grid for the 2020 Pro Series.
From a dry qualifying session to a fully wet race around Montreal, he led from start to finish for Williams.
🏁 It's VICTORY for @VSR_Infamous… the right tyres, the right strategy for a fantastic #F1Esports Exhibition win!
Those last laps though 😮 pic.twitter.com/BKdtGGqedC
— Formula 1® Game (@Formula1game) June 14, 2020
Clay’s two-race stint in the Pro Exhibition series came by chance as Williams’ two drivers, Alvaro Carreton and Michael Romanidis, were unavailable for the final two races.
Roy Arnouts and Tino Naukkarinen each took part in one race for Williams, but it was down to the support of the league racing community on Twitter that Clay got his shot with the team.
“They were looking for another driver but then they posted on Twitter ‘who should we fill our seats with?’ and Twitter just absolutely blew up with my name,” Clay tells The Race.
— WILLIAMS ΞSPORTS (@WilliamsEsports) June 3, 2020
“I had absolutely nothing to do with that, I didn’t ask anyone to post and it just went crazy.
“The only thing I can attribute that to is how well I was going in league racing at the time because I was up there and beating current esports drivers and I think it came from also the disappointment of last year.
“I think people knew I had the ability and I’d taken that year to learn my lessons and toughen up a bit and sort of apply myself a little bit better, and I think people knew that in the community without being told.
“I’ll just keep on repeating and repeating and repeating the laps until it’s drilled into my brain what I need to do” :: Shanaka Clay
“So it just absolutely blew up, apparently around around 80% of people were just spamming my name on that post, and eventually [Williams esports team manager] Javi Guerra got in touch with me and decided to give me the opportunity in the Williams seat.
“I was hugely grateful for that and I did a decent job on my debut. Even though I got damage right at the beginning, I still managed to come away with a points finish.
“I looked at it as what could have been, but then I was raring to go for Canada and it turned out pretty well.”
Clay started off as a casual simracer in 2016 but went on to become a two-time champion in the FORL league before joining AOR in 2018.
It was that same year that he turned off all driver aids and took playing the F1 games more seriously as he eyed up the possibility of being involved with the F1 Esports Series.
Having worked his way up from the second to the top tier in AOR he raced against drivers who already have experience in the Pro Series, including Simon Weigang and Cedric Thome, who currently are at Haas, along with fellow draftees Filip Presnajder and Bardia Boroumand, who are parts of Ferrari and Mercedes respectively.
With Clay now a part of one of the 10 F1 Esports teams, how he practices and prepares for events is more structured than it was when he was league racing.
“I just dropped football straight away and went racing” :: Shanaka Clay
“We have a team of people and we need to work efficiently among ourselves to make the most of our time,” Clay explains.
“So me, Lucas Blakeley and Daniele Haddad can go and focus on different things and then we can collate the information and help each other in different areas, whereas before I was very much doing it on my own.
“So I think we’re certainly more efficient as a team but the way I go about it myself doesn’t really change from 2019 because it’s a very linear process.
“I go from learning the track, maybe in time trial, and then I’ll start creating a set-up in grand prix mode and then start doing some online sessions and I’ll just keep on repeating and repeating and repeating the laps until it’s drilled into my brain what I need to do.
“So that doesn’t necessarily change but I think it will happen in a more efficient way now that I have, not just two other drivers, but the management team working with us as well to help us work efficiently to make the most progress we can in the small amount of time we have until the Pro Series starts.”
Clay is hoping to put in a strong performance when the opportunity arises and thinks Racing Point’s success in the Pro Exhibition events will carry over to the 2020 Pro Series.
“Last year Racing Point started a little bit slower but from the mid-point to the end they did very well, Lucas Blakeley picking up a podium in Japan,” Clay recalls.
“They know what they need to do and, if you added the Pro Exhibition points up, Lucas won the drivers’ championship and Racing Point won the constructors’.
“So I think it’s clear the direction we’re going in and we have the highest aspirations.
“Even if I’m not driving at the beginning of the season, I aim to come in and help the team in whatever way I can on or off the track.
“So I’m aiming pretty high, I definitely want some points finishes and I want to be close to the front but it’s hard work that will get you there and then just performing on the day.
“I think I’m pretty capable of that because we had to adapt to pretty adverse conditions in Canada.
“The torrential rain I hadn’t practiced in very much, I’d probably done about five laps, and then I had to do a whole race with a two-time champion [Brendon Leigh] chasing me down so that was stressful.
“We’re certainly aiming very high and we’ll look to start stronger than we did last year and see where we can end up – hopefully much higher than last season.”
Clay’s speed in the virtual world comes from his years of experience in karting, which was curtailed after the money to fund his real world racing ambitions ran out.
He competed in both British and European karting championships and between 2009 and 2012 he raced against two current Formula 1 drivers.
While esports are his main focus for now, he still intends to carry on club racing across the UK.
“I started karting when I was eight years old – it was December 2007 I think my first outing and it was purely down to my mum,” Clay says.
“She got me into the sport but even before then, we went indoor karting for a few rounds and I was hooked from the very first lap, and I was like ‘where has this been for the eight years of my life?’.
“I’d played football at the time and thoroughly enjoyed that but I just dropped football straight away and went racing.
“Then from eight years old I won several club championships through England and then I also competed abroad as well through all kinds of places in Europe and even in Sri Lanka and did very well, I think.
“The only reason I stopped was for money purposes – we weren’t achieving enough for the money we were putting in, so we had to stop.
“Then we bought an M3, we did a couple of races and then COVID happened and we haven’t been out since but we will be looking to do so in the very near future.
“I definitely have hunger for that as well and I certainly aim to be racing in real life in the near future, I won’t give up on that just yet.
“But I was pretty successful, raced against George Russell and Lando Norris. Didn’t quite meet Alex Albon on the track, but I gave them a good fight in the European championships.
“So it’s pretty cool to look back on seeing where they are now.”