Of the six editions of the World Rally Championship’s own esports series held so far, half of them have been won by Frenchman Lohan Blanc.
Those three championship wins, in 2017, 2019 and most recently 2021, mean he’s won three different road cars through his esports endeavours.
He won a Hyundai i20 in both 2017 and 2019 before earning a Toyota GR Yaris for his victory in the 2021 season.
Blanc, who goes by the username Nexl, is also the only WRC esports champion to have won with a controller and a wheel.
In 2017 he used a PS4 controller to take his first title against players who were using a wheel and pedals set-up.
After being forced to use a wheel and pedals for future WRC esports finals he then won in 2019 by beating the defending champion and real-life rally driver Jon Armstrong in the final.
Unsurprisingly given his initial success in esports was with a regular controller, Blanc doesn’t have any background in real-world motorsport.
Instead his skills at virtual rallying come from playing rally video games from the PlayStation 2 era onwards as well as a love of the WRC itself.
“I started playing WRC Rally Evolved a while ago now, then I stopped playing WRC games for a while, until I went to see the Monte Carlo Rally in real life, and I immediately wanted to play WRC again,” Blanc told The Race.
“So I took the WRC 5 game, and as I played it, I saw that I was having good times in the online leaderboards.
“So I set myself the goal of having a world record in the ranking, and I managed to do it.
“I kept chasing world records a bit until I realised that it might be cool to participate in the eSports WRC to see.
“My first participation in eSports WRC ended in qualifying for the semi-final and then final.”
Despite going into the 2021 final as the only repeat champion, Blanc wasn’t the favourite to emerge as the overall winner.
Instead that status was held by Sami-Joe Abi Nakhle (pictured above) who had won the COVID delayed 2020 final just one month earlier and had won 12 of the 13 online time trial events in the build-up to the 2021 final.
However the minimal preparation time each of the gamers had turned out to be a disadvantage for Nakhle, who was impacted by power cuts in his home country Lebanon.
Blanc didn’t have those issues, although everyone had to quickly adapt to the new WRC 10 game and try to get to grips with and best memorise all the stages, with over 100 in the game including all new historically themed ones.
Since all of the earlier qualifying events had been done on WRC 9, it meant all of the drivers who made it to the final had a lot of work to get up to speed with the new game.
“We had a little less than two weeks of training on WRC 10 before the final,” Blanc recalled.
“I would say an average of eight hours a day and for some days it can easily go up to 10 or 11.
“The stages and their weather conditions were revealed the very morning of the final. Knowing that we had two one-hour sessions to train on the 12 stages revealed, so it was more recognition rather than training.”
A total of nine finalists completed the first eight stages but only the fastest four were able to progress to the grand final.
That grand final consisted of four stages and everybody’s cumulative times were reset so that all four drivers were on a level playing field heading into the grand final.
Meet our four #esportsWRC 2021 Finalists! They fought for a place among the Gods of the Acropolis! 🇬🇷
4⃣ @izamusing @TGReurope | @OfficialWRC | @Nacon | @kylotonn_games | @MOBIUZGamingEU | @fanatec | @PlayseatGlobal | @twsteel pic.twitter.com/ENNXz5f5uu
— WRC The Official Games (@WRCTheGame) September 8, 2021
One distinct advantage that Blanc had over Nakhle is that the other two who made it to the grand final – Dylan Noel and John Bebnowicz-Harris – were also part of the Race Clutch esports team alongside him.
That meant Blanc was able to seek advice from them during the limited amount of practice time they had. This was especially important for the final two stages, which were longer and had changeable weather conditions.
“As we didn’t have much time during the day’s practice, we decided between the Race Clutch team-mates to test the different tyres for the last two stages, which were mixed conditions, so that we could then compare the times,” Blanc said.
“Dylan Noel was testing the soft tyres and I was testing the wet tyres. But unfortunately, I made mistakes during my recce, which made the comparison with my team-mate very difficult.
“Since I saw that I had trouble managing the wet tyres, I had to take the risk of trusting my team-mate who thought that using the soft tyres was the right strategy.
“I couldn’t test the grip of the soft tyres in the rain during practice due to the limited driving time we had, so that was going to be a discovery for me in the final.”
Heading into the final 12.5-mile long stage from Rally Croatia, Blanc had a 0.397s advantage over Nakhle.
The stage started off dry but gradually the weather turned to stormy conditions. This created a natural ebb and flow as Blanc chose to complete the stage on the dry weather soft tyres whereas Nahkle opted for the wet tyres.
The dry start meant Blanc built up a lead of 30s over Nakhle but in the final few splits the gap reversed. Despite Nakhle’s turn of speed on the damp asphalt, he was still 12s slower than Blanc on the whole stage.
To the spectators it appeared Blanc won comfortably, but the ever-lessening grip and the lack of practice meant it was a tense final stage for the champion.
“Inevitably, I managed to create a big gap on the dry part, and as soon as the rain came, the loss of grip was gradual so it was really important to stay focused because the error could come quickly,” Blanc said.
“So I tried to watch the gap between us a few times to make sure I was still in the game.
“I was bound to be nervous, especially since I wasn’t sure how the tyres would react towards the end. But I managed to put it all together, which allowed me to finish ahead and secure a third eSports WRC title.”
Of all motorsport esports competitions, eSports WRC has one of the better track records for transitioning gamers into real-life competitors and most focus on doing so in the future.
It’s how 2018 champion Armstrong (pictured above) was able to restart his real-world rallying career and the FIA Rally Star programme for developing new talents puts great emphasis on giving the best gamers on the WRC games a shot at real-life rallying in Junior WRC and then WRC2.
For the time being though Blanc’s sights are still firmly set on him winning more titles in eSports WRC.
“I never thought I would get there when I started doing eSports WRC so I’m obviously very happy, as you can imagine,” Blanc said.
“I still want to continue in the eSports WRC in 2022 with the idea of going for a fourth title of course.
“I don’t see myself changing competitions at the moment as the eSports WRC is doing quite well for me.”