Dáire McCormack is a youthful, softly-spoken character. Appearances can be deceptive, however, as the Irishman talks authoritatively, proffering forthright views on all things ESL R1 – officially the best-funded championship in sim racing with a €500k overall prize pool.
And that’s before we consider his wicked turn of speed, contributing to back-to-back ESL R1 wins, making him the first double-winner in ESL R1 history. We at Traxion.GG sat down with the Williams Esports driver to discuss the secret of his and Mercedes-AMG’s resurgence in the competition, as well as his hopes and aims for the rest of 2023.
Dáire (pronounced ‘Da-ra’) began his esports career racing on Forza Motorsport 7 in 2019, impressing Williams Esports enough to be picked up as a full-time driver (via its Academy team), eventually leading to competitive Assetto Corsa Competizione (ACC) outings.
It was in ACC where McCormack really made an impression on the sim racing community, taking the fight to Autosport Esports Driver of the Year 2022 James Baldwin by finishing second in the 2022 Mobileye GT World Challenge Europe Esports series’ Pro class, snatching a couple of wins on the way.
And things have gone even better in 2023, with the Irishman already claiming the Europe, Middle East and Africa split of the Logitech McLaren G Challenge (in dominant fashion, in fact, with three wins out of three in the final), as well as playing a pivotal role in Williams’ assault on ESL R1. And he’s only 18 years old…
So, with form like that, winning in ESL R1 would seem inevitable, right?
Winning in ESL R1
“I really didn’t expect that, to be honest. I knew we had the potential. I knew we had the car this time – at Hockenheim and Spa, it wasn’t so much the case,” McCormack counters, playing down his achievements.
His qualifying lap for the Round 4 Spa-Francorchamps final was one of ‘those laps’. The kind of lap that professional sim racers produce once in a blue moon where everything just clicks. It was all the more remarkable considering the Mercedes-AMG cars had struggled throughout the event to that point, with McCormack being the marque’s only representative in the final race.
Qualifying in ESL R1 is a simple one-shot showdown, with every driver getting just one lap to set their best time. Was it his best-ever qualifying performance, though?
“I did hundreds of runs for practice, just qualifying in a Superpole format. And my best was less than a tenth faster [than my Round 4 qualifying lap]. So, to get that in the actual competition was just mental. Like, I absolutely didn’t expect it at all,” he enthused.
ESL R1’s short 20-minute races and early-stage knockout format put a premium on qualifying pace, surely Williams and McCormack focus their preparation on one-lap performance?
“It’s just all qualifying. If you don’t do a good qualifying, you’re pretty much in the bin,” he states light-heartedly, getting straight to the crux of the matter.
“So you really need to focus on qualifying. If your qualifying is bad, it makes it really, really difficult to move forward. If you qualify, I’d say fifth or below, you have no chance to win unless people crash.”
ESL R1’s USP
As well as a huge prize pool, ESL R1 brings the best sim racers on the planet together with the best teams, including the addition of esports giants like FaZe Clan, G2 Esports, HEROIC, MOUZ and FURIA. But what makes ESL R1 stand out from the sim racing crowd for McCormack?
“I’d say it’s the format,” said McCormack
“The format is brutal – it’s tough. You know takes everything out of you to try and get that perfect lap in every Superpole session and luckily for me [I’m] used to Superpoles from ACC,” he states.
The LAN races at Rounds 1 and 2 from the Katowice Intel Extreme Masters (IEM) Expo Hall didn’t go to plan for McCormack; he exited Round 1 at the quarter-finals stage before rallying to make the final at Round 2 – albeit with a 12th-place finish. Subsequent rounds were set to be online only, meaning McCormack could use his own, familiar-feeling sim rig.
“[Katowice] didn’t go well because I didn’t know what the equipment was. So I didn’t get that detailed brake feeling like I had a home. So yeah, I was struggling with trailing (trail-braking) into the corner and the car would just start spinning on me,” stated McCormack.
As if to underline the difficulties of using unfamiliar feeling equipment, McCormack was on a stormer of a lap in the final of Round 3 but fell foul of a slow-down penalty for corner cutting. This led to an 11th-placeth place finish – unrepresentative given his sudden upturn in pace.
In reality, McCormack and his Mercedes-AMG stablemates had been fighting a losing battle for most of ESL R1, as their GT3 car appeared to be struggling against the Audis and BMWs. Up to Round 4, the brand had accrued just one podium position – McCormack’s Williams team-mate Nikodem Wisniewski at Round 3.
Round 4 wasn’t much better, either, despite McCormack’s assured victory as the sole representative of Stuttgart’s finest. Round 5 saw a slightly adjusted Balance of Performance (BoP), however, leading to the appearance of five Mercedes-AMGs in the final. Needless to say, the car has been a tough one to get on top of in ESL R1:
“The Mercedes doesn’t have the natural rotation of the other cars, all the other cars coming into a corner will give a natural rear-end slide, while the Mercedes won’t,” said McCormack
“So, you need to force that slide. And it needs to be perfect all the time. It’s super, super hard to nail a lap in the Mercedes because it just doesn’t have that natural rotation,” thus highlighting a key weakness of the front-engined, long-wheelbase Mercedes-AMG.
Williams isn’t the only Mercedes-AMG team either, as Mercedes-AMG Petronas Esports also compete in ESL R1. For a team boasting the undoubted driving talents of James Baldwin, Bono Huis, Graham Carroll and Marko Pejic it seems remarkable that Williams Esports are currently five places ahead of their stablemates in the Teams’ championship, a whopping 162 points ahead.
ESL R1 uses the nascent Rennsport sim racing platform. Still, in its alpha phase, the sim is constantly being developed during ESL R1, with input from its esports stars proving to be valuable. However, this means some simulation aspects have to be pared back, with several detailed set-up options understandably missing from the cars. So, if it’s not car set-up, why does Williams hold a healthy lead over the Mercedes-AMG Petronas team?
“I think we’re just a little bit quicker – only a little bit, because it’s very marginal. We’re all doing the exact same times pretty much, so yeah, it’s just whoever comes out a little bit lucky and whoever deals with the pressure best,” he counters.
McCormack also credits the pace of his team-mates (Jakub Brzezinski, Dennis Schöniger and the aforementioned Wisniewski), their similar lap times pushing each other on up the leaderboards.
With third position going to James Baldwin at Round 5 it looks as though Mercedes-AMG Petronas are on the right path to recovering lost ground, keeping Williams Esports on their toes, no doubt.
ESL R1 ambitions
Becoming ESL R1’s first two-time and back-to-back winner surely means McCormack is aiming for first position overall at the Spring Season Major in Munich on the 27th-28th of May?
“I’d be more than happy with a top five in the championship coming into the major,” he says, surprisingly.
“That’ll be it for me. Obviously, the aim is to win every round, but you can’t do that,” said McCormack, acknowledging the in-depth strength of his opponents, especially Porsche Coanda’s Joshua Rogers:
“He just does the same thing all the time. He’s absolutely insane. I think he got a little bit unlucky at Hockenheim and had a bad qualifying lap [but] I think going forward, he’ll definitely be [our] main rival,” said McCormack, appreciating Rogers’ abilities (the Australian already taking a win at Round 2).
McCormack also highlighted the R8G Esports pair of Jiri Toman and Marcell Csincsik as drivers to watch, as both sit one-two in the regular season points table respectively.
As well as ESL R1 McCormack is set to take part in no less than three SRO Esports championships; including the GT World Challenge Europe Esports Sprint series, the Intercontinental GT Challenge Esports championship and the on-site Fanatec GT Pro Series LAN-based series.
It seems like a big ask to compete across four professional esports series in one year, but you wouldn’t bet against McCormack taking a clean sweep.
Images courtesy of Williams Esports