How competing for a pro sim team helped prepare for a real-world 24 Hours of Spa return

Following a promising 24-hour GT3 race debut at the fabled Belgian event two years ago, sim racer-turned-racing-driver James Baldwin was left on the sidelines. But, later this month, he returns to a McLaren cockpit with hopes of a race finish.
How competing for a pro sim team helped prepare for a real-world 24 Hours of Spa return
Images: Garage 59

Motorsport is expensive. It can also be frantic, adrenaline-fuelled, exciting and dangerous. But mostly, expensive.

Just ask James Baldwin, who despite claiming the World’s Fastest Gamer 2 competition, winning a race in British GT and showing well during the 2022 24 Hours of Spa, has been sitting on the sidelines. That run two years ago ended when a team-mate collided with another car in the early hours of Sunday morning.

Naturally, the professional sim racing competitor has plenty of virtual commitments for the Brackley-based AMG Petronas Esports team and is presently focused on the ESL R1 competition, on loan to David Beckham-affiliated Guild Esports.

But apart from a few test sessions, one in an Alpine A110 GT4 as a sim racing competition prize, the past two years have been a barren spell for real-world race starts. This was despite a fan-powered gofundme campaign to put the 26-year-old back on the grid.

Garage 59 McLarens 24 Hours of Spa 2024 test, James Baldwin
Garage 59 McLarens at the 2024 24 Hours of Spa

Mercifully, a gig with the Garage 59 squad as a Silver-rated driver has materialised for the centenary of Belgium’s premier day-long endurance race.

“I couldn’t believe it, there was a little bit of shock, ‘What is going on?!’, it’s happening,” recounts Baldwin to Traxion, explaining his reaction to the phone call that secured the drive.

“I came off the phone with the team owner, the deal had all gone through, and I opened Twitter. It was the FIA WEC weekend at Spa and the first thing that came up on my feed was a video of a Porsche going through Eau Rouge-Raidillon and sticking it in the wall. So that wasn’t ideal…

“I just wanted to get on with it, get to the test, get behind the wheel and confirm to myself that I can still do this. You always have those doubts if you have a long time out of the car”

A two-day test at the daunting Wallonia venue was recently completed. A transponder issue meant Baldwin’s name was conspicuously absent on the timing screen – something which meant, handily, he could keep the race seat under wraps until after everyone was sure the rust had been smoothed away.

James Baldwin at the 2024 24 Hours of Spa test with Garage 59

“I felt more competitive than I’ve ever felt behind the wheel during the test, and I think it’s because I’ve joined Mercedes and its esports team,” he explains.

“It has a very data-heavy approach to its drivers. Thanks to that, I know more about myself as a driver; what I do well, what I don’t do well and what I should do sometimes. 

“I think a lot more about how I’m driving now, whereas before, I just got behind the wheel and drove. That is good sometimes, but at the same time, if it’s not going well, you don’t know what to change.

“My fitness is better now so it didn’t feel like such a big deal driving a GT3 machine, whereas two years ago, I thought my fitness was good, but it turns out it wasn’t very good. I made a lot of changes in the last two years, just in case something like this came up.”

Apart from extolling the virtues of the latest ‘Evo’ spec of Woking’s finest – “the new aero kit on the McLaren 720S GT3 just feels amazing” – the five-time karting champion has not been milling around waiting for the main event following the test.

No, there was another sim racing competition to win, Duly taking home a second Alpine Esports Series crown using Assetto Corsa Competizione, he netted a second real-world GT4 test session. Something, that according to the 2022 Autosport Esports Driver of the Year, was far from guaranteed:

“Every year the Alpine competition is more challenging because esports continues to become more competitive.

“I had a really good start to the championship, a really good second round and then the last round just tailed off, so I just got it across the line.

“It’s a great series on ACC and with my iRacing and Rennsport commitments, I don’t really get to race on ACC that much anymore, so it was a nice excuse to keep driving it.”

Now, however, the focus is firmly on the day-long endurance classic, with a field of 67 GT3 race cars. A drive that the aforementioned fan donations have contributed to.

Garage 59 McLaren 720S 24 Hours of Spa 2024 test, James Baldwin
Garage 59 McLaren 720S GT3 Evo – 24 Hours of Spa 2024 test

“I kept it for the right opportunity,” Baldwin highlights.

“The support helped the deal get over the line, so without it, I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t have been possible.

“I was anticipating a lower-scale opportunity to come along, like a club race, which still would have been amazing. But something this big, the centenary 24 Hours of Spa is huge.

“I think the target is to finish. It’s just so hard to finish this race, as we found out two years ago.

We’ve got quite an inexperienced lineup. Obviously, I’m quite inexperienced and a couple of the team members haven’t driven much GT3 as well.

“We’re not expecting to go out and dominate. If we can just stay out of trouble, have a smooth race, nail our pit stops, drive consistently and finish, I think we’ll be up there anyway.

“I’m prepping right now, visiting the gym and analysing the video onboards from the test. Making sure I’m fully prepared for the race.”

The 2024 24 Hours of Spa runs between the 29th and 30th June. Baldwin will be joined by Nicolai Kjærgaard, Chris Salkeld and Mark Sansom in #158 Garage 59 McLaren 720S GT3 Evo within the Bronze category.

Add a Comment
Previous Post
Motorsport Games explains Le Mans Ultimate DLC and cancelled IndyCar game - CEO interview

Behind the Scenes of Test Drive Unlimited Solar Crown’s Creation – Developer Interview

Next Post
Hyundai's genre-defining Ioniq 5 N set for Forza Horizon 5

Hyundai’s genre-defining Ioniq 5 N set for Forza Horizon 5

Related Posts