It’s a cold winter’s morning in Northamptonshire, somewhere near Towcester – a place that non-locals routinely mispronounce.
I’ve driven over the now-defunct Farm Straight, Bridge and Priory corners and parked up behind the Woodcote-abutting pitlane area. It’s here where Praga is shaking down a field of fresh R1 race cars.
The diminutive carbon-chassis, high-downforce buzz boxes aggressively spit their way down the Wellington Straight – the cracks and bangs generated from their 365bhp engines reverberating against the British Racing Drivers Club building’s exterior.
Young Scottish driver Gordie Mutch is testing a new Czech Republic-produced racer that looks like a boil-washed LMP3 machine.
Meanwhile, his teammate is sipping on an orange juice inside the welcoming team hospitality tent. They aren’t laid back on a couch with a pair of Aviators on their head, surrounded by glitz and glamour, however – despite the former ‘Stig’, Ben Collins briefly wandering by.
Instead, they are sat at a high table talking to me about their hopes for the year ahead with infectious nervous energy.
This is Jimmy Broadbent, YouTube sim racing content creator, internet superstar and now a racing driver. With sponsors. Partners. Managers. And goals. It’s all got a bit serious.
Sharing a car with Gordie, Broadbent forms Fanatec Praga Team 87 and competes in the new-for-2022 one-make Praga Cup.
“We’ve been chatting for a while trying to find a way to work together,” explains the YouTuber turned race car driver with neatly 800,000 subscribers at the time of writing.
“[Fanatec is] the world’s biggest sim racing hardware company. I’ve been around for a few years in sim racing myself, so it’s amazing that they are our main sponsor this year. They really enjoyed seeing the series from last year and our progress. Having the sim racing equipment at home as well helps with the preparation for here.”
Following two race wins at the end of last year in the Britcar endurance series, Praga has broken away and formed its own championship. The field of identical cars also includes reigning Britcar champions Tim Gray Motorsport and venerated youth-development squad Arden Motorsport.
“I mean, it would be nice to aim for a championship,” explains the erstwhile shed dweller, known for previously creating content inside an outbuilding within his mum’s garden.
“This is primarily a Pro-Am series. I’ve got Gordie alongside me. He’s been an amazing coach last year; he was why I found any speed at all.
“My goal is to be somewhere near him and if I can do that, then we’ve got a really strong pairing.
“But I’ve got a lot of work to do [to reach that level].”
After mixed conditions threw a spanner in the works at the opening round in March, the duo has since fought back with a podium at Oulton Park and currently sit second in the championship. Game on.
“Last year, we ended up in a spot where he was the fastest Pro and I was the fastest Am. If we can do that again, that’s amazing, but it’s not as easy as just jumping in the car and doing that.”
Things have come a long way from Broadbent’s early career. Starting out with no-comment YouTube videos about virtual car racing – the first video I came across was one about online touring car racing, followed by impressions of the Sébastien Loeb Rally Evo game – the progression is stark since his first upload in 2012.
His style has evolved into more personable appearances and livestreams. Over the years, as his channel grew, some real-world on-track experiences such as a driving course at TT Circuit Assen and a Radical training day around Brands Hatch appeared.
10 years and a loyal following later, he’s now in his second full season of professional motorsport – following Club100 karting outings in 2019 – something originally spurred on by racing game content creation.
If keeping such a large and passionate audience entertained wasn’t enough pressure already, he now has the eyes of the virtual world watching to see if a sim racer can indeed make a successful transition into motorsport.
“I think naysayers of sim racing are those who visit a trade show or event and try a setup that’s been designed to be all crazy and mad. Obviously, that’s nowhere near realistic.
“I think if you have a properly set up sim racing cockpit and you spend a couple of hours on it, you will immediately see the link [to the real-world] and the benefit of testing in a virtual space. We even use MoTeC when we practice at home.
“Braking traces and the curvature of how we’re getting on the throttle. It’s all analysed on the sim and we do exactly the same here [at Silverstone]. That is a directly transferable skill.”
He is uniquely positioned to explain what it’s like to switch from extensive simulator use, for well over a decade, and then move into a competitive motorsport championship – highlighting what is similar, and what isn’t.
“I would say that in a competitive racing esport race, your mind works even harder than it does in one of these. In a lot of cases, esport drivers are their own engineers, and they’re changing setups and strategies on the fly. That’s more mentally taxing.
“But of course, that’s then offset in the real car by the fact your body is getting beaten up as well.
“I think there’s definitely a comparison, if you have a strong mind, and this is something that I think actually helped me. When I got in the car for the first time, I already knew the racecraft tricks and where to place the car. I think a sim racer can jump in at a higher level than someone who has never raced before.”
Broadbent’s on-track exploits aren’t just the pin-up of the sim racing community either. For Praga, the partnership has an unexpected benefit, too.
“In America, it’s really exciting that people know who we are,” explained Praga Managing Director Mark Harrison.
“We turned up for the Miami Concours event and the person at the gate saw the Praga logo on our clothing and said ‘Jimmy Broadbent!’
“It’s amazing to go somewhere on the other side of the world and see the impact that it’s having.”
It’s clear that taking someone from the virtual world and placing them in motorsport can deliver both strong racing results and reach a wider audience outside of traditional motorsport media, potentially engaging with a more youthful following.
The sim racing and esports fanbase is watching with bated breath, as the genre’s most recognisable face makes a career by not just entertaining fans but earning silverware too. If anyone can successfully bridge the gap between racing at home and racing around the world, it’s Jimmy Broadbent.
You can hear the full interview with Jimmy Broadbent on the Traxion.GG Podcast. Follow or subscribe on your favourite podcast platform for more sim racing, esports and racing game interviews each week.
Image source: Praga and Fanatec