James Baldwin Is Taking The British GT By Storm In His First Season Of Car Racing

The British GT is the UK’s own national grand touring series and it’s been going strong for almost three decades. From McLaren’s F1 to the Lister Storm, the Saleen S7, the Dodge Viper, or the Porsche 911 GT3.R, all of them graced the paddock and the grids of the British GT at one time or another and now it’s all about GT3 and GT4 machinery with one 22-year-old gamer battling to win the GT3 title at his first attempt in a team co-owned by a former F1 World Champion. His name is James Baldwin and he is The World’s Fastest Gamer - only he now wants to become The World’s Fastest Racer.

From the bedroom to the paddock

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What do you do after a spirited session of Forza Motorsport or Gran Turismo? I, for one, turn the heat-spewing console off and go to bed, dreaming of actually racing the cars I manhandle on my average-sized screen. They’re made of unobtanium and cost appropriately and while I’ve gotten pretty close to some pretty cool cars in the past, there’s no question that even sitting in a proper race car would be an unforgettable life experience for someone like me. And maybe for someone like you too. But not so for James Baldwin.

That's because the Briton gets to drive a full-fledged, $650,000 McLaren 720S GT3 in real life.

There are, admittedly, quite a few that get to drive GT3s in prestigious racing series around the world - 48 cars showed up at the most recent GT World Challenge Europe Endurance Cup round at the Nurburgring - but unlike most other amateurs, Baldwin lacks the silver spoon. He got to where he is now by virtue of racing his bottom off in the virtual world and by being really, really good at it.

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We’ve already talked about Baldwin’s amazing rapid-fire transition from his sim rig at home to the cockpit of Team Rocket RJN’s McLaren but here’s a quick run-down of how it all came about: Baldwin won the e-Race of Champions in 2018 and followed it up with a fourth-place for Team GB in the virtual FIA Motorsport Games in 2019.

Then, at the tail end of 2019, he took part, following his success in the e-ROC event, in the second edition of the World’s Fastest Gamer competition which he won. The prize should’ve been a full-season assault on the GT World Challenge Europe Endurance Cup in that very same McLaren. With COVID-19 intervening and reshuffling the cards, the team chose to do British GT instead and that’s how Baldwin ended up paired with McLaren Junior Driver Michael O’Brien.

His first taste of the McLaren came at Paul Ricard early in the year and it was, as Baldwin puts it, an "eye-opening" experience. With the ambition to be "one of the best racing drivers in the world," as he told Totally Game, Baldwin knows that his first full season of car racing is a daunting challenge but he’s already proven that a steep learning curve is something he’s more than ready to climb.

"Driving a real car, compared to a simulator, is much more nerve-racking," Baldwin admitted although he later added that "it’s much harder to get ’in the zone’ in the sim, compared to the real car [where] you get immersed in the sound, the vibration, the heat, and the movement."

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That is, in a nutshell, what virtual racing lacks: the feeling of speed, the physicality of it all.

In the sim, it’s more of a vicarious experience in that you try to put yourself in the shoes of a real driver (and that’s where all the realism of modern sims come in to help you) without being ’there’. You’re in a rig - be it a $6,000 like the one James’ using - and the movements and vibration and rackets of a real car can’t be reproduced.

That’s why, as James underlines, while the basic skill set is transferable, there are many things you need to learn when you jump in the real thing, including setup work. "The initial thing that stood out was that the way you talk about it was more professional compared to me online with teammates talking about it," Baldwin said talking about setting up a car. "It’s still a bit the same, especially when you’re comparing it to something like Assetto Corsa, which is so realistic, [so] I understood what everyone was saying because I could speak that language."

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What helped, besides his three years of sim racing was his dabbling in karting as a youngster which ended rather abruptly in 2015 when James was 17 because the budget ran dry. As you and I both know, racing is expensive and that’s why the grand prize in The World’s Fastest Gamer competition was touted to be a "$1 million prize" because, well, racing really is that expensive especially at the level where James is competing right now.

The takeaway here is, then, that you can learn a lot of valuable things from racing in the virtual world and that it's all a lot cheaper and, obviously, completely non-dangerous. But, let me tell you, it just makes you more eager to jump in the real thing over time!
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P.S. James keeps impressing in British GT. He last took pole position together with O’Brien in round 3 at Brands Hatch and was fastest in the Am bracket of qualifying before setting off into the distance right after the start. With a 30-second cushion in hand that he built over the course of an hour of racing, Baldwin was supposed to hand the car over to O’Brien who would, in turn, take it to victory lane. But that wasn’t the case. A safety car period at the tail end of Baldwin’s stint nullified his advantage and, to add insult to injury, Barwell’s Lamborghini exited ahead of O’Brien who couldn’t find a way past Sandy Mitchell. Regardless, the Rocket Team RJN duo sits third in the standings less than 30 points adrift heading into the fourth weekend of 2020 that sees competitors return to Donington Park for race number 6.

Michael Fira
Associate Editor and Motorsport Expert - fira@topspeed.com
Mihai Fira started out writing about long-distance racing like the famous 24 Hours of Le Mans. As the years went by, his area of interest grew wider and wider and he ever branched beyond the usual confines of an automotive writer. However, his heart is still close to anything car-related and he's most at home retelling the story of some long-since-forgotten moment from the history of auto racing. He'll also take time to explain why the cars of the '60s and '70s are more fascinating than anything on the road today.  Read More
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