Over the last five years, Simon Feigl has been one of the highest achievers in the Australian sim racing scene.
After first rising to prominence through the NISMO GT Academy competition, Simon made the transition to the iRacing platform and played a key role in the management of the Evolution Racing Team, working alongside Brenton O’Brien.
In 2018, Simon parted ways with ERT and formed his own Altus eSports squad, which has since established itself as a powerhouse of Aussie sim racing. Simon has also worked extensively with Motum Simulation, as both a contractor and full-time employee.
With his passion for sim racing, combined with the experience and knowledge he has gained through his roles as a competitor, team owner and employee, Simon has an in-depth understanding of the industry and is well-placed to comment on the current state of affairs, as Lachlan Mansell discovered.
Lachlan Mansell: What made you become involved in sim racing to begin with?
Simon Feigl: I got involved in sim racing due to my passion for racing as a kid. I never did karting, but I was always interested in racing. With my father, who was in the computer business, it was quite natural for me to get my outlet of racing done through simulation. I used to play the old Grand Prix games, even as far back as the Omega, because I was surrounded by computers as a kid.
I played all kinds of games, but it was always racing that I gravitated towards and was very strong at. I became more serious when the GT Academy program kicked off – I qualified for the national finals and was second in 2010; I retried again when the series came back in 2015 and got to go to England as part of Team Australia. That’s when it really hit home how big and how good it could be, and I moved to iRacing after that.
LM: Tell us about your current sim racing activities, including your role with Motum Simulation. How long have you been doing that for?
SF: I’ve been involved with Motum since 2017. They were interested in eSports – they have a fantastic simulator, and wanted to market what it can do and ultimately get to the point of where it could be used in competitions.
We ran three successful VSR Showdowns at Etihad Stadium, Sydney Motorsport Park and the PAX Australia gaming expo – they were all really strong and well-attended.
LM: You were providing assistance to Walkinshaw Racing in the Supercars eSeries – what was your role with them and how did it go?
SF: Motum Simulation are the official simulator partner for Walkinshaw Andretti United, so they provide simulators and expertise for the real-world activities and develop engineering and driver tools.
When COVID-19 hit and the eSeries kicked off, it was natural for me to speak to the guys at Walkinshaw and offer them some support. Bryce Fullwood and Chaz Mostert were pretty new to it all, so there was a lot of work to do with the whole process of getting them up to speed, training and coaching them through the nuances of all the different circuits.
On each night of the eSeries, my role was to engineer Bryce and we had Sam Blacklock engineering Chaz. Dayne Warren also engineered the wildcards, Lando Norris and Alexander Rossi and we had Zac Hamlin engineering Zak Brown in the celebrity race.
LM: You were involved with Brenton O’Brien’s Evolution Racing Team, what made you decide to go out on your own with Altus eSports?
SF: After GT Academy 2015, I was contacted by Brenton to ask about iRacing and so I joined Evolution Racing. After a short time, I ended up co-managing the team and we ran it together for the best part of three years. I learned a lot about how iRacing works and how the community interacts and responds. It evolved and progressed, and we did some really great things, but in the end there were some slight differences in direction and the ways in which we wanted to go about our racing so I decided to go on my own.
There were a few others within the team who liked the way I approached things, so there were a few who left ERT and came across to Altus. We’ve never looked back in terms of direction – after the first six months, it was totally proven that we’d made the right call.
LM: Altus eSports has rapidly established itself as a powerhouse of sim racing and you’re now supporting a combination of international superstars (like Dayne Warren) along with some of Australia’s most promising up and coming talents like Cooper Webster and Jackson Souslin Harlow. How have you managed to recruit so many high-quality drivers?
SF: I think it comes down to the vision of what the team is about, but also when you’re proven up the front, you’re more attractive. In the case of Jackson and Cooper, they both applied to join us so it wasn’t a case of seeking out or poaching; we were performing well and they wanted to move on. When we see how well they’re going, it’s hard to say no.
Dayne is a bit different; he was well and truly over-performing where he was, as was his brother Ethan. We reached out to him – we weren’t running V8s at that stage and I wasn’t going to get involved in V8s unless we had a really powerful effort. In the case of Dayne and Ethan, they had heard about our vision and seen what we were doing, and were ready to move onto a more professional environment.
One of the critical parts of Altus being successful on the racetrack is that we do have team members who are all built around a certain set of key values: commitment, performance and having fun. Commitment is a really important one – given it is a part-time performance hobby, the people who are truly passionate will make the time and will be as committed as ever. It’s important that you have people who are highly-driven and committed, partnered with other people who are highly-driven and committed so they’re not disappointed or jaded and have a great experience.
I think that’s where other teams sometimes struggle – they might have a mixture of commitment and passion levels, or people who are in there for different reasons.
LM: What are the benefits of driving for Altus eSports?
SF: We try to cover costs wherever possible, like entry fees, but we don’t have any salaries – we’re not at that size yet. It’s something we’d ideally like to get to, so it’s a fully-professional eSports team, like other eSports teams in Australia – League of Legends and the like.
As a category, we’re relatively embryonic compared to other eSports categories but we’re growing at an enormous rate. Our main competitors are more those who are overseas; when we look at Porsche eSports Supercup and other international events, we’re often against Williams, Red Bull, Coanda and those kinds of teams are well-funded.
Part of the challenge is we are from Australia and we have to tell the story a bit differently to our commercial partners to try and get support, but that’s the plan and we hope to get there.
LM: eSports is huge, but sim racing is still a relatively niche market within the wider eSports domain. What does it need to do to attract a bigger following and get to the point where we see live events with big crowds, and more professional competitors, like we see in other forms of eSports?
SF: Ultimately, we need an audience – that’s the big thing, and probably the thing sim racing struggles with the most. If you look at racing as a category, one of our biggest problems is we have an abundance of platforms – iRacing, RFactor, Assetto Corsa etc. Even within each platform, you have several categories within that – for example, iRacing has dirt, oval, rally and so on, there are six world championships and only one of them is road racing. When you break it down, you start splicing what’s already a niche market.
One of the benefits we have in racing is that we do have the “big brother” of us, which is motorsport – one of the critical factors is getting the motorsport world to embrace what we do, and see it as a legitimate form of entertainment. What we’ve seen in the COVID-19 era is there has been more of an acceptance around eSports, but what the knock-on effect of that will be is a bit hard to say.
One of the missed opportunities across this phase is that we haven’t been able to build much in the way of equity within eSports; a lot of people were watching sim racing because of the star power of the real-world drivers, but once the star power leaves, what are we left with? It would have been a great opportunity to have elevated sim racing talent up alongside real-world drivers, and generate new stars.
The audience wants to barrack for someone – they want to understand who your Cooper Websters and Dayne Warrens are, understand more about their personalities and have a reason to support them.
The real-life motorsport world has rented the eSports race for a few months and then when they disappear, we’ll see what we’re left with. I think it will be better than what it was, but it was still a missed opportunity.
LM: To what extent do you see sim racing becoming a genuine pathway for people who want to make the transition to real-life motorsport?
SF: There’s an argument around if people actually want that. There are some sim racers – quite big ones – over in Europe who have no interest in racing in real life, they love sim racing for what it is.
For those who aspire to a real-life career I definitely think there are benefits and relevance to sim racing – it will get you part of the way there.
But in some ways, the top end of competitive sim racing starts to move away from realism, because to be ultimately competitive you might do things you would never do in a real race car. For example, in some games, you might be better off with low or no force feedback, which a common thing in the top end of NASCAR.
Generally speaking, it showcases what you can do with limited senses, but nothing will replace the seat-of-your-pants feel and fear factor you would get out of driving a car on the track.
LM: What’s the overall strategic direction for Altus eSports heading into the future?
SF: We had goals, and things have been achieved a little earlier than we expected so we need to revise them. We’re always looking to grow, not just within iRacing but in other platforms – last year, we started in GT Sport as well. We obviously do V8, dirt, sprint car, GT racing, Porsches… we do a wide variety of different categories and we compete strongly in those.
We’re partly bound by the game titles and the direction they head as well – you can have a plan in place, but the goalposts can change quickly. Last year we had the GT Endurance World Championship, which had been in place since the Blancpain days but then last year, iRacing decided it wasn’t going to exist any more. A large part of Altus was surrounded around GT endurance racing, so that hit us harder than most teams because we weren’t doing as much in others.
We had to put a bit more attention into V8s, and Porsche Supercup was another critical one for us.
Having more of a presence in Europe is also key for us; Europe are a lot more mature and are the leaders in eSports for what we do, in road racing, so we want to have a solid footprint in Europe because that will be better for us in the long term when it comes to commercial backing, commercial support and ultimately getting it to the point of being a profession.
LM: How big do you see the Australian sim racing scene becoming? Do you think it will get big enough to survive as a stand-alone industry?
SF: I definitely think it can stand on its own two feet, but like I said earlier the audience will be critical, as will where it stands in relation to real-life motorsport.
The success of Supercars and success of ARG and real-world categories here in Australia will be really important for the success of local eSports as well – it’s an avenue where we can get some quick wins. If we don’t have that, it’s not impossible but it will make things more challenging.
There’s definitely room for professional sim racing; it’s more a case of how long it will take than anything.
LM: What’s right with sim racing in Australia?
SF: We have a strong talent pool of drivers, which is being demonstrated by our performances across iRacing, Formula 1, Gran Turismo etc in international competitions.
With Supercars moving to iRacing, the audience loved last year’s gamer version of the eSeries. I think we have a lot of things going right with our top-level category embracing eSports.
LM: What’s wrong with sim racing in Australia and how do we fix it?
SF: We definitely have an issue around the promotion of events. Pre-COVID, I think for some people it’s been hard to take seriously.
Post-COVID, I think with the success of Supercars eSeries, ARG and all the series that have run, we’ve hit a whole new audience who now understand it can be a legitimate form of entertaining racing. While it’s been a struggle, there’s a real opportunity now to try and improve that.
If we can get some good partners to promote sim racing, it will help as will some good administrators. There are some good sim racing category managers and administrators in Australia, but I don’t think there are enough – the same goes for broadcast partners.
We have niche areas of talent, but it would be good to get some fresh people involved who aren’t necessarily involved in eSports now, but can help translate it to a different audience.
I think the real benefit of motor racing compared to other eSports is that it can be considered as something that aligns with and sits alongside real-world racing.