Sunshine, rain, hard work, fun times, beers, laughs, eSport experts, new friends, old friends, massive cheeseburgers and coffee from a plastic pint pot - it's been an epic weekend...
In case you have been living under a rock these past few days, you are probably more or less aware that Monza played host to the opening round of the SRO E-Sport GT Series in Assetto Corsa this past weekend - and the RD crew were in full swing at a surprisingly wet Monza circuit in Italy.
SRO E-Sport GT Series Round One - Catch the races HERE.
"Ok love, I'm off to Italy for a weekend of racing". Conjuring up images of beautiful places and beautiful people, small and intimate Italian restaurants with fine wine and good food, exotic racing cars and rest and relaxation mixed with some real and virtual racing. Living the dream some might say. Well, who said going racing abroad is a glamorous business? Whoever did, they lie!
This past weekend was a fantastic experience and something that will live with me for years to come. For those of you who couldn't be with us at the temple of speed, I hope this little tongue-in-cheek look behind the scenes can give you a flavour from the lighter side of what was an incredible showcase of virtual motorsports.
Thursday - The journey begins...
The adventure began early on Thursday morning here in the north of England. Because I live in an area where cash machines are considered modern, my local airport only flies to places nobody wishes to travel.. which is... inconvenient. So, despite not getting into Italy until 6pm local, my taxi pulled up at 7.30am ready to transport me to flight #1 at Leeds Bradford airport - some 120 minutes away from the house.
One brief but unnecessarily long and complex boarding procedure later, I'm off for a short hop to Heathrow Airport, darn sarf..
Oh guess what? Smoking zones at Heathrow are an unheard of idea - causing great confusion to anyone who I asked during the three hour wait between landing and taking off again for Italy. This was a test of my patience to say the least (smoking isn't clever people, don't start). Fear not, those hours were nicely filled by meeting up with and drinking coffee with the one, the only, fellow sim racer extraordinaire, Mr. @Chris Haye. Known for his smooth tones and outstanding videos, Chris and I started our mini bromance in the salubrious surroundings of Heathrow Starbucks, sharing war stories and sim racing exploits ahead of our first commentary adventure that was to begin in the coming days.
Fast forward several hours, a flight seat without windows, a very vocal steward who seems to really not like his life or career, a suspiciously smelling toilet and a small power nap later, we landed in Italy! Battered and bruised, but no less enthusiastic, Chris and I began the adventure of a lifetime... travelling in an Italian taxi...
What? It can be scary driving in a Ford minibus? No way, you guys are race fans... what can be scary about something that big and slow? Well let me tell you.... doing 180kph, whilst being oblivious of other road users, and sending texts.. now that focusses the mind. Sat in the rear of the cab, I would on more than one occasion be thankful for packing more underwear than is strictly necessary for the duration of my trip (#alwaysprepared) (#wifepackingbagsrules).
The best part is - that wasn't even the most fear inducing taxi ride of our weekend...
Opening night would be a beast of a feast! You've probably seen the Assetto Corsa themed menu on our Instagram page, pretty cool, and damn was that burger massive.. I went for Black Cat County, and being from the UK, a price of 10eu suggested it wouldn't be huge so I went for the bigger 13eu one. Mistake. Rough estimate? About the size of my face...
Fine Italian dining it was not.. but man was that a tasty treat!
A few beers, some celebrations and introductions later, we skulked off to the hotel for a bit of a nightcap in the bar and some further RaceDepartment and Kunos bonding sessions prior to the big day of preparation on Friday. Suitably filled up, dehydrated and full of beer later, time to head to the room and the totally not broken air conditioning. According to reception the aircon wasn't broken, it just wasn't functioning. Enter a late night WhatsApp photo exchange of our various thermostats.. the winner? @VernWozza with an impressive 24.8 degrees... at 12 o'clock at night!
Day one in the bag (not even a full day), and already so many adventures! Now time to knuckle down to the serious stuff at the track...
Friday - Time to head to the track... quickly.
Alarm clock set ready for a 7.30am pick up, and enter the reincarnation of Gilles Villeneuve but without the special awareness of a racing driver, nor the temper of one either. In we all packed to the new minibus (different driver this time) and off we headed for the hour or so journey to the circuit. Other cars, speed bumps, lane markings, pedestrians.. these just some of the things our driver didn't acknowledge during our ride - leaving plenty of "exciting" adventures during the 50km trip to the circuit! The best part would have to be the stand up row he had with the officials the very second we stopped bang in front of the paddock access gate.. because not blocking the road for everyone is an unreasonable request in Italy it seems. Needless to say we all acted less than bravely, grabbed our gear and quickly made a run for it towards where the action of the weekend would be taking place - and what a venue it was!
I've been around sim racing for quite a while now, and I have to admit I've never seen a more impressive location and setup as we had this weekend. It was literally spectacular in every conceivable way. From the position right alongside the real pitlane, to the way everything was organised, to even having the original Monza brickwork running through the middle of the arena where the rigs were located - a beautiful example of old meets new, and a perfect showcase for sim racing and real racing blurring the lines. Simply exceptional.
The rest of Friday would be a case of getting to know everyone, ironing out some unexpected hitches, organising the stuff that needed to be sorted and various other boring things I'm not going to be talking about here... what you really want to know about is Italian coffee, right?
Well think back to the opening of this little article. The wife, she expected class and romance. Now nothing says class more than drinking cappuccino at Monza does it? I agree, that sounds awesome. However, serving it in a plastic Carlsberg pint point kinda spoils the illusion...
If Carlsberg made cappuccino, it would probably be the best cappuccino in the world...
Actually jokes aside, it was really, really nice! At 2eu a pop, it wasn't a bad deal either. Plenty of these would be consumed during the course of the weekend, and with 12 hour days, caffeine consumption is an important aspect of being able to function even half sensibly during the comms later in the weekend...
Once back at the hotel that evening, and without any organised dinner plans, we decided that seeing as we are in Italy, it would be a good idea to have a pizza. Again, remember the reference to a classy local joint, with candles, typical Italian styling and fine food? Well, we spotted this place and just couldn't resist...
You try telling me you could walk past that sign and not be enticed into the fine dining promised within? Especially when the waiting area has its own specialist media to enjoy while idling the time away awaiting your freshly created foodstuff of choice..
This wouldn't be the last of our Pizza adventures.. but more on that later on...
Friday done, everyone universally agreed to have an early night. We also agreed to have a pint before bed, which turned into two, and three... and so on. Another past midnight evening over - these daily debriefs take their toll...
Saturday - Action time...
After another evening of sleep on what feels like the surface of the sun, its time to run the gauntlet once again with our crazy taxi driver - corners be warned, this is one fast and fearless dude! Managing to not regurgitate our breakfast, and many prayers later, we made it to Monza for 9am and straight to the coffee shop for another pint of cappuccino. Actually, plastic mugs are fine for cappuccino, but do some interesting things when filled with a milk free Americano... kids, don't try that at home.
So off we head to the game park and some more preparations before the big day of going live for the first time. The eSport drivers slowly arrived on site, in various degrees of official livery shirts and hats, and the atmosphere was pretty electric within the facility. Lots of tension, still plenty of laughs, and quite a bit of nervous energy from both Chris and myself as we prepare for our first live commentary, ever. Bum chattering aside, we still had some broadcast related things that needed checking, and lets be honest here, it wasn't the smoothest performance over the weekend, but for a very first event with the title, on site, for the first time, I think it fair to say it didn't turn out bad at all. Plenty to learn, plenty to improve, and come round two at Paul Ricard everything will be another step up in quality and depth of content, we promise! Make sure you subscribe and tune in to our Twitch and YouTube channel to keep in touch with everything that happens during the build up to next race, and from the Paul Ricard circuit itself.
Oh by the way, did I show you the view we had behind our com box? Yup, that's the Monza pitlane right there... seriously you don't get closer than that (and we were dry, ha!).
Which is lucky, because despite being serious race fans, and Blancpain fans too, and being at a "bucket list" track.. we watched precisely zero track action all weekend! Like I said, busy times...
Soon as everything wrapped for the day (remember Saturday was practice, quali and race for PRO, SILVER and AM drivers), and the usual back slapping, coffee drinking, hand shaking action was over, we were summoned to a palace... an eSport Palace.
Yes, you heard it right.. in Italy they have something I've never seen before. An eSport Palace. What an incredible place. On the ground floor you could get food and drink (including massive burgers once again.. something of a theme in Italy), then on the second floor is an array of simulators ready to use in the latest eSport events, and on the third floor the Samsung Morning Stars eSport team reside! Incredible. Great food, serious laughs and good times by all..
After we had eaten, worked out how to ship 8 people back to base with only two cars no bigger than a Fiat 500, we had another... "debrief" back at the hotel. So that's another 1am finish...
SUNDAY! The final...
The on track product on Sunday was fabulous. Some excellent racing throughout the field and a well deserved winner. But I'm not here to talk about that, you can watch the broadcast and decide for yourself how good the action was. What I want to talk about is doing something I've been super keen to do all weekend... get out on track.
At last! Once all the action had finished, we had some spare time before the taxi arrived to go do a little investigating.. managing to record some pieces to camera for Steve to edit when we get back home, do a little paddock walk, check out the media centre, and actually have some chilling time to look at the wonder that is Monza, and the cars of the Blancpain GT Series themselves. Personally I love this time of day at a race track - when everyone is packing up and the atmosphere is relaxed and (reasonably) calm. We took the chance to walk on, and touch, the fabled start finish straight, and we had a nosy around plenty of cars too..
That was a fun way to end our time at the circuit, and something that really put a shine on the final day of action at Monza. Oh, nearly forgot! The winners of our eSport series also got to visit the Monza podium, right before the Blancpain drivers went out. Our man on the camera, @VernWozza even stuck around for the real thing, and got himself on TV! It was great to see the drivers talking about their race in the cool down room, while waiting for us eSport lot to finish up our podium celebrations!
Pretty cool, and really close to the action. Loved that part. Added bonus, our P2 finisher Nils Naukoks actually got stopped on the way back by Lamborghini driver Denis Lind, who remembered him from a sim racing event they did together in the past... Sadly Nils had to keep it short, he had a schedule to follow!
That wrapped up some intense, often stressful and always fun activity at the track. But the adventure didn't stop there... far from it.
After a successful time at the Pizza place the other day, we decided to have one last visit.. and it was... memorable. Now I'm pretty sure whatever I write next will not do the actual night justice. I laughed so hard a little bit of pizza came out my nose, and a lot went straight into my lungs.. but, I'll try my best.
Now before we go further let's make something clear - the pizza was actually nice. The rest, less so. Firstly while a couple of the crew went to get some cash from the ATM, Chris, Ant from 505 Games and myself were left to our own devices outside to marvel once again at that stunning sign (picture further up). Whilst waiting we noticed an interesting place across the walkway that appeared to deal in various kinds of tuna. Yes, tuna. On further inspection, they appeared to charge for tuna related activity over a period of time, which was curious. Thanks to google translate, we noted a tuna rub, a sensitive tuna rub and other fishy happenings. Hmm, suspicious. Surely this can't be what we think it is, with references to fish?
The way to find out.. go get someone from the pizza place to explain.. so we did, and found out this wasn't actually food, but a place that offered certain types of services.. but, referenced fish products. Because everyone likes a tuna reference when engaging in close encounters..
Much laughing later, aided by the fact that unbeknown to us the place was actually open for business, we went to order food. This time, rather than take away, we decided to eat in the "restaurant" section of the establishment. For restaurant, think converted living room, complete with tinsel on the light fixture. Tinsel..
To make matters worse, or more amusing if you think in those terms, it had an open air toilet, without a door, right in the eating area. Awesome! Anyway, food came, we started eating and Steve found his mozzarella sticks were frozen in the middle. So off he goes to get someone from the staff, who speaks very little English by the way, and explain the situation. In she came, the same woman who confirmed our earlier tuna fears, and then a 10 minute sketch that beats any comedy I've ever seen ensued. Steve trying to articulate his frozen food situation, the lady not understanding a word... to set the scene, the first interaction was Steve holding out the food to pass to her, she telling us she doesn't like them, and Steve replying.. "well, neither do I, that's the problem".. classic.
Anyway, this back and forth went on for a few minutes with little success, until Steve decided that the best way to articulate frozen food would be to burst out into song.. singing the 'let it go' bit from the famous Disney Frozen film.. that seemed to work and off she went with the food to take it back to the counter. Only problem, it transpires she didn't actually work at the place, but was merely waiting for her food order! Cue much laughter, and smaller appetite than before, and me choking on pizza. Honestly, I think I bruised a rib I laughed that hard.
The evening pretty much went on along those lines until the early hours once again, a fantastic night and one of the best laughs I've had in a long time. Big congrats to Ant for taking a massive amount of good natured abuse all evening about her pretend job, she was a great laugh and took everything in good humour.
Monday... Shouldn't it be all over now?
That folks, should have been the end of it. We went to bed, got up early and all went our separate ways in different taxis back to the airport and home. But for me, the adventure had one last twist before it was done.
My taxi was last, booked for 10am, taking me to the airport, onwards to Heathrow and connecting again to Leeds Bradford before another local taxi would take me home. Theoretically getting me back home for around 6 - 6:30pm on Monday night. Sadly, the Italian leg of the journey was delayed by over an hour, so I missed my connection.
Thank goodness for British Airways, who put me up in a super swanky hotel in London for the night, where I made a new friend in the bar and we stopped up drinking until gone 1am.
I got very drunk. We might have liberated a menu, which might now be somewhere in New York on tour. Should I get a confirmation photograph, I will let you know.
All in all folks, this has been an incredible weekend for us at the venue, and incredible performance from the drivers on track, excellence personified by Kunos, AK Informatica, all the partners and fans. Truly outstanding fun, and it will only get better from here on in.
Honestly folks, sim racing really is awesome.
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