Formula 1: The esports star beating F1 drivers

By Ciaran VarleyBBC Sport
Dani Bereznay
Esports audiences are growing since the coronavirus pandemic halted conventional sports

He has beaten Lando Norris, Nico Hulkenberg, Stoffel Vandoorne and Nicholas Latifi. But it took place on a virtual track.

Nineteen-year-old Dani Bereznay from Hungary is an official esports Formula 1 driver for Alfa Romeo, ranked in the world’s top three esports F1 drivers and, during lockdown, he’s beaten all of the above in virtual tournaments.

On Sunday, he will race in an F1 Esports Pro Exhibition Race that follows a virtual grand prix put on by Formula 1 and featuring F1 and F2 drivers, alongside England cricketer Ben Stokes.

We spoke to Bereznay recently about life during lockdown, his journey from humble beginnings, his long love for gaming and motorsport and how, in 2017, he managed to find a career that combined both.

After spending years practising in his bedroom with a wheel that cost 15 euros (£13), Bereznay finally realised his dream to work in Formula 1 in 2017, when he joined VeloceEsports and subsequently became an official driver for Alfa Romeo.

“Ever since I was seven years old and I started to watch Formula 1, I wanted to be connected to the sport somehow. Esports is that pathway for me,” he told BBC Sport from Budapest..

He was ranked second and third in the world in F1 esports in 2018 and 2019 respectively, and wants to become number one.

A tall character - standing at 6ft 6ins - with his own YouTube channel, an eighth-place finish in the Hungarian equivalent of The X Factor is amongst his achievements.

Motorsport has always been his first love, but, without the funds to compete traditionally, video games offered a way for him to showcase his skills.

“Esports was the best route for me, because it’s equal opportunities,” he explained, adding: “Real racing is expensive. With esports, you can show that you still have the control and heart of a real racer.”

Before being spotted by Veloce in 2017, Bereznay explained that he was using that 15-euro wheel to train for eight years and could only afford a cheap monitor.

Since becoming a pro, he has been able to travel abroad, which was not an option growing up, and has met heroes at different Grand Prix events.

The competition prize pool for the F1 esports World Championship is $500,000 (£407,500).

“I have a contract, I’m healthier and my family has more money now. Things are possible for my family now that weren’t in the past,” he explained.

As a child, his favourite driver was Sebastian Vettel.

Bereznay said: “He joined Formula 1 at the same time I started watching. I always thought he seemed very humble - he even looked a bit like me, with blond hair and blue eyes.”

While he began watching F1 because it was broadcast on the same channel in Hungary that shows cartoons, it was his father who introduced him to gaming.

“He bought me a rally game called Rally Trophy when I was young. That’s when we started to play against each other," he said.

However, when a career in esports seemed like a pathway, his father was hesitant. As a teenager in school, Bereznay still harboured hopes of another way into F1.

“I loved mathematics and I thought it may be good to work as an engineer. I learned physics too, and wanted to be an aerodynamicist and design cars," he said.

In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic causing postponements throughout world sport, eports has managed to rumble on almost as normal in some respects.

To help fill the void left by cancelled grands prix, VeloceEsports has been putting on its own virtual tournaments, featuring real-life F1 racers like Norris, Hulkenberg, Vandoorne, Latifi and Esteban Gutierrez - as well as other athletes, including footballer Thibaut Courtois.

It has run two events so far - “Not the Australian GP” and “Not the Bahrain GP”. Bereznay competed and beat all of the above.

He explained: “The toughest competitor from those guys was Lando Norris. He’s the youngest and does a lot of simulator racing. He definitely knows what to do behind the Veloce wheel.”

Alfa Romeo car
This is Kimi Raikkonen - but Bereznay drives for the Alfa Romeo team in esports

In the absence of traditional racing, more people may be watching esports too. Jamie MacLaurin from Veloce says they had 250,000 live viewers for the races and have had three million content views since.

However, Bereznay is keen for normality to return soon.

“We’re all motorsport fans and we want it back. With these events we’re putting on, we want to avoid people just thinking that esports is an amateur thing that anyone can do!” he added.

So, what are his ambitions?

“To win the Formula 1 esports World Championship. If possible, multiple times. If, at any time in the future, a real racing opportunity presents itself, I would love to try myself out in the real thing with real conditions," he admitted.

Unfortunately, at over six feet, he feels he is probably too tall for an F1 car and would have needed to start training earlier in order to get to that level, but he would love to try out racing in a car - whether a touring car or otherwise - one day.

“I think I would be able to handle a car on a real track," he said.