Two racers, two stories: virtual world champions reunite for Kiwi TRS showdown
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New Zealand’s Castrol Toyota Racing Series is in the midst of a boom period in terms of both growth and international interest.
It’s a phase best highlighted by the caliber of drivers and organisations represented on the grid. There are entries supported by Red Bull F1 and Renault F1’s respective junior programmes, an driver tutored by factory Toyota star Fernando Alonso and backed by Toyota Argentina. And then there’s 21-year-old Igor Fraga, who races with the support of Sony’s popular racing simulator, Gran Turismo.
Born in Japan to Brazilian parents, Fraga’s start in motorsport follows a familiar path. Having taken an interest in karts at an early age, he climbed the ranks to join the legions of teenagers taking on full-size junior formulae classes like Formula 4 and Formula 3.
He was a four-time race winner in last year’s Formula Regional European Championship, finishing third in the standings between second-famous name generation racers Enzo Fittipaldi and David Schumacher. And heading into this weekend’s Pukekohe event, he leads the TRS standings over defending title winner Liam Lawson by just 17 points.
What makes Fraga different from all his TRS peers is that his real-world racing career is complemented by an equally explosive esports racing career. The Brazilian is a multi-time Gran Turismo Sport world champion, having competed across the globe at live events in places like Japan, New York, and Monaco.
For Fraga, the connection to Gran Turismo is almost a life-long one.
“In Japan there’s a category called ‘kid’s karting’ where you can start to practice when you’re three or four years old. I think he was a bit scared, so he wanted me to have a base idea of how to control a car, so he bought me a steering wheel, Gran Turismo 3, and a PlayStation 2. And everything started just like that,” Fraga told Driven.
“Of course I had a limit from my mum, but whenever I could I was always playing Gran Turismo.”
“There are different challenges in real racing and virtual racing. I think for me the biggest thing that’s helped me is that in Gran Turismo you don’t have the same feeling as you do in the real car.
“You are able to push to the limit and really find what you can do with this little amount of information you have from the car, so when you go into a real-life car everything is so much easier to feel. Of course you have the danger around you, but from this point of view the virtual racing really helped me.”
Gran Turismo’s live events would rival many bonafide race meetings for glamour and scale. International commentators are flown over so that the race can be streamed in multiple languages, finalist racers have all expenses paid for, and each event is sanctioned by motorsport’s global governing body; the Federation Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA).
Through these virtual overseas events, Fraga has made many friends among his rivals — including Dunedin’s Simon Bishop. Although he spends most of his days as a tech salesman at JBHiFi, Bishop is also New Zealand’s number one Gran Turismo player.
Before 2018 he hadn’t traveled beyond Australia, but in the time since he’s competed in Tokyo, New York, Monaco, and at the Nürburgring Nordschleife where he claimed a dramatic final-lap Manufacturer Series victory in against-the-odds circumstances [video below].
Bishop and Fraga, who race in Gran Turismo as teammates for Toyota, were able to reunite at round two of the TRS in Invercargill. Ironically, Fraga’s commitments to racing in New Zealand mean that Bishop will soon head to Sydney for the next leg of the Gran Turismo world tour.
“I think everyone who plays Gran Turismo’s dream is to race real cars, and so Igor [Fraga] is in a sense living that dream,” said Bishop.
“It was always my dream too, but the problem is that you need to have a lot of money or be really well connected and I have neither. But then Gran Turismo comes along, and you have all these opportunities that you couldn’t have dreamt of.
“There’s a lot of negativity around esports in general, but if it’s opening up doors for people that wouldn’t have otherwise been able to and you see people with talent like Igor racing these cars, then isn’t that better for the sport as a whole?”
“I can sort of see their point, but at the same time it’s not the point of it. It’s not meant to be a competitor to real motorsport, it’s meant to be a grassroots entrance. It teaches people how to race properly, you get a basic understanding of how cars work, but it’s the racing fundamentals — braking points, racing line, how you modulate throttle and brake balance.”
Bishop expects 2020's FIA Gran Turismo season to be quite the challenge, in part because of the increased level of competition and the increased FIA online event racing schedule, which doubles this year from two nights a week to four nights a week.
“It’s going to be quite hard I think. Last year I over achieved, so I’m hoping to do as good if not better this year. People saw how hard the tour was in 2019, the competition is obviously very high.
“To be racing in a Toyota like I do, as a marquee manufacturer, it means you race against the best of the best. But it also means you have the best chance to win. If I can get a few more trophies this year that’d be nice, but even just to qualify would be a real bonus.”
For Fraga, meanwhile, it's shaping up to be a big year. Once TRS is done, Fraga will follow Lawson to Europe to take on FIA Formula 3 with the Charouz Racing System team as a teammate to former rival Schumacher and the highly ranked Niko Kari.
Despite being a rookie to New Zealand’s race tracks, he has been exceptional in TRS.
Having shown plenty of consistency over the first two rounds of the series in Cromwell and Invercargill (producing four podiums in the first six races), he broke through to claim two race wins and the points lead at Hampton Downs last weekend; placing him at the head of one of the most competitive grids in recent years.
Fraga’s team boss Mark Pilcher is among those most impressed with the Brazilian’s speed. Two of the three TRS drivers that currently race in Formula 1 (Lance Stroll and Lando Norris) came through his M2 Competition stable — as has Marcus Armstrong, Nick Cassidy, Earl Bamber, and more.
“[Fraga] showed what he could do in Italy in 2019. He was the only driver that could beat the strongest team there. That was a solid indication that in a real car he could do the job,” said Pilcher.
“He’s the most measured driver we have in terms of his approach and how he goes about his day. The only other driver we’ve run here that has the same approach as him was another Brazilian kid as well, Pedro Piquet.”
If Fraga can continue to hold the lead of the TRS standings, he will earn a handsome payout of 10 FIA Super License points, which form a vital part of qualifying to compete in pinnacle categories like Formula 1.
“I think whenever you enter a competition your mind-set is always seeking for the win,” he said. “I’ve never really been in a top team like [M2], so it’s really good that the team is supporting me like always and delivering in terms of equipment that shows my potential.”