Turner has been racing F1 world champs in esports
Aston Martin racer Darren Turner is swapping his simulator to return to the real world of racing
“Fernando Alonso fired me off into the wall at Indianapolis.” If that sounds alarming, never fear: Darren Turner is only talking ‘virtually’. Like many of his friends and contemporaries, the 46-year-old Aston Martin Racing GTE driver has used esports to keep his hand in during lockdown and has enjoyed sparring with such luminaries, but he is now revving up for a return to real-world racing – plus an exciting new test and development role for the British Touring Car Championship.
Turner raced in the BTCC in 2006-2008, winning five races for Seat, before Le Mans and sports car racing with Aston became his main focus. Now he is returning to the BTCC, not to race but to develop the series’ new hybrid system, due to become mandatory in 2022. The intensive test programme begins this week, with Turner driving at Snetterton for two days in a Speedworks Motorsport Toyota Corolla fitted with the new Cosworth Electronics system.
Adding to the spectacle
BTCC boss Alan Gow made the call for Turner to help. “Presumably, they need someone independent of the championship,” says Turner. “I’ve always had a good relationship with Alan since my own BTCC days.”
Hybrid technology has dual benefits for the BTCC, pulling it closer into line with road car marketing while also adding a potential ingredient to spice up the show – something never far from the top of Gow’s agenda. “Introducing a hybrid is right for the BTCC, but it needs to add to the racing and not be detrimental,” says Turner.
“The plan is for this to enhance the show, with more scope for overtaking and also to be used in defensive mode too, to add a bit more strategy.”
The initial plan is for hybrid power to be available for use after the first lap, but the specifics of deployment have yet to be pinned down. That will be part of Turner’s job. “Spectators will be able to know the driver has engaged the hybrid, as will competitors,” he says. “It should mean another level of interest. It’s another weapon in the drivers’ racing armoury.”
Turner has little experience of hybrid systems in racing cars, but testing and development is nothing new to a driver with increasingly extensive knowledge of such work out on the road with Aston Martin, in everything from the Valkyrie to the new DBX SUV. “I’m involved in most of the products coming out of Gaydon, under [Aston Martin chief engineer] Matt Becker,” he says.
“On the Valkyrie, Chris Goodwin is the lead test driver. It makes me realise how simple race car development is in comparison. There’s one objective with a race car: to be fast, reliable and win races. That’s pretty much it. Road car development has got everything: all the things we go through and take for granted on the road have to be tested and validated. I never know until I get there what my test programme will be, but it’s only rarely about ultimate performance.”
Sim stints close to reality
The increasing importance of simulation is another Turner speciality. He runs Base Performance Simulators in Banbury, which came in handy for the esports high jinks of recent months. Racing wheel to wheel with Alonso and Jenson Button in the Legends series, in virtual Brabham BT44s, was a buzz.
“It’s been amazing, and off the back of it, there’s a WhatsApp group going on,” he says. “It’s so nice to be involved with these drivers: good banter and good competition. Esports gives you the racing fix without the big pressures of being out there for real. That makes it a friendlier environment. And I’ve been selling sims too: Jason Plato, Dario Franchitti and Karun Chandhok have all bought our sims recently… I never thought I’d take money off those guys!”
Turner has 17 Le Mans starts and three class wins under his belt, but the virtual 24 Hours that ran on the June weekend the real race was supposed to be happening was an eye-opener. “My first stint was midnight until 3am,” he says. “Beforehand, I thought: ‘I’m not sure I can do three hours in a sim.’ Three hours in a racing car, with all the adrenaline, goes really quickly at Le Mans. But in a sim… Turns out it went like that: really quick. At the end of three hours, I was ready to go again.
“Car damage was ‘on’ so you had to look after your car. You couldn’t go in with a no-consequences gaming attitude. Also, having to deal with faster LMP1 cars and managing the traffic was just like the real thing. And there was a little moment when a Corvette came alongside me on the Mulsanne and the noise that was reverberating between the two cars was exactly like what you get in the real world. It blew me away how realistic it was. I was grinning all the way down the straight.”
Turner will return to real racing – all being well – in the World Endurance Championship on 15 August at the Spa 6 Hours. Le Mans is scheduled for 19-20 September, the first time it has been delayed until the ninth month of the year since 1968. “Hopefully it will go ahead,” says Turner. “It’s important in our little world that we start again. Le Mans in September will make it completely different to anything I’ve experienced before: probably lower ambient temperatures, running in the dark a lot longer [up to 11 hours]. Things will be more crucial than they usually are.”
Esports has been a welcome diversion, not to mention a good bit of business for a true racing entrepreneur. But as his WhatsApp friends would surely agree, it’s only ever a substitute for the real thing.