The driver turned sim racer turned driver competing for a cause

From the age of 6, James Merrills was destined to race. He grew up karting – spending most of his childhood on the track, but his ultimate goal of vaulting the notorious leap to cars looked all but attainable. Hence Merrills began sim racing competitively in 2018 alongside continuing his karting exploits, in particular in Club100’s BUKC.

However as was the case for so many in motorsport, 2020 and the Covid-19 pandemic changed everything. Intertwined within the cancellations, furloughs, job losses and heartbreak came a smattering of opportunity and those who jumped at the chance of a new virtual world of motorsport were thrown right into the spotlight.

In a matter of days, sim racing and esports were at the forefront and Merrills took full advantage, joining the hastily prepared MINI Challenge UK eSeries. The championship subsequently reached an audience of more than 3 million people and is available to watch on Amazon Prime.

Merrills’s virtual performances earned him the chance of a lifetime with BTCC and MINI Challenge team Excelr8 Motorsport – testing their Mini JCW car in late 2020 with the help of BTCC fan favourite Tom Ingram’s coaching skills.

This would turn out to be crucial experience going into 2021, as the battle every racing driver faces at points in their career did not turn out in his favour. As brands exhibited extra caution, the struggle for any form of backing or sponsorship seemingly curtailed his chances of a full time move to car racing, with focus switched to an opportunity as a supercar driving instructor, and founding his motorsport photography and videography company.

Photos by Harlen Hatter on behalf of Shutter Speed Ltd

However his racing appetite hadn’t relinquished just yet, and so he jumped at a surprise opportunity from VR Motorsport to test their Praga R1T in preparation for the team’s entry into the brand new Praga Cup series.

VR Motorsport first ran a Praga R1T in 2017 for the Dutch GT & Prototype Challenge, but the original Praga R1 has been commonplace on the world’s race tracks since 2013. It’s fully carbon fibre chassis and advanced aerodynamic package provides an abundance of grip and unrivalled agility.

The inaugural running of a dedicated Praga class in the Britcar Endurance Championship took place at Silverstone in April 2021 with eight Praga R1’s piloted by the likes of W Series and The Grand Tour star Abbie Eaton, former BTCC driver Luke Davenport and YouTube sensation Jimmy Broadbent.

A GOLDEN OPPORTUNITY

The 22nd November was the very first time Merrills, now 24, had even touched a high downforce prototype, and it would be his very first stint behind the wheel of a racing car for over a year. Three official test sessions around the infamous Donington Park National Circuit in Leicestershire was all on offer to get up to speed in the totally alien environment of a rear wheel drive slick-tyred prototype in cold conditions.

Over the course of a day of running shared with Toyota GT86 Australia driver Cam Walton, Merrills found three seconds across the three sessions, building up confidence in the downforce and the capabilities of the car through the high speed corners such as the downhill Craner Curves.

“In the first session I was just getting my head down and sending it through a few corners seeing how it hooks up,” said Merrills.

“This test day is just about progress really, and I’ve made loads so pretty happy with it.”

He compares the immense grip a Praga can produce in the corners to that of what you’d feel in a high-powered kart.

“I had a moment at about 135mph today through the Craner Curves… we were lacking a bit of rear downforce due to a bolt shearing, just from the vibrations, but I think I get on with the rear wheel drive high downforce cars a lot more [than the Mini’s]. It’s like the two-stroke karts in the BUKC – just faster and bigger.”

Photos by Harlen Hatter on behalf of Shutter Speed Ltd

James has the distinct advantage of experiencing the best of both the virtual and real worlds of racing first hand, something which 2020 inspired drivers from an array of categories and disciplines to embrace. Even in Formula 1 the impact of sim racing and the team’s own driver-in-the-loop simulators has led to belief’s that upcoming drivers will need to emulate the partially virtual footsteps of the likes of Lando Norris.

“You come to a track and you immediately know the braking zones, the line, where you want to get on the throttle, what gear you want to use, how much kerb to take here and there, so the sim for me is a tool to learn the minute details about the track, and where the best spots on the track are to find time.”

Somewhat following in the well-documented footsteps of one of esports racing’s most prominent figures Jimmy Broadbent, who first took to a real circuit in a Praga this year in the Britcar Endurance championship, Merrills has his sights set on a full time 2022 drive in the Praga Cup.”

I’m at least going to do a round or two, I’d hope to do a full season… Even if I only do a couple of rounds one of them has to be Donington just because I’ve driven it now in the car.

“It’s going to be a few months unfortunately but that car is a bug and it bites.”

Photos by Harlen Hatter on behalf of Shutter Speed Ltd

Merrills is hoping to use the Praga Cup championship’s projected viewership of over 10 million next season to raise awareness of the challenges which diabetic racing drivers face to perform at a high level in motorsport. In benefitting Diabetes UK through spreading this important yet often overlooked message, he hopes to reverse prospective legislation that could prevent some diabetes sufferers from driving on the road.

Also at the Donington test day was James’s very own media team – by the name of Shutter Speed Ltd – who provide drivers and teams with photographers and camera operators for TV ready adverts and promotional videos. The photographs in this article were kindly provided by Shutter Speed.

On behalf of James, many thanks to Mark Harrison and Lucy Payne of Praga Cars, and Vincent Randall of VR Motorsport for arranging the test.

(Posted to DriveTribe on 02/12/21)

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