Q&A – Haas Esports driver Martin Stefanko on his journey to the Pro Series
October 23, 2018
The last few months have been a rollercoaster ride for Haas F1 Esports driver Martin Stefanko. The 20-year-old Czech one was of the last to qualify for the F1 Esports Pro Draft, leaving it until the final online qualifying race in June to secure his chance of being picked to represent one of the official F1 teams in the F1 New Balance Esports Pro Series 2018.
A few weeks later, at the Pro Draft in London, his dream job became a reality as Haas chose him with the third overall pick. More drama was to follow when Haas selected Michal Smidl, a fellow Czech, to be Stefanko’s teammate. Over the previous few years an intense rivalry had developed between the pair. Now, under the spotlight of the F1 Esports Pro Series, this bold move by Haas means that their relationship has to change.
On the eve of the first live event of the Pro Series, just hours before his dazzling points finish from the back of the Shanghai grid in Race Two, Stefanko opened up about his rival-turned-teammate, the path to his dream job with Haas and why he admires Fernando Alonso so much…
Martin, what came first for you – a love of gaming or a love of motorsport?
I definitely loved motorsport first when I was growing up. When I was little I dreamed of being a racing driver, probably since I was about four years old, but we didn’t have enough money for me to pursue that. Then, when I was about eight, I found out about Sim racing and became interested in that. By the time I was eleven I started competing online on rFactor and it all went from there.
You’re only 20 years old but have already gained a lot of experience. What have been the biggest highlights of your Sim racing career so far?
Winning the Virtual GP title last year was incredible. Part of the prize was a chance to drive a Formula Renault 2.0 car. It was a 30-minute test drive and the team said it was the best test drive they had seen in the last three years, so that was an amazing thrill for me. Winning a race in Formula-Sim racing in rFactor 2, was another special moment. It’s the biggest championship there is on rFactor 2. Bono Huis has won it five times, so just to win a race is very hard. Obviously making the grade and competing in the F1 Esports Pro Series is also a big achievement and something I am very excited about.
You left it very late to book your place at the Pro Draft, winning at Monaco in the final qualifying phase of 2018. How nervous were you, knowing it was the last chance? And how will that experience help you during the Pro Series?
I was definitely a little nervous, but at the time that was mostly because there was a chance of rain. I didn’t have too much experience of racing in wet conditions on F1 2017. Fortunately for me it ended up being a dry race and I was able to focus on my goals of being consistent and not making any mistakes. It didn’t matter if I finished first or third because all that counted in the long term was making it through to the Pro Draft. I managed to do that quite well in the end but it wasn’t an easy race. Even though I had a big lead I needed to keep my concentration up – when you’re ahead it’s much more difficult than people think.
In my career so far I have been in a lot of situations where I have been under pressure, including that one, so I think that these experiences will help me during the Pro Series.
Monaco isn’t one of the ten tracks featured in the 2018 Pro Series? Which of the ten do you think you will be strongest at? And are there any that you might struggle at?
It’s hard to say. In terms of performance, I think I’m fairly equal across all of the circuits on F1 2018. The ones I enjoy the most are probably Bahrain and Interlagos, which aren’t part of the Pro Series, but I’m also quite strong at China. I find the street circuits can be challenging. That’s why winning around Monaco to qualify for the Pro Draft made me so happy.
You’re both of similar age, you’re both from Czech Republic… you and your new Haas F1 Esports teammate Michal Smidl go back a long way. What are his biggest strengths?
His mental ability. Michal doesn’t make any errors and it’s very difficult to force him into a mistake. His qualifying pace is also very good and I’d say those are his strongest attributes.
You’ve spent many years trying to beat each other and fighting for the same races and titles. How has the transition from rivals to teammates gone so far?
We are getting on really well. Last year, we had a controversial ending to the Virtual GP championship, so the relationship between us at that point wasn’t great. But at the Pro Draft, when we were both chosen by Haas, it turned around 180 degrees and it keeps getting better every day.
Which other drivers are the ones to beat in the 2018 Pro Series?
Brendon Leigh, of course, because he’s the defending champion. I’d also pick out Daniel Bereznay because the pace that he has is insane. So I think he also has a good chance to be at the top, fighting for race wins and podium places.
Which F1 drivers, past or present, do you admire the most?
In terms of current drivers, I admire Fernando Alonso the most. He is always on the limit and he always extracts the maximum out of any car he drives. I have been a fan of his since I was little. From previous eras I would have to say Ayrton Senna.
Sum up how it feels to be part of the 2018 Pro Series, representing an official F1 Esports team?
It feels great. I’ve been a huge fan of Formula 1 for most of my life, so to be a part of something official like this is incredible. Representing Haas F1 Esports, who are are relatively new team in F1, feels amazing and I’m just so happy to be part of it.
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