Shanaka Clay: 'I don’t intend on settling in the midfield'

Shanaka Clay: ‘I don’t intend on settling in the midfield’

September 24, 2020

If you don’t yet know the name Shanaka Clay, chances are, you will soon. From karting, to car racing, and now, F1 Esports – the Sri Lankan-Briton steps up to the plate for this year’s F1 Esports Pro Series. What can we expect from this series debutant?

SHANAKA CLAY, WE HARDLY KNEW YE

On paper – at least in the Pro Series – he’s a ghost. The 2020 series will be his first adventure on the main stage. He joins Lucas Blakeley and Daniele Haddad at BWT Racing Point F1 Esports Team. And though he’s a newcomer to the series, he’s a born racer who’s loved F1 for a long, long time.

“I live and breathe racing.” He began.

“There’s not a day that goes by in my life where I don’t think about racing, even if it’s just going to the shops. I have to get there as quickly as possible, within the speed limit, of course!”

“My favourite current driver has to be Lewis Hamilton, partly for the British heritage there. And then in the past he teamed up with Jenson Button who is my all-time favourite. That was a dream for me!”

“My favourite sporting moment is probably Canada 2011. It’s a bit odd to say, now because it’s Vettel – my future team-mate – who lost that race, and I was cheering when Button passed him on the final lap! Anything that could happen, happened in that race.”

Outside of racing, Clay has plenty of other things to keep him occupied.

“I do play other games. I used to play FIFA a lot, I dropped it recently, but I’ll certainly be getting the new one. Call of Duty, Black Ops II was an absolute banger, the more recent ones are pretty good too… Dead by Daylight is fun too.”

“Away from gaming, I like cooking a lot. It’s handy because I can’t rely on my mum all my life! My signature dish is probably pan-fried duck with croquettes and dauphinoise potatoes. It’s quite easy, but it’s super-delicious.”

“I’ve been wanting to get back into fitness lately as well. Ever since I stopped real-life racing my fitness has dropped” he explained.

Indeed, Clay is not just a digital racer; rather a hybrid of on-track and virtual. He has a highly successful karting career at his back, and it could prove to be a huge asset going forward.

WELCOME TO THE NEW AGE

The world is changing, of this there are no doubts. Working from home is the new normal. Video conferencing is a daily ritual, whether you like it or not. Going digital, it seems, is the done thing. And even without a global pandemic, taking your racing skills to the virtual frontier is something that is becoming an increasingly common move.

“When you chat to racing teams, you can give them your whole CV and they’ll have hundreds of people who race, but only a handful who have experience in Esports. That sets you apart these days, because as technology and media advances, Esports is only going to grow, and that’s what the teams are realising.”

“If you’re in esports now and capable on the sim, you can transfer it to real life and vice-versa. It’s transferrable whichever way you go and I certainly think it’ll be more so in the future. Cem Bolukbasi is a good example of that, so certainly more Esports drivers will be given the chance to step into the competitions in real life, and I’m all up for it.”

Real-world racers like Bolukbasi, and Igor Fraga who recently completed his first season in FIA Formula 3, cut their teeth in F1 Esports, before landing full-season rides in professional series. Clay himself has already had a taste of the big leagues, facing some familiar names in his past.

“I started in 2008. By 2009 I’d been through the British championship of 60cc cadet karts, up against the likes of George Russell, Lando Norris and co in my category. I’ve had a bit of a run-in with the current crop of high-level drivers who had deeper pockets than me!

“By about 12-13 I was doing 125cc Rotax class across Europe and the UK, won a few club championships and came second in the Belgian national championship, and have a tonne of other club championships as well. I’ve also competed at the world champs. Again, Russell was there. I’ve been all over really!”

Raw skill is one of the most defining factors when it comes to racing. But so too is budget, and sadly Clay and his entourage had to press pause on the on-track career.

“Around 2016, I hit the top of where I was but couldn’t afford to go any further, and there wasn’t a lot of point carrying on at the current level, not really improving. But we’re looking to get back into real-life motorsport in the future, hopefully the opportunities will present themselves!”

CLAY-M TO FAME

Due to COVID-19, the 2020 Pro Draft took a slightly different route to the previous year, with no knockout racing to showcase the talented drivers on offer. It meant that teams had to do their research. The closest available races to analyse were the Pro Exhibition races, and Clay had a pretty handy ace up his sleeve in that department…

“I found out I’d be driving pretty late,” he said.

“Williams suddenly needed a driver for the Pro Exhibition, and social media blew up with my name, but even then I wasn’t expecting the opportunity. All of a sudden, a few days later I was racing! Azerbaijan is probably one of my worst tracks, and I was against the best in the business. I got points, but I was gutted because that’s not where I was aiming to be.

“I was aiming to win, and that’s what I converted on the second try.”


Clay therefore has the most recent win in any F1 Esports race, with his victory in the Canada Pro Exhibition race a solid marker to lay down in front of his rivals. “It’s given me certainly an advantage against those who haven’t done those races. I won’t have as many nerves going into my first race, as I’m starting to get used to racing against these top level guys now.”

And all this, without having ever taken part in the series before. Much like team mate Blakeley, Clay was passed up for selection in the previous year.

“It’s incredible to think I’ve been picked in the Draft, especially after not getting in last year after I got to the Finals. It’s so much sweeter now that I have the opportunity to race against the best, so I look forward to it!”

WORLD, HOLD ON

With the best of last year’s high-flyers, plus a whole host of hungry, talented racers joining the fray, the 2020 Pro Series is sure to be a close-fought affair. It’s not yet clear who will emerge as the title favourites, but as we’ve explored, we can glean some insight from the Pro Exhibition races staged during lockdown.

“My new team mates are a couple of extremely talented guys and they’re extremely easy to work with. I think we’re gonna be a very dynamic team, loads of strengths coming from each side so keep an eye out for us!

“Certainly at the end of last year, the performances started picking up, and in the Pro Exhibition, Lucas and Racing Point won the unofficial championship and collected the most points, so I think it’s certainly showing an intent of where we’re aiming to be.”

In terms of championship rivals and championship challengers, there are plenty of names who are on Clay’s radar.

“Jarno Opmeer will be a good shout for the title. He had some good performances last year and seems to be even strong on this game, so certainly one to watch. That Alfa squad is one of the strongest for the teams’ title. You have to watch out for Frede Rasmussen, and you can never count out David Tonizza – he’ll be looking to do the double.

“Personally though I don’t intend on settling in the midfield. I’ll be giving so many hours and so much dedication to this, and I’ll be aiming for the top. I don’t expect myself to be any lower than that. That goes for the whole team too, after that strong momentum they built last year, and I think Racing Point are underrated – we have a good opportunity to show everyone why we shouldn’t be.”

Nothing but the best will do, then. Will Clay and Racing Point be able to start on the front foot? Tune in to the first races of the 2020 F1 Esports Pro Series as we go green, on Wednesday October 14.

You can check out all the action live on Twitch, Facebook, YouTube, and also with select broadcast partners on TV.




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