The Xbox 360 existed only in magazines. rFactor was over a year away from launch. And more than a decade before Twitch introduced the disastrous Formula E VISA Vegas eRace to unsuspecting Counter-Strike fans, there was the Warsaw Colin McRae Rally Tournament. Footage of the event does not exist, the personalities involved can not be found on YouTube showing off their practice sessions for thousands of hardcore admirers to study, and the game itself – Colin McRae Rally 2005 – had little in common with the franchise we now know it as today. It was both the best of times and the worst of times for the genre; sim racing was arguably in a golden age given the variety and overall quality of virtual auto racing titles coming from every direction, but the relative obscurity of PC gaming as a whole prevented objectively great driving games from attaining anything more than a niche following. You were either World of Warcraft, or you weren’t.
Yet despite massive advancements in multiplayer functionality, event organization, sim racing hardware, and the great leaps in technical prowess that we’ve seen across the gaming industry since 2005, in retrospect the Warsaw Tournament has taught us that we can always count on one variable to remain a constant; the sim racing community as a whole is extremely toxic.
Poland has a very peculiar relationship with motorsport. While next-door neighbor Germany boasts a fantastic selection of purpose-built auto racing facilities, some doubling as tourist attractions, quite the opposite is true in Poland – Tor Poznan serves as the sole major tarmac racing circuit.
Those looking for their motorized adrenaline fix are instead given choices that would be considered quite obscure across the rest of the continent. Spectators pack stadiums to the tune of fifteen thousand strong to partake in the festivities of Speedway Racing, whereas regional rally championships enjoy a strong following in comparison to other countries. It’s honestly incredible both disciplines have managed to attract such large audiences and national attention among the region, as rallying is logistically impossible to cover on live television, and there’s no way short oval dirt biking would ever gain popularity in the western hemisphere – at least not to the point where gladiatorial stadiums were constructed in its’ name.
But this precisely explains why there were enough diehards in the city of Warsaw alone to hold an on-site Colin McRae Rally championship consisting of several highly talented entrants. This was an era of gaming where just owning the niche Codemasters title in the first place put you into a very exclusive set of users, and yet here was Poland essentially offering a glimpse into the future of sim racing – both the good, and the bad.
Colin McRae Rally 2005 marked the end of an era for Codemasters, as while the game was functionally sound, many avid fans of the series felt 2005 was merely a re-hash of content from the titles released before it. Truthfully, their criticisms were not far off the mark, and this explains why a few years later the series would be re-imagined as an all-encompassing off-road title. Several stages and cars had been regurgitated all the way back from Colin McRae Rally 3, whereas the driving physics made it especially hard to recommend the 2005 iteration for steering wheel users – now a rapidly expanding demographic. This was Codemasters a few years prior to their flurry of games that established them as a key player in the evolution of driving games on the Xbox 360. Colin McRae didn’t look great and didn’t drive all that great either, but nailed enough of the true rallying experience – long stages, service areas, and a decent array of content – to have a valid spot in the library of any rally fan.
That was, if you could look past some of the obvious exploits. You could wall-ride pretty effectively, as many stages featured cliffs or concrete barriers next to the road that could be abused if hit at the correct angle. Some stages were designed in a way which allowed for pretty substantial cutting, and obviously not designed with online racing as a primary concern, Colin McRae 2005 featured relatively lax track limit detection. Lastly, the vehicle reset button could be abused, spawning the car several feet ahead of its current position once a user discovered how to cheat the system. Again, this was Codemasters before they hit it big with 2007’s DiRT.
The 2005 rendition of the championship, held at the end of February, took place within a large Warsaw cinema and was put on partially with the support of both Logitech and Intel. This was a genuinely large event; a precursor to the sim competitions we see on a regular basis today. Computers were arranged in a row at the front of the theater – allowing for easy walk-in spectating – and participants were able to liberally make use of the cinema’s concession stand. While the North American sim racing scene was still confined to private TeamSpeak servers and obscure message boards requiring registration, the Polish were living in 2017.
Details of the event, obtained in part thanks to GRY-Online, are scarce when it comes to the actual racing which took place. It is said that most drivers preferred the Citroen Xsara rally car, indicating the unlicensed all-wheel-drive entries based on cars competing in the WRC at the time were used to tackle the array of stages available. With Colin McRae Rally 2005 including eight countries and eight stages within each region, it’s a valid theory that the three-day affair saw participants cover every last stage in the game at least once, with an additional round for the finalists on what I’d presume to be a Sunday. These guys did a lot of driving, but because this wasn’t exactly a StarCraft tournament, digging around for individual race results or rule packages won’t warrant much of anything.
What we do know for absolute certainty, was that the 2005 Polish Colin McRae Rally eSports Tournament was won by a young gentlemen named Robert Kubica.
This is unfortunately where the feel-good story about a future Formula One driver mingling with the sim community as one of their own, comes to an abrupt end. The final standings of the event ignited a tremendous firestorm on the Polish sim rally message board eRajdy.
Google Translate makes this quite a difficult read to follow, but the basic narrative is a classic underdog story not confined to any sole language. Users note that Kubica had seemingly come out of absolutely nowhere to destroy Poland’s best sim racers, with only limited time spent in the game beforehand. The former BMW Sauber driver had failed to qualify in the top ten during preliminary sessions, yet over the course of the weekend had driven just well enough to sneak through into eliminations, dethroning championship favorites such as Maja, MAdo, and Jarl during scored play. The improbability of a wildcard entry taking home a major Polish sim racing championship immediately spawned speculation of either a data entry error on part of the stewards, or outright cheating on Kubica’s part.
The majority of Polish sim racers refused to believe the best Colin McRae Rally 2005 player in the country was not one of the established leaderboard drivers, but rather a guy who didn’t even own a home computer in which to play the game, and was racing Formula Three cars in Macau just months earlier. Those who were aware of Robert’s real life racing accomplishments even attempted to argue that his real world skills would not apply in a virtual environment, and that on any day of the week a dedicated Colin McRae player should come out on top in this sort of event format. In any case, the sim racing community were not willing to allow Kubica to hold the title of champion.
As predicted, it gets ugly.
Kubica signed up for the message board under the alias “rk” and attempted to reason with the angry community members – so yes, you’re about to see a Formula One driver shit posting about sim racing with the best – only to be called “blind” and “stupid” by the community, largely unwilling to believe he’d pulled off the ultimate upset on a national stage. Yet in the face of such toxicity, Kubica doubled down and confirmed his status as a legend in the sim racing community by admitting in a short forum he did not own a computer at home and only practiced for a short time on Colin McRae Rally at a friend’s house – about forty hours total, which is really isn’t much compared to the times a dedicated Alien would spend on a game – before entering the competition.
Triggering the resident autists even further, he then takes the position of not caring about any alleged scoring issues which are the subject of debate, as in this situation he was just competing in this event for fun – it’s someone else’s job to score the event, and if they fuck up and he’s the winner, it’s not exactly his problem. He was there to enjoy himself, and as a bonus, if there was a genuine error in the standings, he’d have no problem sending the trophy to the rightful winner. At this point, Kubica expresses his disappointment in the community, whom are quick to attack an outsider for merely disrupting the established status quo of high ranking sim racers, and vows not to return.
There is much chagrin over the culprit of the upset victory, and I urge you all to dig through the full thread for the unprecedented levels of anal devastation, but eventually another user arrives to say that he was lucky enough to watch Robert drive the final competition round based on where he was sitting in the audience. Zero-soups claims there probably wasn’t any foul play or irregular scoring to begin with; Robert indeed ran an exceptionally clean set of stages – hypothesizing that the other drivers simply made too many mistakes in pushing for the national championship.
Robert of course has been chased away by the sim racing community, while the event organizers told the posters to shut the fuck up and locked the thread; the results of the championship now descending to the status of a controversial piece of trivia among members of the Polish eRally community, no longer allowed to discuss the competition in public. Was there really a scoring error on part of the stewards, or was this Kubica guy just a complete freak of nature? When the late Jim Clark first began his career in auto racing, there are stories of the 1967 Formula One champion asking why his competitors were driving so slow. Could this have been another instance of greatness taking form, albeit on a smaller level?
Fifteen months later, the posters on eRally would receive their answer on national television.
The 2005 Polish Colin McRae Rally champion and subject of intense sim racing message board debate, would make his first Formula One start filling in for the injured Jacques Villeneuve after he had complained of concussion-like symptoms following a crash in Hungary. Kubica would then earn a place in Formula One history as the winner of the 2008 Canadian Grand Prix, becoming the first driver of Polish origin to win a race in the world’s most prestigious auto racing championship. Not content with a resume consisting primarily of open wheel race cars, Kubica would then experiment with a career in the World Rally Championship, though a crash in 2011 left him with extensive injuries sidelining him for a number of seasons. Kubica is currently attempting a comeback in Formula One, undergoing a successful test with Renault.
In other words, it’s more likely in hindsight that Kubica pulled off a genuine upset in a major eSports competition, than was handed the victory as a result of a steward’s error.
Shane van Gisbergen was once asked to help refine iRacing’s Ford Falcon V8 Supercar several years ago, turning it into one of the best cars available on the service. A subsequent build broke the car, angering Shane and causing him to scale back his involvement with the team to that of a casual iRacer using the service for fun. Nick McMillen was told to leave a hosted session because iRacing denoted him a “rookie” due to his lack of playtime. 2017 iRacing Peak Anti-Freeze Series champion Ryan Luza – also a late model track champion away from the keyboard, was once the subject of a permanent ban from iRacing for allegations of cheating – only recently being allowed back onto the service.
Those are just some of the stories we know of, because the drivers are willing to use social media to make their displeasure known to the world.
There are also some great anecdotal stories regarding the same subject matter, a portion of which I can confirm just by knowing the right people. High profile drivers tag respected sim racing modders on obscure Instagram posts that the general public would otherwise never think twice about, a discreet sign of respect for their work. But they still refuse to mingle with the community on traditional message boards, sign up for leagues among the general population, or otherwise indulge in the hobby as “one of the guys.”
A distant buddy of mine happened to meet skateboarding legend Bucky Lasek out on the West Coast over the summer. Lasek was said to be incredibly appreciative of just how many people knew who he was, but more importantly expressed a serious interest in just being a part of the local culture and hanging out with the guys. Across other hobbies, this is pretty common. NHRA Top Fuel champion Antron Brown races radio controlled boats in his spare time, whereas CART champion Juan Pablo Montoya has a serious thing for R/C planes if you happen to follow him on Instagram. There are guys out there who know the notorious JPM as not an extremely aggressive yet talented race car driver, but as the friendly Colombian guy who fixes their scale aircraft.
But in sim racing? This is more or less absent; when it does happen, the star usually exits as quickly as they arrive. And this is because in the back of their minds, they know they’ll be another Robert Kubica if they’re not careful – chased out by the toxicity of their own admirers.