A MAN who grew up kart racing took to the virtual track during the pandemic - and is now considering his real-world options as a result of his success.

Virtual sports, in the absence of many real-world events, have seen their popularity rocket during lockdown.

Having wandered into the field as something of a happy accident, 23-year-old driver James Merrills has now been picked up by motorsport consultancy MSL for his first full season on tarmac.

He caught the group’s eye during the Mini Challenge eSeries - seen by more than three million people in total - in which he faced real-world drivers as well as established simulation racers.
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James then further impressed during the GT4 eSeries, run by Virtual Reality Racing Club, driving an MSL car in ‘Pink Pig’ livery inspired by the 1971 Porsche 917.

MSL will work with the driver from Darfield for the upcoming racing calendar.

James most recently completed a day-long test at Silverstone, receiving coaching from famed British Touring Car Championship (BTCC) driver Tom Ingram.

“I have spent many years working towards a career in motorsport and I suppose the moment it really hit me that it was starting to work was when I saw my name and number on the side of the race car,” he said.

“That is a significant moment for a racing driver.

“MSL has been fantastic at making big things happen in a short space of time.

“I’m really looking forward to my first full season in racing next year - it’s a dream I’ve dedicated my life to.”

James drove a John Cooper Works Mini around the track, with Excelr8 - who run cars in the Mini Challenge and BTCC - praising his performance in difficult conditions.

James, who began karting as a six-year-old, later taking on the British Universities Karting Championship, admits he got into virtual racing ‘accidentally’ - but quickly realised the potential.

“It’s narrowing the gap between the simulation and the real thing,” James added.

“It’s more aggressive than what you’d see in the real world, which is a bit concerning as a driver but makes it an exciting watch.”