LONDON (Reuters) - It felt very different at the time, but Jean-Eric Vergne reckons losing his Formula One drive turned out to be the making of him.
Dropped by Red Bull-owned Toro Rosso at the end of 2014, the 29-year-old won the all-electric Formula E championship last year and is now busy building a fast-growing esports empire.
“I think leaving Formula One was actually the best thing that happened to me,” the Frenchman told Reuters at the London mews house that serves as headquarters and racing hub for Veloce eSports.
“It opened my eyes on many things.”
Vergne last year became a founding partner in the business that grew out of driver management company Veloce Sports set up by Rupert Svendsen-Cook, his 2010 Formula Three team mate.
Other partners are former soccer agent Jamie Maclaurin and retired Formula Two racer Jack Clarke, stepson of ex-grand prix driver Julian Bailey.
“When (Red Bull’s motorsport consultant) Helmut Marko decided for me to go on holiday for a long time, and not be driving in the Red Bull family any more, I found myself with no contract, no more money coming in, no future,” said Vergne.
“I had to leave where I was living very quickly because I was in the scary situation when you’re 23 or 24 and with nothing left in your life.
“I don’t want to find myself in this situation any more so that’s why I started to invest in projects that I believe in, to invest time and energy in future businesses - Veloce being one of them.”
Veloce manages teams for customers, including Alfa Romeo (previously Sauber) in the Formula One esports championship and double F1 world champion Fernando Alonso, while creating content and working with influencers, top brands and partners like Logitech G.
Britain’s Jamie Chadwick, the real racer who last weekend won the first round of the all-female W Series, is on Alonso’s esports team.
The headquarters, down a cobbled street on the edges of London’s Little Venice, is a true house of esports with a full- motion professional simulator along with gaming rigs and consoles on several floors.
Vergne prepares there for Formula E races, and there are also streaming set-ups for non-driving games like Fortnite and Call of Duty.
The Frenchman told his partners last year that esports is where Formula One was half a century ago.
“Years ago Formula One was existing but there was no business model,” he said.
“Then Bernie Ecclestone came and put all the teams together... and it became one of the most successful sports in the world because this guy created a whole business model around Formula One.”
“We are not Bernie... But I believe all of us together as a team, maybe we are not far from Bernie,” he added. “I believe that what Bernie has done with Formula One, we can do the same with esports.”
There are those who see esports as the new grassroots of motor racing, accessible and far cheaper than karting, but Vergne said that was only part of the picture.
“I feel like the kids that are being successful in esports have no wish of going in the real world,” he said.
“Some of them like it and want to try it, but the virtual world a few years ago was something very small that people were talking about. And today the virtual world is as big as the real world is.”
Clarke said that in the next year alone, half a billion people will have watched content generated by Veloce.
“A billion people watching our stuff, that will be a champagne moment for us. It doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to be a billion quid (pounds) in the bank but that means we’ve certainly got the potential to move this thing in that direction.”
Vergne said some gamers were already earning more than the lowest paid Formula One drivers, and more people were watching video games than broadcasts of actual races.
“We were with our YouTuber last year at Monza at the (Italian Grand Prix) Formula One race and in the paddock only two guys recognized him and went to talk to him,” he recalled.
“They were (Ferrari’s) Charles Leclerc and (Red Bull’s) Max Verstappen, because they both play video games. They are young and it’s what they do. It’s the new generation.
“Going outside the paddock, where all the fans were waiting... when they saw the YouTuber they were all calling his name to ask for autographs as well. So of course they can be as famous. It’s something that is getting bigger and bigger.”
Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Sudipto Ganguly