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Canadian sim racers vie for chance to play F1 champion Max Verstappen at Grand Prix

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MONTREAL — A video game is taking Mikel Cunningham somewhere he’s never been before.

The 30-year-old gamer from Windsor, Ont., is going to the Canadian Grand Prix this weekend after finishing top five in “Player 0.0,” a simulator racing competition where people across Canada could submit their best lap on the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve playing the EA Sports F1 video game.

“I'm still kind of in shock,” Cunningham said. “Like I … I’ve never been outside of my province. I'm still processing all of it.”

Cunningham will fly — for the first time in his life — with his wife to Montreal, stay in a hotel downtown and get two three-day passes to the Grand Prix.

Once there, he’ll meet the four other finalists on Saturday with a chance to face reigning Formula One world champion Max Verstappen in a sim race later this year on the line. The competition will take place at the Heineken Beer Garden and be streamed live on Twitch.tv.

Cunningham’s favourite driver is seven-time world champion Lewis Hamilton — Verstappen’s biggest rival. He says the chance to face Verstappen specifically adds some extra motivation.

“Isn't that wonderful? It's a great opportunity,” Cunningham said. “Being able to race against someone that you idolize is one thing, but being able to race against someone that you constantly are ridiculing, then that's gonna be a good experience for me. It's a great competition drive, right?”

Marc-Antoine Liboiron, a 28-year-old who lives in Marcouche, Que., on the North Shore of Montreal, will be one of Cunningham’s opponents on Saturday. He, on the other hand, became enamoured with Verstappen — and Formula One — after watching him come back from behind to place third in the 2016 Brazillian Grand Prix.

“I was shocked by his talent, it was really impressive. So I've always been a big Max Verstappen fan,” he said.

Much like Cunningham, Liboiron couldn’t believe he’d made the cut.

“My first reaction when I received the email from the Heineken Canada challenge was like, ‘there's no way I won that,’” he said. “It's unbelievable. I don't think I’ve realized the chance I have right now.”

Liboiron, an aircraft technician, spent roughly four hours trying to set his time and posted a one minute 9.016 seconds lap using his sim-racing set up.

Cunningham, who spends his time outside of gaming doing photography, working as a “backyard mechanic” and taking care of his dog, posted a 1:08.902 lap with an Xbox controller after three to four days of attempts.

Both gamers have loved racing since they were children. Cunningham did carting when he was young, but the cost forced him to stop.

“It just wasn't financially feasible, you know? And like most families around here, (racing is) not something that's really attainable,” he said.

His love for racing didn’t stop though. And now he has a shot to race against one of the best, just in a different form.

“This is incredible. Incredible. And I am just speechless, flabbergasted,” said Cunningham. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity … This is my dream.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 14, 2023.