With 20-plus years of racing experience, 12 FIA World Touring Car victories, not to mention a Formula 1 podium finish to his name, Tiago Monteiro doesn’t have too many chances to claim that something is new to him in the world of racing.

However, due to the current lockdown period necessitated by the Covid-19 pandemic, WTCR – FIA World Touring Car Cup driver Tiago has turned his hand to sim racing for the first time to help keep a competitive edge during the hiatus in motorsport activity.

It would be wrong to say Tiago, 43, is a novice when it comes to simulators, as the use of professional versions has formed a vital part of pre-event preparations for the Portuguese and his fellow Honda Racing drivers in WTCR and its forerunner, the FIA World Touring Car Championship. However, the immersive experience of a factory set-up is hardly comparable with a home-assembled set-up – in Tiago’s case, “basically a PlayStation steering wheel and pedals!”

“I have not been into sim racing ever, but, yes, we do a lot of sim training,” Monteiro explains. “But we’re talking about professional simulators, that really, really feel like a race car. So on those ones I’ve done a lot – I used to do a lot of practice of course, we trained a lot with Honda, we developed lots on it.

“But again, it’s a proper simulator that reacts like a car, and you have to drive it like a car. No matter how much sim racing tries to evolve and look like a racing car, it’s still a video game, and I’ve discovered that – because I was trying to drive it like a race car, and it doesn’t work!”

Though the experience of those he is competing against significantly outstrips his own, Tiago is no stranger to beating the best despite a late start. He was in his twenties by the time he began his real-life motorsport adventure with a campaign in the Porsche Carrera Cup France in 1997, yet only eight years later was undertaking the first of his two seasons in F1 – just one of the highlights from a career that overlaps four decades.

It’s with similar vigour to his rise through the real-life ranks that Tiago has thrown himself head-first into sim racing in a bid to make up for lost time. The Portuguese driver only competed in his first race in late March, yet since then he has been in action multiple times each week – most prominently in the pre-season Esports WTCR series, as part of a four-strong contingent of real-life Honda Racing drivers, taking on other competitors from the series plus professional sim racers. Collaboratively with his friend and compatriot Antonio Felix da Costa, Tiago also helped to raise more than €10,000 to purchase personal protective equipment for Portuguese workers on the front line of the Covid-19 battle by staging the ‘Friends Fund Race’, featuring the pair and a number of their real-life racing friends.

But while sim racing offers Tiago the chance to develop skills in another realm, there’s been a different overriding sentiment in all of his messages during the Esports WTCR campaign – a desire to give back to the fans who have been divested of on-track action during the pandemic. It’s the mark of a professional, conscious of a responsibility to give back – a trait shared by all members of the Honda Racing Family.

“This is a great way of entertaining the fans at the moment,” says Tiago. “For the fans, for the public, even for the sponsors, it’s going to be important to have this. I want to be fair and entertain everybody and I believe that’s part of my job.

“I’m not expecting any crazy things, but I’m going to give it a go to be part of it and to enjoy the community! The idea of all of this is not to be there and win whatever it takes, it’s just to participate. I might be last or whatever, but it doesn’t matter – it’s just to be there and show your commitment.”

That said, it’s hard to remove the instinctive, incessant need to be competitive entirely from a racer. Just with real-life motor racing, practice makes perfect – something that’s easier said than done for Tiago. With two children to take care of, plus a driver management business to run, there are precious few spare hours to cram in additional practice time – even with ‘normal’ working routines thrown out of the window.

Tiago continues: “Another issue is that you have different platforms; you have iRacing, you have rFactor, and then you have RaceRoom, which is the one WTCR uses, and it’s completely different from iRacing or rFactor.

“It’s clear, every friend of mine – gamer or pro-driver that plays a lot – they have all told me that the only way to improve is to drive, drive, drive, drive. But the problem is a lot of them don’t have families, they’re alone at home, they have a lot more time, and I need to find a bit more time to do it, but I can’t spend six, seven hours a day like a lot of them do.

“I have lots going on, even though I’m stuck at home, so I don’t have a lot of free time to practice unless I do it late at night – but, to be honest, I don’t want to go to bed at 1am or 2am because I’m playing on the computer! So it’s really not enough to understand the physics of the games.”

As that comment infers, Tiago’s learning is often done during the races themselves. It’s not quite reinventing the wheel, but drawing on the traits shown and racing lines taken by the professional sim racers is, Tiago confirms, helping him to improve.

Recalling his experience from the second race of the opening round of the Esports WTCR mini-series, during which Tiago was the leading real-life WTCR driver for some time, he says: “I went from 23rd to 17th on the first lap, which was good and that put me in a good group with some gamers at the front which I was trying to follow – it’s impossible, but still, I learned from them, because the difference with the sim is that you have to understand where you can cut and where you can’t.

“When you follow those guys, you can understand what they are doing, how late they are braking, etc. Sometimes they brake very early because it’s better for the game, sometimes they brake later than reality – again because it’s better for the game. So it was good to follow those guys for a while, I improved quite a lot.”

He adds: “When I was starting I spoke to a lot of gamers, and also driver-gamers, and they told me there are a lot of tricks, things that are not real, so you just have to adapt to it and to create new feelings. I’m only going to get into it more and more, of course, but it is still a very hard change.”

Though it is likely some time still until the WTCR season can get underway, when the action does return Tiago will be as keen as anyone to add to the statistics that mark him out as one of the best touring car drivers of his generation. Until then, there’s the novelty of the shoe being on the other foot and taking the challenge to the sim racing elite as a rookie – all while putting on a show for the fans, of course.