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Simulating the rush – how RMIT athletes are coping with COVID-19

Global sport came screeching to a halt in 2020 when the coronavirus pandemic gripped the world. For budding motorsport driver and RMIT student Michael Clemente, he has found technology and a handful of ducks to be his preferred coping mechanism.

RMIT student and motorsport driver Michael Clemente. (Image: supplied)

2020 was set to be a major year for Michael Clemente. The 19-year-old Associate Degree of Business student and driver had worked his way up the ranks of the Australian motorsports community. He sat on the precipice of global opportunity. Then, the world changed completely.

Michael is a part of a new wave of young drivers emerging in Australia. But the coronavirus pandemic has cruelly stunted his development. For months, Michael couldn’t get outside and practice. His chance of driving at the Melbourne Grand Prix and debuting in the TCR Australia Touring Car Series became a mirage, shimmering away to nothing while he helplessly looked on from inside his house.

“I’m sick of staying home,” Michael said. “I just want this all to be done so I can get out on the track again.”

Drivers are not the only ones impacted by the sudden postponement of their season; the majority of sporting leagues have been delayed or put on the backburner while the global community tries to ward off COVID-19. For Michael, it has given him a chance to reflect on his journey through the motorsports world.

Michael was never drawn to football, soccer or cricket. But much like the grassroots stories of these sports players, Michael’s introduction to driving came in his backyard.

“My old man had a golf buggy,” Michael said. “I used to drive it around the backyard until one day I crashed it into a fence.”

It was then that Michael’s father took him to drive dodgem cars. He was hooked. Before he knew it, Michael had two second hand go karts off eBay that he took down to the local tracks in Geelong.

Michael took up go-karting under the mentoring of his friend Dom. While studying, he continued to move up the classes, and soon was winning races consistently.

It was in 2016 when Michael began to view racing as something that had “the potential to become a career job”. A trip to the Sandown 500 race in regional Victoria opened Michael’s eyes to a completely new world. Suddenly, go-karting stalled, and the young driver stepped up to race cars.

Just four years later, Michael’s driving exploits have come along remarkably. He went from wishing to emulate his heroes in supercar drivers Mark Winterbottom and Scott McLaughlin to securing a place in the 2020/21 TCR Australia Touring Car Series. He had only been out of high school for a matter of months, but Michael was well on his way to becoming a professional driver.

Graduating to university, Michael became a member of the RMIT Elite Athlete Program in 2020. Friends told him about a similar system being run in NSW. Scouring the internet for details, Michael successfully applied for the program.

“It’s been awesome so far,” Michael said. “Hopefully we go back soon so I can continue enjoying it.”

Alongside his connection with RMIT University, Michael made another key career decision. Joining the TCR Australia Series as a privateer meant Michael and his father were entering as their own individual team. In motorsports, multiple drivers are often signed by certain teams whom they race for. But Michael is the sole member of Michael Clemente Motorsport, and will begin racing in the competitive series in August.

Michael Clemente’s race car. (image: supplied)

Originally, Michael was going to be racing at Grand Prix tracks. But when coronavirus hastily suspended all races, his whirlwind year was brutally interrupted.

“Not being able to race a lot has impacted my team and I heaps,” Michael said. “Unfortunately, it’s not anyone’s fault – all you can do is just keep hustling along.”

Michael hopes that everything “is on the mend so we can return soon”. But in the meantime, he has been harnessing his driving skills indoors through a race car simulator series.

Commencing on April 2, the 52-car competition has used the iRacing platform to simulate races from many different circuits. Despite initially struggling to adjust to the new feel of driving on a simulator, Michael has come to take valuable lessons out of his experiences.

“For me, it does differ a lot from real racing,” Michael said. “I’m used to feeling car movements through my body, but on a simulator you can only feel it through your feet.”

But from the comfort of his own home, he has been able to “learn new tracks and find particular cues on tracks that will come in handy” when he actually begins to compete on them. Combine this with a home workout routine, and Michael has managed to keep in shape while self-isolating.

Being stuck indoors has its physical and mental impacts. Michael has used the simulator and workouts to sharpen his skills, but some special pets have kept his spirits high in testing times.

“I always wanted a duck as a kid – I had a fantasy of walking one on a leash,” Michael said. “A year ago I searched up ducks on Gumtree and managed to drive to Ballarat to get a pair of them.”

Michael christened his pets Beautiful Barbs and Jerry the Prick due to their differences in personality. At one stage, he was caring for six ducks. Being stuck at home has only given him more time to play with them.

“They’re a great pet – they’re very loyal and interesting,” Michael said.

In a time of stress for a prospective race car driver, Michael has enjoyed the beneficial impact that his ducks have given him on a daily basis. He has fallen into a schedule, and is keen to resume practicing and racing outdoors.

When the lockdowns are lifted and the driving season is given the green light to return in August, Michael will be ready to go. He’s a self-confessed realist who knows he may not be able to mix it with the best who have big budgets, but he harbours intentions of one day running his own motorsport team.

By the way he has handled himself during the arduous months of the coronavirus pandemic, Michael may jump out of the blocks and make RMIT proud in the coming years.


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