With live Formula 1 cancelled due to the Covid-19 outbreak, motorsport fans tuned in to enjoy the first officially-organised F1 esports race online, in a brand-new series of F1 Virtual Grand Prix.
Taking place on the virtual track of the Bahrain GP from the F1 2019 video game, the event hosted a mix of celebrity personalities keen on the sport, as well as current F1 drivers. The likes of McLaren’s Lando Norris and Nicholas Latifi of Williams, lined up against star competition, including former Renault driver, Nico Hulkenberg. Nic Hamilton, the brother of the current 6-time world champion, made an appearance, as did legendary Olympian Chris Hoy, One Direction’s Liam Payne and professional golfer Ian Poulter.
Through the official Formula 1 2019 PC video game, drivers joined remotely from their home setups for both qualifying and the 14-lap race around the night-time F1 Bahrain Grand Prix track. To encourage fair and healthy competition – and an entertaining event – all participants raced on an equal footing, with their game settings configured to ensure that all of the Formula 1 cars were uniformly competitive throughout the online event.
During qualifying for the virtual version of the F1 Bahrain GP, Austrian professional racing driver, Philipp Eng – racing for Red Bull – secured pole position. Current Mercedes reserve driver, Esteban Gutierrez, started in second place, leaving Renault Academy driver, Guanyu Zhou, with a third-place start.
Lando Norris was replaced with a bot due to technical problems throughout qualifying. So, he instead found the time to entertain his 100,000-strong Twitch streaming audience by calling up current F1 grid drivers, Max Verstappen, George Russell and teammate Carlos Sainz. He also called his McLaren performance engineer Andrew Jarvis and CEO Zak Brown, to ask for their advice on how to make the most of his last place starting position.
With qualifying concluded, the stage was set for the main event, with professional live commentary adding an element of legitimacy for the almost half a million viewers who had tuned in to watch the start of the Formula 1 virtual race. In typical fashion, the virtual sports event began in a frenzy; Hulkenberg spinning off the track down the starting straight. Johnny Herbert, starting 16th with Alfa Romeo, surprisingly found himself in the lead at Turn 2, before being found guilty of cutting through Turn 1 and being given a drive-through penalty.
Without the support of teams, drivers were forced into coming up with their own racing strategies throughout the 14 laps, picking which tyre compound to use on their virtual car, as well as scheduling their own pitstops. Guanyu Zhou caught his competition out by pitting first and going on to claim victory by an astounding 11.392s over runner-up Vandoorne, who edged past polesitter Eng on the last lap, relegating the Austrian to third.
Never too far from the spotlight, Lando Norris was involved in some late drama as he fought tooth and nail with YouTuber Jimmy Broadbent. In the last turn of the race, the pair made contact, sending Norris off into the wall and opening the door for Broadbent to secure a fourth-place finish.
With a fantastic introduction into the virtual world of online gaming in the books, and fan appetite growing for more racing action, F1 has stated that virtual races will continue to run.
The next full grid virtual racing event of the F1 Esports Virtual Grand Prix series is due to take place on 5th April. Another star-studded line up of drivers will take their seats to race around the virtual version of Melbourne’s Albert Park track which is traditionally the first race of the F1 Calendar.
Having been the first race skipped, Melbourne is taking the place of the Vietnam GP as the track doesn’t feature in the 2019 edition of the F1 video game.
Until then, fans of F1 esports will be able to enjoy #challangeLando, with the McLaren driver the breakout star of the F1 esports revolution.
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