For a sport that requires a playing field about six kilometres in length, quarantine and isolation meant the death of the 2020 FIA Formula One World Championship. A season that would have tested new regulations levelling the playing field for bottom-tier teams found itself boxed indefinitely after nine of twenty-one races were either cancelled or postponed.
With quarantine impacting every professional sport, affected athletes have been gradually migrating from arenas and tracks to screens and LAN lines. One of the first sports to make that change was Formula One.
In an attempt to give fans their much-needed dose of racing, F1 teams and drivers gathered for the world premiere of the Esports Virtual Grand Prix. Not to be confused with Formula One’s Esports Pro Series, which is Formula One’s entry into the gaming world, the Virtual Grand Prix brought together drivers more often seen on physical tracks for evenings of fun.
The Esports Pro Series drivers are on the younger side and do not risk their lives in the way Formula One drivers might. Founded in 2017, the budding sport sees drivers in two-man teams vying for virtual podiums in the same manner as F1 drivers. “I think it’s a positive thing for simracing overall that so many real-life drivers are driving now,” says Red Bull Esports driver Frederik Rasmussen. When asked about how this shift might affect the future of simracing, Rasmussen is hopeful. “I hope simracing will come closer to [other] esports, but racing is just not very popular. But this should help it in the right direction.”
Streamed on Twitch for fans around the globe, the Virtual Grand Prix consisted of three races that would replace those that were postponed. It also led to a spinoff series called Race for the World.
The first race took place at the Sakhir International Circuit in Bahrain. Unlike regular races, which span whole weekends and consist of qualifying races as well as the main event, each race in the Virtual Grand Prix consisted of an 18 minute qualifying session and a considerably decreased number of laps per race.
The races were conducted on simulation machines running the game F1 2019, which meant that though some of the best drivers in the world were taking part in a race on a track they had memorized, if they did not practice in simulation, then they were at a distinct disadvantage.
Among some rule changes, the most glaring difference between the esports equivalent of an actual F1 race was the fact that all drivers were equipped with equal car performance. With cars made by teams like Ferrari and Mercedes leading the pack in many races, the Virtual Grand Prix brought all drivers down to the same starting position in a simulated world.
With all drivers seated in identical cars, this allowed for a more eccentric roster. Among the twenty drivers needed for an F1 race, Lando Norris from McLaren and Nicholas Latifi from WIlliams were the only two current F1 drivers. The rest of the roster saw a colorful mix of professional drivers, broadcasters, a streamer, pro golfer Ian Poulter, and former One Direction member Liam Payne.
The virtual podium went to F2 driver Guanyu Zhou, who did not return for the second virtual race held at the Albert Park Circuit in Australia in place of the Hanoi Street Circuit in Vietnam.
The second race saw more F1 drivers taking notice of the races and introduced teams with names familiar to even the most casual F1 fans. Having learned from the past match, many racers streamed their practices in simulation on Twitch before arriving for the virtual event, and six F1 drivers took their spots on the teams they normally drive for.
Most notably, the second round saw full teams, a world champion, and familiar duos competing for the podium. Rokit-Williams driver George Russel joined Nicholas Latifi to complete the team while Charles Leclerc, driver for Scuderia Ferrari, teamed up with his younger brother Arthur Leclerc, a Formula 4 driver, to race for the FDA Hublot Esports Team. This was also the first race where a former world champion arrived to compete. 2009 World Champion Jenson Button joined F1 driver Lando Norris to compete for McLaren.
Other F1 drivers present for the virtual tournament include Antonio Giovinazzi from Alfa Romeo as well as Alex Albon, the newest addition to Red Bull.
The first place podium went to Charles Leclerc, who shared his win with his followers on Instagram.
Leclerc also went on to win the third race in the Esports Virtual Grand Prix. Teamed up with Ferrari Academy driver Callum Ilott, Leclerc went two for two and raced to victory.
The race took place on the day the official Formula 1 Heineken Chinese Grand Prix would have occured. The Shanghai International Circuit brought new names to the driver lineup. With the entrance of Carlos Sainz, McLaren joined Rokit-Williams as the second team comprised of their current F1 team.
The Shanghai race also saw the return of Bahrain champion Guanyu Zhou. Having lost his title to Leclerc, Zhou was unable to recover the podium.
Inspired by this event, Leclerc and other drivers gathered in their own Twitch streams to create a spinoff event called the Race for the World. The premise is similar, albeit slightly less organized. This time, the series is spearheaded by drivers and their Twitch streams, rather than Formula One and ESPN. With no formal commentary from moderators, Race for the World feels like an excerpt from any ordinary day in Twitch: a group of young dudes gathered in front of their webcams, streaming their favorite game for an audience.
While F1 drivers usually celebrate podiums by spraying champagne on each other before roaring crowds, quarantine measures made winner Charles Leclerc get creative. After winning in Shanghai, Leclerc later posted to Twitter that he would be celebrating with a bowl of pasta rather than champagne.