The 2020 Formula 1 season never even got its season opener in Melbourne and now, with the global Coronavirus pandemic shutdown in full swing and the first seven F1 races now cancelled, there’s seemingly little chance that F1 will be able to resume until 2021.
However, in lieu of the Bahrain Grand Prix that was scheduled for the weekend just gone, the official F1-sanctioned Virtual Grand Prix series launched its first race, set in a virtual Bahrain GP circuit and rendered by Codemasters’ F1 2019 racing sim. Drivers played remotely, respecting the need for social distancing.
Featuring 20 drivers from the racing world, both real-life and virtual, it was an interesting exercise in whether e-sports can step in for top-tier motorsport. So… how was it?
For one, the driver line up was disappointing – at least if you’re a dyed-in-the-wool Formula 1 fan. Every current F1 driver was invited to participate, but only McLaren’s Lando Norris and Williams F1’s Nicholas Latifi showed up to the virtual Bahrain GP. The rest of the field was a weird mish-mash of semi-recognisable names, test drivers and notable e-sports athletes.
Lewis Hamilton’s half-brother Nicolas (a touring car racer in his own right) was on the Virtual Grand Prix grid, even though his famous bro wasn’t. Meanwhile former F1 driver and F1 announcer Johnny Herbert was there too, as were Mercedes F1 test drivers Esteban Gutierrez and Stoffel Vandoorne.
Liam Payne, a singer from boy band One Direction, was an interesting inclusion, while champion cyclist Sir Chris Hoy and pro golfer Ian Poulter added some extra diversity to the driver lineup just in case it needed it.
Even so, much of the allure of F1 fandom is being able to follow the highs and lows of your chosen teams and drivers – and with those household names being largely missing from the Bahrain round we could forgive F1 die-hards from tuning out.
But how was the racing? We won’t spoil the outcome – and you can watch the whole race in the video above – but things were messy from the very start. Before turn one, even. Aside from what looked like some diabolical lag between the start lights extinguishing and the cars actually moving, it appeared that some network latency issues may have seen Nico Hulkenberg unceremoniously punted right into the pit wall right after race start.
Perhaps a good thing that the damage model was turned down to 50 percent, and the race length was just 14 laps long. Hulkenberg managed to continue.
Almost straight afterward, Johnny Herbert, now safely in first position, displayed a comedic disregard for race rules by ruthlessly cutting corners he came across, earning a penalty for his troubles. In the pre-match banter the (fairly amusing) commentator team reported that Herbert was “apparently at least one Jagerbomb down” before qualifying had even begun, and the man’s driving reflected that at times.
With damage being somewhat inconsequential and nobody’s actual life being on the line, the on-track contact was fairly extreme for an F1 race. Will the next round of the Virtual Grand Prix, set for Vietnam on April 5, see more civilized racing? Will it see a field more heavily populated by actual F1 drivers? Will the organisers be able to work around the not-insignificant fact that the Vietnam street circuit isn't actually available in F1 2019?
More importantly, will you be tuning in to the livestream?