Earlier this month Formula 1 dipped its toes into the world of e-sports and broadcast its first virtual Grand Prix.
It had to, really. With the now-global shutdown having led to the cancellation of the first seven races of the F1 calendar – and assumedly the rest of the season – a virtual race in a virtual Bahrain was really the only event it could feasibly put on in lieu of the real thing.
The result was… unusual to say the least. You can read all about the weirdness of the Bahrain Virtual Grand Prix here. A failed experiment then? Well not really, because NASCAR just tried the same thing with far more success.
Over the weekend NASCAR ran the virtual Dixie Vodka 150 Invitational online using the popular motorsport simulator iRacing, with a full field of 35 NASCAR professional drivers playing on their own personal simulation rigs from offices, workshops and their living rooms. Watch it, and besides the videogame visuals the racing is close, engaging and just as strategic as the real deal. Have a look:
Even the commentary was just like a regular NASCAR event, with the usual pre-race interviews, technical analysis and banter – the only difference being that nobody was actually located at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Besides an extended period of dead air prior to the race, it wasn’t exactly dull.
Denny Hamlin clinched the race in the final lap, all while his family were posting videos to his twitter of him driving his (frankly amazing) sim rig in his lounge room while barefoot and drinking Cokes handed to him by his daughter. Not a bad way of taking care of one of his key sponsors.
The Formula 1 top brass have much to learn from the Americans on how to leverage e-sports at a time when actual motorsport is completely shut down. At this stage there’s no telling just how long the COVID-19 pandemic will last, so for the time being the only venues for competitive motorsport will be virtual ones.
"The response on social media to last Sunday’s race has been incredible," NASCAR commentator Jeff Gordon said.
"We were able to broadcast a virtual race that was exciting and entertaining. It brought a little bit of ‘normalcy’ back to the weekend, and I can’t wait to call the action Sunday at Texas."
He’s not exaggerating either: the race was broadcast by Fox Sports and pulled in 903,000 viewers at its peak. Video game or not, it appears punters just want to watch some good racing. The next race in the eNASCAR series is on March 29, and Fox has committed to broadcasting the rest of the season.
Curiously, Sony themselves have actually taken a step backwards at a time when they could be capitalizing on the public’s thirst for entertainment.
The Gran Turismo Sport World Tour, which launched earlier this year in Sydney, is now on an indefinite hiatus. As a live event that physically brought the top online players together in one location, it was deemed too risky to continue with that format – especially as the next round, due to coincide with the now-cancelled Nurburgring 24-hour, would have put those players right in the centre of a Corona-struck Europe.
And that’s a huge shame, because the quality of competition in the GT Sport series is actually top-notch. Take a look at the final race from the Sydney round if you’re in any doubt:
The GT Sport online ranked championship will continue, however the first round has been declared an ‘exhibition round’ only, with the new season start now scheduled for April 25.
Closer to home, the Supercars championship will transition to a 10-race “eSeries” to keep fans entertained until real-life racing resumes.
Like eNASCAR, the Supercars eSeries will put drivers on a virtual grid in iRacing, which conveniently added the Ford Mustang Supercar and ZB Holden Commodore Supercar late last year.
It certainly helps that a large proportion of the Supercars driver lineup are no strangers to racing simulators, with the likes of Scott McLaughlin and Shane Van Gisbergen both being avid iRacing players.
However, Mount Panorama and Phillip Island are the only current Supercars circuits available in iRacing, which means the series could venture out to other famous circuits outside of Australia’s borders – virtually, at least.
Unlike Formula 1’s first foray into game-based competition, the Supercars eSeries is expected to have a full grid of actual race drivers from the get-go – and may perhaps feature a few international stars as guest entrants.
So while F1’s first attempt might have been a little amateur, the rest of the motorsport world appears to be embracing virtual racing as a stop-gap to help it weather the COVID-19 storm.
Whether the fans tune in and whether F1 lifts its game (literally), remains to be seen.