F1’s Virtual Grand Prix can be great, if they dare to go bigger and better

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No one would hold up Sunday’s Virtual Bahrain Grand Prix as an example of the best F1 and Esports has to offer.

Viewers expecting to see current and former F1 racers competing were disappointed to discover they filled fewer than half of the 20 virtual cars. Connection problems knocked Lando Norris out of qualifying and meant his car was driven by an AI for most of the race.

Those glitches meant a lengthy delay between qualifying and the race, plus a shortening of the main event from 28 laps to 14. Unfortunately Anthony Davidson wasn’t made aware of this and ended up missing the race, his place also taken by an AI.

Across those who did get to compete, the standard was variable at best. Sir Chris Hoy spun off at the first corner in qualifying. Johnny Herbert – the only F1 race winner on the grid – audaciously cut the first corner in a bid to take the lead and was penalised.

Several drivers crashed on the first lap. Fortunately the damage model had been disabled or the field would have been depleted by more than just connection problems.

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While there was no shortage of action, quite a lot of it seemed to be overlooked. For those used to watching real-world racing, the lack of replays took some getting used to.

The presenters did their best to keep on top of things, and if at first the approach felt a bit ‘took many cooks’, the impromptu round-table chat helped while away the extended pre-race interval. But at a time when most of us are being told to practice social distancing, the sight of four presenters crowded around one desk was troubling.

Virtual victor Zhou passed real F1 race winner Herbert
Yet, for its faults, I suggest we give F1 a pass over its first attempt at a Virtual Grand Prix. The race was thrown together in little more than three days and involved remotely networking in drivers and personalities of varying skill levels. The Virtual Bahrain Grand Prix couldn’t take itself too seriously and it didn’t.

With no motor sport going on at the moment and the prospect of very little happening for the coming months, this race and the other Esports events which have been organised recently provided many people with much-needed relief from the increasingly grim reality we now share.

That much was clear from the broadcast figures. According to F1’s head of Esports Julian Tan, the race attracted a peak of 400,000 viewers across its streaming platforms. Another 100,000 watched Norris’s Twitch stream, where he dialled up the likes of Max Verstappen, George Russell, Carlos Sainz Jnr and his McLaren boss Zak Brown during the pre-race delay.

Inviting ‘influencers’ and celebrities to the race may not appeal to those of us who are F1 fans first, but the rationale of doing so as a means to appeal to new viewers is hard to argue with. I may not be interested in watching Liam Payne drive a virtual racing car but how many of his combined 50 million Twitter and Instagram followers – more than twice as many as Lewis Hamilton’s – were?

But as the news reaches us this week that F1’s pre-season hiatus will be at least one week longer – and, likely, much more – F1 needs to think seriously about how to develop the concept beyond the slapdash race thrown together yesterday into something people will want to watch regularly. Particularly when it is being touted as a substitute for real races.

F1 needs to appeal to both new fans discovering the sport through streamers and signers, and its core audience who want to enjoy quality racing. Splitting the event into a ‘Pro/Am’ format would allow this. Have one race for celebrities and influencers who fancy a jolly, then a second ‘main event’ aimed at more serious players run to more demanding rules with no driving assistance allowed and realistic damage settings. The sport can have its cake and eat it by allowing F1 drivers to enter either or both.

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Inevitably F1 will prefer to continue using its official game for these events. That will mean it cannot take advantage of some the exciting options open to other championships, such as IndyCar, which is planning to take in some tracks the real-world series doesn’t race on for its iRacing-based series. This will hopefully give food for thought for the 2020 and future editions of Codemasters’ official series.

F1 has run Esports events before, though not remotely
The fact F1 was able to fall back on Esports to provide some kind of racing action last weekend is partly thanks to the effort Liberty Media has put into developing this area since it took over the sport. It’s hard to imagine anything like this taking place while Bernie Ecclestone was running the show.

While the first Virtual Grand Prix was entertaining, the current format has room for improvement, and those running the show surely know it. “Next time we’ll see a much more measured race in general,” predicted BBC F1 radio commentator Jack Nichols, who has years of experience in talking about virtual racing, at the end of the broadcast.

“The chaos down towards turn one where people were crashing at the start, it isn’t what we want to see, and I don’t think it’s what the drivers want to happen. But this is a fairly last-minute call-up for a lot of these guys.”

This was a fair assessment. While it’s never going to be a substitute for the real thing, F1’s Virtual Grand Prix has obvious potential to be a welcome form of racing-based entertainment while one of the sport’s longest race-free spells grinds on.

Over to you

Did you watch the Virtual Bahrain Grand Prix? Do you think the format could be improved – and if so how? Have your say in the comments.

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Keith Collantine
Lifelong motor sport fan Keith set up RaceFans in 2005 - when it was originally called F1 Fanatic. Having previously worked as a motoring...

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  • 47 comments on “F1’s Virtual Grand Prix can be great, if they dare to go bigger and better”

    1. Inviting ‘influencers’ and celebrities to the race

      I doubt I’ll ever get used to the descriptor ‘influencer’. I prefer a description of what people are known for (even if it is ‘just’ reality tv star) rather than influencer.
      Maybe I should just think of them as advertising actors.

      1. @coldfly i believe ‘utterly useless fools’ is the one you’re looking for

        1. @mrboerns – I think you’re mistaken, that’s the term for the people who slavishly follow ‘influencers’. I hate to admit it, but I have a small measure of … “respect” might be too powerful a word, so, let’s say “wry admiration” … for those influencers to have found a gullible audience. Snake oil salesmen wouldn’t be a thing if there weren’t people buying snake oil, would there?

          @coldfly – instead, let’s call them the ‘flu’? Can’t totally avoid it no matter how much social (media) distancing you follow, mostly annoying, occasionally dangerous (e.g. Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop). And they’re upon us like a veritable plague.

        2. I don’t share that sentiment. Having watched quite a lot of the e-sports events during the weekend I’d say it was the pro racers who caused the most amount of carnage on track because they don’t take it seriously at all. The racing influencers did a good job and treated the event with respect. For some real racers it was almost a joke. Just look at what johnny herbert did. What the event needs is pre-qualifiers so the johnny herberts can’t get through to the main event. Whether influencers should be part of it… well you need people on track if all f1 drivers are not going to enter and there needs to be some kind of system to select who gets in. Assuming all real f1 drivers (who would do it) get a free pass.

          The pro-am division sounds nice but who is pro and who is amateur? Because the top racers of these games will easily beat any and all real drivers in that game so you’d have situation where amateurs would dominate. Sim racers and pro racers might work out better as different classes but the event still needs to make sure that those who get in are quick enough and take it seriously. In one word: pre-qualifiers! Otherwise it is just a joke of an event with people crashing out all the time. But I doubt if the pro racers and even the organizers have the patience or guts to leave out verstappen or norris if they did not make it to the final. After all those are the drivers people come to watch.

        3. If you’re making a ton of money from companies and successfully getting people to buy their products, you’re not a fool, you’re a salesperson.

          The fools can be said to be the people following them but not the influencers themselves.

      2. @coldfly Indeed the only thing they’ve influenced me to do is to not be like them!

      3. It’s all in the description, their job is to influence people into buying/consuming certain items. In this case F1 simracing.

        Instead of influencer you could use manipulator, it’s a more fitting title.

    2. Yet, for its faults, I suggest we give F1 a pass over its first attempt at a Virtual Grand Prix. The race was thrown together in little more than three days and involved remotely networking in drivers and personalities of varying skill levels.

      well, that’s the main problem, isn’t it? other championships have experience doing this, or they are taking the time to do it properly.

      F1 announced on a Wednesday that F1 drivers would take part in a virtual race on Sunday, then sort of found most of them either didn’t have the game, had not played it before, or weren’t interested in taking part.

      1. @fer-no65 F1 does have a history of rushing into things. Like the F1 TV that failed miserably at launch. Maybe they should have done a behind closed doors test, then launched the virtual race thingy the following race weekend and done it properly, as they’ve definitely lost people already who won’t come back after that

      2. @fer-no65 @eurobrun – that’s the FANG* approach of “move fast and break things”. Doing your betas and tests out in the open and on-the-fly.

        * Facebook, Amazon and Google to be precise, that term doesn’t really apply to Netflix.

      3. I organise races in rFactor 2 for a small group of people, and if I organised a race in 3 days it’d be a disaster. What they did seems bold at least, or simply amateurish.

      4. F1 racers “not having a copy” (or a simulator setup to play it on) is a BS excuse. Your telling me Lewis Hamilton couldn’t find a loaner gaming rig, and log into steam? BS!

        He didn’t participate because he’s an adult, and races f1 cars for real, and doesn’t wanna play games with Johnny Herbert and some kid living in his moms shed.

        Esports is nothing more than vidya. No differant than fortnight or Minecraft. You can take anything seriously, that doesn’t change what it is. I literally cringe watching proper media outlets use a gamers handle instead of his name… you guys are embarassing yourselves to pander to millennials. It’s sad.

    3. I’ll continue to pass on these events thanks. eSports, though they require great skill, are not sports. I’ll wait patiently for the start of the season and will fill my time watching F1 TV Access’s archive of historic races and reading everything I can about the history of the sport.

      1. Better than golf thats for sure.

    4. 1) either get all the drivers or fill the gaps with *interesting* former drivers… get mansell, get barrichello, dang it, get ickx and Stewart
      2) don’t get some lame commentators nobody knows or cares about but have a ‘youtuber Championship’ style groupchat
      3) enjoy majestic mayem of utter greatness

      1. Agree with what you said but most importantly (in my eyes): use the right software to do it ! This notbahgp was “played” on codemaster F1 2019 that is quite fun and relatively realistic but is not a simulator (rather a good game). Use a real simulator (iracing) and you get a different product. So Liberty Media ! FIA ! Get in touch with iracing and put a deal together so you have a full F1 series with multiple cars and get on with it. Go in esport for real, 100%, for christ’s sakes.

        1. I will agree with this. They need a proper Sim but again not using the official F1 game is going to badly affect them commercially and devalue the F1 game license.

    5. Filippo Peverini
      24th March 2020, 9:38

      How difficult would it be to organise a championship with all the current drivers, with sky commentators and make it seem real.?? I don’t think anyone is busy right now anyway.
      Honestly I doubt we will see a real race this year the way it is going. This might be the only thing we could watch.
      The first race esport race was really badly organised and run ( I mean, not even able to show replays…) but surely F1 with all it’s money can do better than this.
      I’m sure if it’s done right it could even charge for the races. I would pay if it would be done well and everyone was in.

      Seriously does not seem that impossible….

        1. You definitely understand F1 more than most. Kudos. There is absolutely no way all the F1 drivers would sign up for this.

      1. That’s pretty much what happened on IMSA’s Sebring SuperSaturday. It was awesome to hear Hindy’s commentary and the field was great, around 40 current and drivers. Yes the skill was varied and some like Mark Allen did some carnage as only started in iRacing a few days before the race. But once the “noobs” were out the race seemed beliveable. Shame it was just GTLM instead of mixed class, but I’m looking forward to more races like that.

      2. Its not impossible but dont underestimate how much lack of practice or experience will contribute to events not doing well. F1 isn’t really in the eSports section and the lack of experience shows.

        They can get better though assuming they are serious about it.

    6. So having been very dubious about all this going into the weekend, I went and watched both the Veloce Esports and F1 races on Sunday (both F1 2019), plus Monday night’s Team Redline event (iRacing).

      Monday night’s racing was 100% better, both in terms of racing, entertainment and pool of talent. A field of 40 F3 cars around Spa. At least 30 names were legitimate racers from all fields (F1, F2, F3, FE, WEC, DTM, FR). The presentation (replays, etc) was infinitely better too.

      I don’t think F1 fully understands what it has got with Verstappen and Norris. They have such infectious personalities. Lando’s twitch feed was hilarious at the same time as the race was compelling, which is crazy really. In Monday’s 2nd race they were effectively having a laugh – they were bump drafting each other along the Kemmel Straight (unrealistic I know in an F3 car – damage had been disabled deliberately as they had opened up to many drivers with little experience – like Nelson Piquet Jr who was pretty awful, lol). Yet they were doing this while leading the pack and putting in exceptional lap times. And hearing the two of them live egging each other on was hilarious. Also Felix da Costa’s comments on Tom Dillmann were fully uncensored!

      I think I might have found one series that I might genuinely follow thru these testing times.
      Its also persuaded me to get my (albeit basic) rig out and return to rFactor (I don’t think I can really afford the financial commitment to iRacing).

      1. I liked the race too! Especially because Lando streams, with all his joking and laughing it adds more atmosphere. The ‘normal’ broadcast can be boring, alas. I switched between Lando and Jimmy Broadbent, he was in the back, so you can see him fighting in the midfield, while Lando and Max are in the front. I love the commentary between them and the other top-drivers, they give some tips, and yell at each other. The problem with the ‘real’ F1 drivers, is that most of them don’t race in sims, and have no interest in driving at the back. Max and Lando are very experienced E-sports drivers, but are regularly beaten by the likes of Rudy van Buren or Max Benecke. These guys are so much better, and really competitive, the race on Saturday showed the complete top 10 within 0.4 seconds!
        Wednesday is the next race, with GTE I think. iRacing is really difficult, but if you want some serious racing, you can try Rfactor2, very good sim, and completely Open, so you can download lots of tracks and cars!

      2. both the Veloce Esports and F1 races on Sunday (both F1 2019), plus Monday night’s Team Redline event (iRacing)

        @eurobrun – ah, there were multiple races – that explains why I read in one place that Lando’s game crashed at the start of a race, while another place mentioned him being spun out at the start by a competitor.

        I didn’t watch the races themselves, but I did see the clips, particularly the ones of Norris calling Russell (“I’m calling the one with the most experience on starting from the back”).

        I definitely agree that the youngsters like Max and Lando are good champions for sim racing, and are a good face for the same, particularly when we’ve seen that interest and enthusiasm even in years past.

    7. It wasn’t too bad to watch to be honest. Without any F1, it at least filled a bit of a void left by the lack of racing. The main problem is the game itself, while it looks great, it has a number of bugs in it (as seen in qualifying where the Ferrari spent an AI lap hitting the back of a Toro Rosso). With a Lack of polish to the game, its hard to take it seriously.

      The other thing which would dramatically improve it for the fans, is having a webcam set up in each of the drivers houses. Being able to see them and their reactions would add so much more. Jonny Herbert skipping the first corner would have been a million times better if you could see his reaction as he did it.

    8. I spotted a Tweet from McLaren about 10 mites before the F1 race started. Fired up YouTube on the big screen, watched Lando on Twitch on my mobile. It was brilliant!

      While the world is going to hell, this was highly enjoyable.

      Is there a published list of these races anywhere?

      1. Try Team Redline (on Facebook or on the web)
        They are a very professional E-racing team with a lot of very good drivers, and are organizing a lot of races the coming weeks…
        Max and Lando are part of it too.

        1. Super thanks! Stay safe!

    9. According to one of the fellas on Missed Apex the IMSA irace was very good. All of the competitors were IMSA drivers it was professionally produced and the result was good entertainment. I can’t see Liberty being able to get all of the current F1 drivers onboard, but they should still be able to produce a product of high quality good enough to make people want to watch again.

    10. @keithcollantine I’d love you to add embedded YouTube videos or links to videos in these articles to help us get to the recordings/live streams easily please.

    11. I’m happy the likes of Lewis, Kimi, or Seb, to name a few, haven’t bothered with entering this thing. Why would they use their spare-time for something this gimmicky?

      1. ….because they can’t do the actual jobs they’re handsomely paid for?

    12. If they announce before hand that there won’t be any professional e-sports drivers in the field I’m sure that there would be a lot more interest from the actual drivers. Verstappen and Grosjean both admitted to not being familiar with the game and didn’t want to just run around at the back, take away the people that would crush them and have a field like it was on Sunday and it would be much more likely they’d be participating.

    13. At least invite people who have some experience of sims.

      That Pain muppet was a minute off the pace and I was just waiting for him to take out everyone at the start!

    14. Sim racing can be exciting but you need good drivers and you need a simulator to race on. Getting celebrities to race on a game rather than a simulator isn’t going to win the doubters over.

      1. They sure should switch over to rFactor 2.
        And they should do prequalification. May be even a week long, letting everyone one hour and 12 laps. Practice sessions are not required, as everyone can do it timelessly locally. Pick 32 best, 20 official drivers and 12 fans, for qualification with 26 places on a grid.

    15. It could be even better if codemasters had bothered to write better code…

      1. For the most part F1 2019 is considered a great game. Not a great sim game though.

    16. My only main issue with this event was that f1 2019 isn’t optimised for streaming and it could have did with a couple more current f1 drivers.

    17. iRacing. An F1 only field (ex drivers ok) Fully realistic settings. Give drivers time to practice. Pro commentators and TV producers.

      In short: A virtual F1 race.

    18. The way I see it, there are two aspects that needs to be looked into further for virtual grand prix’s: the lack of danger, and lack of physical logistics.

      Why bother racing on the same venues as the regular calendar? Why not try the original Nürburgring/Nordschleife, the old Monza layout, Circuit de la Sarthe, Watkins Glen, etc? There’s no longer danger or logistics to take into account. I don’t know enough about virtual racing to know whether these circuits have been modeled/re-created, but it would certainly offer something different than the regular calendar.

      1. Filippo Peverini
        25th March 2020, 0:12

        Great idea

    19. Filippo Peverini
      25th March 2020, 0:11

      Agree, you are right but it’s such an opportunity lost.

    20. But at a time when most of us are being told to practice social distancing, the sight of four presenters crowded around one desk was troubling.

      Honnestly this was to m the most jarring thing of the hole stream… I honestly don’t understand the need to have them all there, let alone all at the same, small desk. Hopefully nothing bad will come of it, but I thing it sends the wrong message.

    21. Ok, you’ve dragged the joke too long.

    22. I didn’t watch the virtual race but I saw the highlights and was disappointed. Surely it can be and should be improved if they want it to be serious. As a Formula 1 fan for more than 20 years, I wish the virtual race to feature real F1 drivers (current or former) with real race length and full damage settings also including vulnerability features to the cars as we almost forgetting that mechanical failures are part of the game.

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