Interview: How Codemasters are trying to get more F1 drivers into Virtual GPs

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Formula 1’s second Virtual Grand Prix will take place this weekend. A race on the Albert Park, where the real championship should have opened two weeks ago, will take the place of the Vietnam Grand Prix, which should have been held on Sunday.

The championship’s first attempt at holding a virtual race in place of a real-world event attracted a disappointing turnout from the 2020 F1 grid. Just two current drivers joined in. This contrasted with IndyCar’s attempt at a similar race last weekend, which attracted the majority of its current drivers.

The Virtual Bahrain Grand Prix was held on the sport’s official game F1 2019. Paul Jeal, F1 franchise director from game maker Codemasters, explained in an exclusive interview for RaceFans why F1 drivers largely snubbed the race, and why he’s hopeful that will change over the coming rounds of the championship.

The late announcement of the race – details of it were only made public two days before the event – inevitably contributed to the limited turnout among the drivers. Some were also concerned about being ‘shown up’ by top-level gamers.

“Obviously the dream scenario is you get all 20 F1 drivers racing virtually against each other,” said Jeal. “But Formula 1’s a little bit unique in that some drivers are very engaged in that world and some aren’t.

“I think in any sport there’s a lot of people wanting to put their best foot forward, so to speak, so I’m sure there’s some nervousness for people who perhaps don’t play video games or haven’t played in the past to sort of get involved, certainly on that immediate timeframe.”

The growing restrictions due to the global pandemic added a further limitation. “We had people spread out all across the globe, some had kit, some didn’t, some had PS4, some had PC, so just trying to mobilise it quickly was a real challenge,” Jeal added.

“Obviously the situation that we find ourselves in globally with lockdown is certainly adding to the challenge. Carlos Sainz [Jnr], I think he was wanting to get involved but he’s stuck over in Spain and his rig’s in London. One of our guys used to used to work in Esports in Spain so he’s been doing some digging to see whether he can help with various bits and pieces. Even that’s a challenge because I think around the world people aren’t probably really wanting to invite a load of tech guys to come into their houses and set up rigs and stuff.

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“So it’s probably going to be something which takes a little bit of time just to see through. But I would certainly hope that we would see a couple more F1 drivers, shall we say, in this weekend’s race than the first one. That’s certainly the ambition.”

F1’s usual Esports events are held in a single location, meaning players can be networked together locally. The Virtual Grand Prix series has the added challenge of being held remotely, meaning the drivers have to handle any technical problems themselves.

Max Verstappen, Red Bull, Albert Park, 2020
Verstappen isn’t a regular on F1 2019
“The hardest thing is that the Esports guys are all PC – or whatever – nuts. Tech nuts. They understand updating drivers, hardware, firmware, what issues [there] are.

“When you’re coming to people who turn their PCs on a lot less frequently, aren’t as used to games, in the PC world especially there’s a lot of stuff where you can see out-of-date drivers. Trying to talk people through a lot of fairly tech-heavy stuff obviously takes a little bit more time. Every time you get a new driver on the grid there’s a learning curve.

“Some of these guys are mega-stars, they’re not just available 24-seven for us to pick up the phone and guide them through some of this process.”

However one notable driver who does have the necessary equipment and regularly races online, Max Verstappen, chose not to take part. The Red Bull racer said he “doesn’t play that game and I would have to adapt to it” and didn’t want to be “running around the back”.

While Jeal doesn’t expect Verstappen to take part in this weekend’s race, he said the point of the Virtual Grand Prix series isn’t to have top F1 racers bringing up the rear behind elite Esports racers.

“When you race in or play any video game, each one’s got its own unique way of playing, I suppose, and you can only devote a certain amount of practice to any game. So I know he’s very, very serious with a lot of his iRacing and rFactor stuff that he does with Team Redline. So he’s probably in virtual championships and wanted to dominate that.

“I think probably a small part as well, he probably thought that the Esports guys were going to be involved. I think the quote I read on your website was that he didn’t want to be rattling around at the back.

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“We were hoping, once we go through these first few races and you’re seeing, actually, it’s the F1 drivers at the front, all of the ‘real motorsport’ guys at the front. So I hope over time that people will see that and start to gravitate more towards it because, what we’re not trying to do is we don’t want them to get destroyed by Egamers. That’s certainly not what we wanted in our series.

Some teams have rebranded their cars since last year
“I think if you’re a fan tuning in and Max Verstappen is in 16th place, that’s not really what you’re tuning in for. So I hope over time, actually, he’ll be more inclined to take part.”

Aside from the practical obstacles there were other, less tangible, reasons why some drivers – and their teams – were reluctant to participate. “When you’ve got certain teams that have had pretty major rebrands from last year to this year, sometimes that can have an impact – as well as to just whether they want to get involved – with old logos and sponsors and partners and all that type of stuff. So it’s quite a fluid situation based on individual circumstances.”

Codemasters are currently developing the forthcoming edition of the game, F1 2020, and are looking into whether up-to-date graphics from that can be ported into the current version to allow drivers to race in their latest liveries.

“From our point of view we make an annual, iterative game,” Jeal explains. “So lots of the stuff that goes into one game isn’t necessarily cross-compatible with a previous one.

“I certainly think there is a way of doing it, it’s just how quickly we can mobilise that at the same time that we’re trying to not impact this year’s game so much.”

Hanoi Street Circuit, Vietnam, 2020
Codemasters want drivers to race virtual Vietnam
Similarly the two new circuits of F1 2020 – Vietnam’s Hanoi street track and the remodelled Zandvoort in the Netherlands – could be added so the new drivers can race on them. In the meantime, Australia’s Albert Park circuit will be used for this weekend’s Virtual Grand Prix which will run in the Vietnam Grand Prix’s slot.

“The naming’s slightly weird because I think Formula 1 are naming it based on the real grand prix season and so it’s the postponement of the Vietnam race,” said Jeal. “Obviously the Vietnam race doesn’t exist in F1 2019.

“One of the big things that we’re looking into is obviously can we race the new tracks, retrofit them into it or build on the old game, which is looking to be a challenge given the size of those.”

However Codemasters face the same obstacles most British-based companies do at present: Their workforce is based at home due to movement restrictions as a result of the pandemic.

“It’s going to be harder than usual for all of us to work at full capacity given the current situation,” said Jeal. “So I guess we’re just treading through that at the moment and working out what’s possible and what’s not. There will be an iterative roadmap, I’m sure, of how can we get slightly more of the branding across as we go forward throughout this time line.”

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With more time to confirm this weekend’s entries, and the knowledge the Virtual Grands Prix will run for several more weeks, Jeal is hopeful of seeing more drivers join the fun.

Car liveries could be updated for the Virtual GP series
“It literally was three days I think people had to fill the [first] grid, figure out deals and get it to them and stuff. Certainly the lead time is a little bit more relaxed this around.

“We don’t fully know what the grid is yet but some of the slots are beginning to fill up. I think Lando [Norris] was doing his best on his stream to call others and invite them in. I hope that a couple of those will come in and race as well, see that he’s having fun, see that it’s reaching a lot of people.

“Having a few more F1 drivers in there is obviously the goal. Lots of the motorsport guys did really well so that was good as well, that’s certainly what I’d like to see.

“Obviously this is a format that’s here to stay for an unknown period of time right now so I think the guys who get on board and embrace it early I hope will encourage others to take part.”

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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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19 comments on “Interview: How Codemasters are trying to get more F1 drivers into Virtual GPs”

  1. They definitely have interesting challenges to work through to get more F1 drivers involved.

    Taking a stab in the dark, I wonder if IndyCar had it easier since their drivers were located in the US itself, and in the US restrictions started to take hold far later, and to a much less stringent extent. That said, I still feel a hurried attempt to get the first race up in just a few days wasn’t the best idea, a week’s delay to get things better organized might’ve been preferred, and Liberty could have also made a bigger splash about it (e.g. marketing an “F1 for you this weekend” with eSports, eSports highlights reel a.k.a. Lando’s antics, replays of previous real-world races like the duel in the desert, etc.)

    Lando is definitely an asset, especially in terms of getting his peers – particularly the younger ones – on board.

    But you know what would be more entertaining than any eSports race? A video of the Codemasters team trying to convince Kimi to participate in the virtual GP.

    1. @phylyp I think IndyCar had it easier because they had the option of going with iRacing, which was built from the ground up for esports. It’s a more open platform than the Codemasters series, so iRacing doesn’t have to work with all the drivers and teams to get their liveries in the game—the drivers simply commission freelance iRacing livery artists and upload the files themselves. iRacing even has their own streaming studio in Boston, and they’re the ones who’ve actually been producing the “world feed” that IndyCar and Nascar have been using. And they’re used to producing streams for non-local competitions.

      Also, IndyCar and Nascar already had content sharing agreements in place with iRacing so their official car models were already included in the game. F1 doesn’t have any current cars in iRacing, which probably makes it commercially hard to stage an official F1-branded competition anywhere other than the Codemasters games.

      I think F1 should consider ways to make more partnerships with more developers. Nascar also has the official Nascar Heat series aimed at casual gamers, but that hasn’t stopped them from also working with iRacing for the more hardcore audience. It might not be practical for the iRacing team to incorporate every team’s car every year like Codies does. But why not take the generic 2021 (or 2022 or 2023) package car that Ross Brawn’s team has designed and put that in iRacing as an official F1 car?

    2. A video of the Codemasters team trying to convince Kimi to participate in the virtual GP.

      You should’ve put a spoiler alert warning before that statement, @phylyp.
      Netflix now has to come up with different ideas; maybe Dr Marko organising summer camp or Wolff slamming the kitchen table.

  2. Good luck with that, but extremely unlikely to get the likes of Lewis, Kimi, or Seb involved in something like this to name a few. BTW, wouldn’t the Marina Bay Street Circuit in Singapore be a more suitable replacement for the absence of Vietnam’s Hanoi Street Circuit since it’s also a proper street circuit, as well as, geographically closer to Hanoi than Melbourne is to Hanoi?

    1. wouldn’t the Marina Bay Street Circuit in Singapore be a more suitable replacement

      Maybe they still need it later in the non-season ;)

    2. It’s a video game mate, the geographical location doesn’t matter

  3. I wish they would fix the bug that affects every race start where we see the lights go out 2 seconds before they actually do in the game!
    Seems so amateurish when watching, especially when commentators get caught out by it.

    1. Yeah, or that the cars just start bouncing like mad over kerbs.
      there’s more visual stuff like shadows randomly disappearing etc.

      plus the physics and the fact that the game doesn’t really seem to offer anything useful for broadcasting (like, having to scroll through all drivers in order to change focus)

  4. “The Red Bull racer said he “doesn’t play that game and I would have to adapt to it” and didn’t want to be “running around the back”.”

    Codemasters game is poorly equiped for professional sim racing. Watch what Verstappen plays? rFactor mostly, and only top simulation games. Coemasters are somewhat arcade in their design.

    IRacing is far superior to that, also some F1 drivers are somewhat scared of taking a risk. Unless they have a clear chance to win, they won’t compete at all.

    I bet a bunch of sim racers would wipe the floor with them. It takes serious practice to become a top sim driver, much like a top F1 driver.

    1. They do, look up The Race on Youtube, they’ve done a few races with a mix of real life drivers and simracers, and the simracing guys always come on top

  5. Hoosier Daddy
    1st April 2020, 11:17

    I bet a bunch of sim racers would wipe the floor with them. It takes serious practice to become a top sim driver, much like a top F1 driver.

    Just have a 107 percent qualifying rule. Anyone more than 107% as fast as the real racers don’t qualify. ;)

  6. “Obviously the situation that we find ourselves in globally with lockdown is certainly adding to the challenge. Carlos Sainz [Jnr], I think he was wanting to get involved but he’s stuck over in Spain and his rig’s in London. One of our guys used to used to work in Esports in Spain so he’s been doing some digging to see whether he can help with various bits and pieces.”

    Who’s fault is that? I mean, it’s a very lame excuse. A LOT of the american drivers racing in NASCAR and Indycar these past weeks didn’t have a rig either. Or had to fetch it from somewhere else. But they did it, because they had the time, because each series announced their events with a week to spare. Not from wednesday to saturday in the middle of a pandemic. Sure movement was difficult, but they could’ve prepared it a lot better if they had a lot more time.

    I said it before, regardless of the software used, F1 attempt failed becuase they rushed. They announced F1 drivers taking part like half the grid was going to be there, but ended up with only 2 of them… They should’ve known: iRacing and other sims are much better prepared to broadcast a race too, specially iRacing which broadcasts their world championship races weekly. The F1 game isn’t that good in that sense, so it’s even more of a problem if you only had a couple of days to gather people together, and also iron out any problem be it connectivity or broadcast.

    1. because they had the time, because each series announced their events with a week to spare.

      Because they care more about the fans. This should not be blamed on Codemasters or the quality of their game, this is 100 % F1 management and drivers. Doesn’t matter which game they play, I would love seeing all drivers play Mario Kart but they won’t because they don’t care.

  7. It really puts into perspective F1 as a series and the type of entitled brats that are currently its ‘top’ drivers.
    The Indy guys were falling over themselves to get into it, while the F1 punks made no such effort.
    Even at a time like this their pathetic egos wouldn’t allow them to even try, regardless of how well they might have done.

    1. Fernando Dasilva
      1st April 2020, 19:09

      Not true Max, Lando, and Carlos and others are very active in iRacing. They just know how crap Codemasters F1 games are, not real sims and not for people that take it seriously.

  8. Fernando Dasilva
    1st April 2020, 19:07

    Make their game a sim and not a suck. They lag so far behind iRacing it’s not even funny. Stop making a game that is concentrated on stupid crap like the career mode with the stupid interviews. Give us some VR support, actually penalize bad drivers by banning them or a tier system like iRacing. Code Masters will never live up to iRacing because they are too focused on the money and marketing and they make Sim-Cades and not actual Simulators.

  9. If they banned the arcade T-Cam ciew real f1 drivers wouldn’t have to worry so much about YouTube ‘stars’ anymore. Without that massive visual boost in depth track knowledge would again be paramount. Also make the races full length and remove all assists. Make it as hard (realistic) as possible then the cream can rise to the virtual top. F1 drivers without computer game experience would not be so disadvantaged then.

  10. That’s embarassing. He calls it ‘video game’, thinks F1 drivers are not tech savy (or have the resources), and that top F1 drivers don’t want to take part because they’ll be destroyed by ‘eGamers’.

    The sooner F1 realizes its mistake of having Codemasters represent themselves, the better for all involved.

  11. Magnus Rubensson (@)
    3rd April 2020, 17:37

    There’s a new Grand Prix Legends version …

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