2020 Virtual Monaco Grand Prix

Was F1’s Virtual Grand Prix series a success?


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After eight races and 240 laps, F1’s Virtual Grand Prix series came to an end on Sunday.

Looking at the results, there’s no way you would have mistaken it for the real thing. Williams driver George Russell was crowned the unofficial champion, while his team mate Nicholas Latifi was the only driver who completed every lap.

Much of the time you wouldn’t have confused the on-track action for the real thing either. This was not always to its detriment. Charles Leclerc and Alexander Albon thrillingly disputed the lead around Interlagos, passing and re-passing each other in a manner real-world aerodynamics simply doesn’t permit.

However too often the racing degenerated into the kind of bumper car silliness every F1 gamer knows to expect if you race on Monaco with damage disabled, for instance.

Formula 1 deserve credit for pulling the series together so quickly. The first race was a ropey affair, with just two current F1 drivers in the field, but it showed promise of better things to come. Unfortunately, that promise wasn’t entirely realised.

IndyCar iRacing Challenge, Circuit of the Americas, 2020
IndyCar’s series offered better racing
Compared to equivalent series run by IndyCar, NASCAR, Formula E and others, F1 struggled to muster enthusiasm among its drivers. It never managed to half-fill its grid with current racers, peaking with eight for its Monaco and Azerbaijan rounds.

For this, some blamed the choice of game. This is ultimately a futile complaint: Formula 1 has an official game so it is unrealistic to expect they’re going to use anything else.

Nonetheless, the fact F1 2019 was used for the series appears to have been the reason why some drivers chose not to participate. Max Verstappen said as much. Romain Grosjean and Sebastian Vettel both procured simulators but entered other series instead.

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Valtteri Bottas, Carlos Sainz Jnr and Sergio Perez all made one-off appearances but couldn’t be tempted back. Lando Norris, the first break-out star of the series thanks to his entertaining Twitch streams, was frank about the game’s shortcomings and sat out the finale having been the only driver besides Latifi to enter every other race (though connections problems often thwarted him).

Daniel Abt, Formula E Race at Home series, 2020
Daniel Abt’s virtual racing antics cost him his real-world drive
The choice of game forced other limitations on the Virtual Grand Prix. The video angles were restrictive, the feed quality not great, in-race replays non-existent.

Moreover, sticking within the F1 universe deprived the Virtual Grand Prix of the spirit of experimentation other series, particularly the iRacing-based ones, enjoyed. The Australian Supercars series ‘travelled’ to Silverstone and attracted Verstappen to the field; IndyCar ‘returned’ to Motegi. NASCARs were seen on North Wilkesboro for the first time since 1996.

That said, F1 at least avoided the pitfalls some of those series fell into. No one suffered a sense of humour failure and intentionally wiped out a successful import from a rival series. No one lost their real-world drive over what they did (or didn’t do) in a Virtual Grand Prix.

The clearest metric for measuring the popularity and therefore success of the series is how many people watched it. The number of views the full-length YouTube coverage attracted provides a useful indication.

The opening rounds benefited from a ‘look-in’ audience. The 1.9m who watched Bahrain largely returned for the second race, which was bolstered by the addition of several new drivers.

The number of viewers was always going to fall from these early highs. But even taking that into account, the drop was alarmingly steep and, worse, showed little sign of finding its level.

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Azerbaijan, one of the sport’s most reliably entertaining races in the real world, has attracted just 444,000 views at the time of writing. Sunday’s race, little more than 48 hours ago, just 336,000. The combined viewership for the four races which comprised the second half of F1’s Virtual Grand Prix series was lower than the opening race.

2020 Virtual Canadian Grand Prix
Viewing figures slumped as the series went on
Why did it see such a sharp and sustained drop in viewers? In their comments, many RaceFans readers expressed disappointment in F1’s decision to hand so many virtual seats to non-drivers.

As the parallel Formula 2/Formula 3 virtual series showed, there was no shortage of capable drivers from junior series available to join in. But often these were overlooked in favour of competitors from other sports such as football or golf, celebrities and influencers. The rationale behind doing this was to attract more viewers – those plunging figures suggest it was a mistake.

F1 correctly avoided bringing the top esports drivers in, as they would have relegated most of the real drivers (except probably Russell) to scrapping for the minor places. But a full grid of F1 drivers present, past and future would have made for a more logical proposition and surely better-quality racing.

It was especially disappointing that, even in the era of W Series, F1 managed to put eight races on and not include a single female racer.

At the end of that first broadcast BBC F1 commentator Jack Nichols remarked that the carnage of the opening race was unlikely to be repeated in future events. I shared his hopeful expectation that we would see more real-world drivers, fewer ‘slebs’ and better racing over the coming races. Regrettably there was no sign of him or that hoped-for standard of racing come the finale.

For a while, it looked like it was going to happen. The Virtual Dutch Grand Prix at Interlagos wasn’t just the best title/venue mismatch since the Nurburgring hosted the Luxembourg Grand Prix, it was also the best virtual race F1 put on.

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But the series ended with Russell annihilating a meagre field of real-world drivers. Just four current F1 racers showed up for the finale, the series having incorrectly announced Valtteri Bottas would boost their number to five.

F1 2020 screenshot
Zandvoort features in F1 2020
Many of their rivals opted to contest the Virtual Le Mans 24 Hours instead. Pierre Gasly impressively tried to do both, but got booted from the Virtual Grand Prix after incurring too many penalties.

F1 assumed there was a significant audience who wanted to watch F1 drivers racing against celebrities. In the end, much of the Virtual GP audience and many of the real F1 drivers ended up going elsewhere. There’s a lesson there.

But it would be a pity if F1 halted its experiment with virtual races. The new edition of F1 2020 is on its way and according to Russell its handling model is a significant improvement over the previous version. It also features at least one new circuit which won’t get to hold its planned race this year.

The 2020 Dutch Grand Prix may not happen this year, but the Virtual Dutch Grand Prix can – at its correct location. If they’re going to run any more virtual races this year, they should make space for that one. Just keep it to drivers only from now on.

F1 2020: Zandvoort and Hanoi race footage

Note: All F1 2020 images and footage show the game in an unfinished state.

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Author information

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 “Was F1’s Virtual Grand Prix series a success?”

    1. I understand why they wanted to use the official F1 game, but it just doesn’t produce good racing. I’ve enjoyed IndyCar a bit thanks to their choice of a more realistic simulator.

      The virtual world can’t compete with the atmosphere of a real race though. It’s not about the speeds, the skill, or the danger. It’s about a melting pot of emotions, showcased in front of tens (or hundreds) of thousands of people.

      1. Triple Meh. If I want to waste time watching others waste time playing video games, I have kids for that.

        1. Quadruple meh.

      2. Jack (@jackisthestig)
        16th June 2020, 21:14

        I was going to write a few paragraphs saying how amateur the F1 was in comparison to the ‘take your glasses off and you wouldn’t know the difference’ IndyCar events but you’ve summed it up perfectly.

    2. The Race Legends series was my favourite of the ones I watched in terms of racing (such a great field of drivers for the Indy race). I thought the IndyCar and NASCAR coverage was really good too (the dynamic replays were great), although the Indy shenanigans left a nasty taste.

      Not a fan of things that pulled you out of the moment, like the ghosting cars, or cars just popping into existence.

    3. Watched one. Hardly knew any of the drivers, half way through a car vanished and another one the commentators didn’t know if it was an AI or a real person.
      On screen graphics were tiny and unreadable, and didn’t use people’s names.
      Started watching another and a bunch of drivers dropped out because “IT issues”.
      Gave up. If this is what all online sim racing is like it’s a farce.

    4. Adam (@rocketpanda)
      16th June 2020, 13:24

      It was a bit of fun, alright to watch. Would have been better with damage on and maybe less celebrities. Or, all celebrities. The mix of driver/celebrity/influencer wasn’t all that fun – one or the other.

      There’s certainly a market there for competitive sim racing but arguably the F12019 game isn’t really up to that task. I’d like the idea of F1 seriously looking into developing something like this more but it’d have to be a different game really.

    5. Betteridge’s Law

    6. Interesting to note that the Virtual Le Mans race actually ignored in-game penalties in favour of ‘real-world’ penalties issued from the actual real-life Le Mans Race Control team (Eduardo Freitas and co.) who were monitoring the procedures as they would have in a real-world race, which gave it, in my opinion, a lot more credibility than this VirtualGP Series.

      George Russell not only won by a mile, but he was the only driver not to collect any penalties during the race as well. Perhaps they could turn the severity of the penalties down and have Masai perform a similar role as Freitas did (given the limits of the F1 games compared to rFactor).

    7. I watched a few of the virtual races in F1, Indy car and motogp. The F1 races disappointed most, Indy car looked better, motogp was ok and at least had a lot of the current riders. My first visit to the virtual race world was interesting but little more.
      Then I watched the Le Mans 24hr virtual race. Properly organised with what appeared to be the normal race administration and actually doing a real 24 hours. It even had a really crappy concert in the evening just like the real race!! I don’t suppose they’ll ever do it again with so many top names which would be a great shame as it showed what is possible with game racing. Its when you have to remind yourself you’re watching a game is when you realise what a good job they did. Never had that feeling watching any of the other series.

      1. Well said @mrfill – and thanks for this analysis Keith, certainly matches my experience with the F1, and other virtual series.

      2. @mrfill I would be keen to see Virtual Le Mans 24 become an annual event also. Perhaps in the winters, when there’s relatively little else to watch?

    8. It was just only OK, mainly because indycar felt like a better made alternative to real life, and more successful. F1s eseries main failure was using the f12019 game instead of a real sim. Watching it, the physics are not correct to real life, while in iracing indycar they are. That is what turned away real f1 drivers from driving this series. If they had iracing f1, many more f1 drivers would have raced. This was not a success at all. More people watched indycars virtual races than f1 virtual races.

    9. Definitely seemed like the F1 version was more ‘eGame’ rather than ‘eSport’. I preferred the online races with professional and sim drivers, and thought it really added a compelling dimension when the drivers involved their real life engineers.

    10. I enjoyed the virtual GP’s, with the caveat that they definitely needed more real drivers. I didn’t want to see sim racers or footballers driving. It was fun when Johnny Hebert jumped in, just to hear his name again. But yeah, it could have – should have – been better.

    11. F1 treated the whole thing as eSports. IndyCar treated it as if they were real races.

      Which is why I enjoyed IndyCar’s virtual series immensely and F1’s not at all. It doesn’t matter what game they used – you need all official drivers and good commentators/presentation and – please – no streamers, content creators or celebrities.

    12. petebaldwin (@)
      16th June 2020, 14:46

      It took me a couple of races to realise that as with F1, I want to watch the best drivers in the best equipment battle it out on track. F1 didn’t contain the best drivers and it wasn’t run on the best equipment so therefore, it wasn’t interesting.

      I stopped watching Indycar races after Indy 500 where it became clear that I was stupid for investing any of my time and emotion in it. There are loads of videos on Youtube of people trolling each other in racing games – they’re presented in a much more entertainment way than the Indycar e-sports series.

      Ultimately, it’s difficult to enjoy watching someone play a game when I could be playing that game myself. If it’s being done at a high standard or is something I couldn’t do myself then it’s like watching Usain Bolt run the 100 meters in the Olympics. If it’s a poor standard and it doesn’t matter to any of the competitors, it’s like watching someone jog around the park – not in the slightest bit interesting.

    13. Just goes to show that for all the guest celebrities, influences, extensive promotion, driver streaming, team involvement etc that if the actual racing product is not great then viewers will gradually switch off. Other series showed that great racing on a better, more realistic platform could sustain and actually grow viewership.

      F1 is not a game. It is not about fun. It isn’t a product or a brand. It is the most technologically advanced and competitive sport in the world. Liberty need to realise this in both the virtual world and the real one…

    14. I watch F1, and I play vidya’s…

      I couldn’t be bothered to watch grown men playing a video game. Especially when it’s only the bottom 1/8th of the grid.

    15. Neil (@neilosjames)
      16th June 2020, 15:55

      F1 is followed by people who like watching motorsport. Whatever label they’d stuck on the virtual series, it would never have been motorsport. It was a computer game, and after the initial opening-round hype, the main appeal of the Virtual GPs wasn’t to motorsport fans, it was to people who like watching other people play computer games. Specifically, who like watching other people play racing games. Obviously some like both, but seemingly not many.

      Even if they’d used iRacing, it still would have only appealed to those fans who like watching gaming. It might have pulled in a few more curious eyes and converted a handful of motorsport fans to become fans of both, but the vast majority wouldn’t have cared because it was a game.

      And because it was a relatively poor game, a lot of the gaming fans didn’t care either. And the fans of specific drivers or celebrities probably paid as much attention to Twitch streams as they did to the actual races.

      So… it worked as a bit of fun. But as it was targeting a totally difference audience to the people who tune in to watch the real races, I doubt it could ever have succeeded as anything more than that.

      1. @neilosjames I’d also add that a fair number of people who enjoy watching people play computer games were already using Twitch to do that prior to COVID-19, so if they were tuning into Virtual GP, they’d have done so from Twitch, not YouTube.

    16. F1oSaurus (@)
      16th June 2020, 16:01

      I kind of enjoyed watching the highlights of several of the races.

      Also checked out IndyCar, but when they ram off an F1 driver because they don’t want him to win and another crash on purpose because something things he was wronged then I stop watching. I don’t care how seriously they present things, if the participants treat it as a game then it loses it’s interest.

      I felt the F1 drivers took it a bit more seriously even though they were actually using more of an arcade oriented platform. Although because of the arcade nature they had issues attracting the F1 drivers themselves. I’m also not that interested in footballers, influencers, family members and speed skaters joining in.

    17. Pretty fair summary, and I agree with most of it. In the end, it was just meh and boiled down to you watching other people playing a video game for fun, instead of even trying to be something else.

    18. Jockey Ewing
      16th June 2020, 16:22

      And where is the official scoreboard of the Virtual Grand Prix Series?
      I not found that easily at an official webpage amongst the top search hits by Google, and that’s disappointing. I have not found the official final standings yet, not to mention the previous ones.

    19. Reassuringly mediocre. Shows the real thing is still necessary. The same can be said of other aspects of the virtual world :)

    20. I saw one race, and cars were driving through each other, no proper graphics or no team strategy or anything. I think I will never again wait my time to watch another one.

    21. Yep unlike IndyCar and NASCAR it was an embarrassment, look no further than the number of F1 drivers involved.
      Hardly F1 was it?

    22. From what I saw the esports drivers races were much better and more interesting than the mish-mash of competitive drivers and celebrities. So I think what is needed is for the entire field to be made up of real world racers who’ve had time to practice and are taking it seriously, with damage turned on.

      The Monaco race in particular was a joke as some drivers played it as destruction derby and just rammed their way through everyone, hitting barriers left and right for no consequence. That immediately makes me lose interest because it shows there is no real skill involved, in addition to the obvious lack of realism. Turn damage on and you can at least appreciate there is some skill involved, but in order to do that you need a field of competitive drivers taking it seriously, as we had with the esports events.

    23. Cool at first but soon became phony.

      The only worthwhile part was George Russels success. Now I want to see what he really can do in a real machine. Will 2020 become another Williams mess ? Probably.

      The exercise kept us entertained and has grown old. Time for the real thing.

    24. I watched the first one but did not return for any others. Between using the F1 2019 game and filling the grid with non-racers, they may as well have just played Mario Kart. Probably would have been more entertaining. I’m what you’d consider a “hardcore gamer” as well, dedicated PC rig and 1000s of hours across different games. So pretty much the target demo I guess.

      I think the true metric of success will be the number of people that tuned in to the e-race who will then transfer over to the real thing.

      1. that, and turning damage of like the drivers are not able to drive carefully, or can’t practice for about an hour to do so…

    25. Chris Horton
      16th June 2020, 20:52

      Watched them all and was frustrated by poor driving, going for overtakes which just weren’t on almost certainly because damage was ridiculously turned off. I found Gutierrez a particular culprit.

      Also everyone just mashing 7 downshifts at the apex. Urgh.

    26. Paraphrasing my countryman… this was a yoke

    27. Entertaining, sure I watched a few and enjoyed it.
      Granted I wanted to see some rage quits and someone trolling the field going the wrong way round the track doing donuts.

      As an technical excersise something like this needed to happen to really list out the issues that need addressing going forward. Competative online gaming is a fun thing, but add money/betting and you cannot have cheating/lag/dropout.

    28. Meh. I watched two or three races before losing interest.

    29. Didn’t even bother watching a single race. Hardly a success

      1. How do you know if you didn’t watch any of it?

    30. Finally, sim racing has got it’s due. The fastest in real life were the fastest in the sims, bar pro simers. And the only reason pro simers beat the pro drivers is cause these rigs need to be dialed in. Once that’s done, pro drivers will be the pro sim drivers.

      So how many people felt a race fix? I did quite a few times. Felt like I watched a proper race at least 40% of the time. Was on the edge of my seat when everything started. The racing was as good or better than real. Then quite a bit of sim-racing bs started popping up. Then quite a bit of bad behavior started popping up. Or maybe that came first.

      I told a buddy a while back that sim-racing is going to be big. Yes, I said big. But never in a million years would I imagine sim-racing on all the biggest prime time sports networks. It happened. Cause sim-racing is that close to real. No other sport can claim that. We have a niche.

      1. That’s a very optimistic view of the situation.

        Let’s see how popular and widely broadcast E-gaming (it’s not sports) is 3 months from now when everyone is again satisfying their desire by watching real-world racing again.

    31. I’m geeky gamer. Been “sim-racing” since it was invented. I have loved F1 even longer.

      I lost interest in the VGP as soon as they announced they’d be using F1 2019 / F1 2020, (can you imagine premiership footballers playing FIFA19/20 as a substitute and it ever being seen as more that just a video game.)

      Everything was utterly amateurish about it regardless of which games or platform was used. Ozzie Supercars on iRacing was perhaps the best of the bunch.

      Sim racing basically showed itself in a very bad light overall and in no way did it make a case for the average punter to take an interest.

      Credit to Lando & George and others for at least trying – everything else was a let down.

    32. The question itself must be a joke. It wasn’t even a serious “e-sports” event, nor it was understood as such by the participants. Not to mention that they were forced to use one of the least realistic games available, played by a few real racing drivers competing against football players, singers, “youtubers” and/or whomever else. Alternative for the “real thing”? If that was the intent then yes – a good joke. But I don’t think it was, so let’s take it for what it was and then it makes more sense.

      1. Not all things worth doing are serious e-sports events – demonstrated by the fact you are talking about it on a site that is primarily about physical F1.

        The question was whether Virtual GP was a success – in other words, did it do something worthwhile?

    33. Graham (@guitargraham)
      17th June 2020, 13:11

      Johnny Herbert didnt help. any semblance of trying to keep it real was destroyed by the antics of that clown on the very first corner. by there’s only so much you can do when the platform is as bad as it is. i havent enjoyed a single codemasters F1 game whereas i adored the old studio liverpool ones.

    34. Warning! Long post alert!

      I liked Virtual GP, though I realise that’s not a fashionable comment. I liked how drivers took it seriously enough that we could have a race, but not so seriously that anything got taken beyond what is right and proper. The organisation level was fairly good. It was never my impression that gamers were the target audience, rather bored viewers who wanted to see F1 drivers doing something that was at least somewhat analagous to what they were hoping to watch before the virus appeared, wanting their appetites whetted for the “real thing” in July. (Had it been tailored primarily to gamers, I’d probably have turned it off after the first race. Why would I want to watch games for the sake of games, when I can play them on the very computer I’d be using to watch?)

      Some problems were software-specific, but all racing games have downsides that got exposed during the racing I saw. It would have been nice if there was a damage setting between “Reduced” and “None”. Perhaps a “Paintball” mode, where parts of the car that would otherwise be damaged are marked, an indicator appears on the display (a bit like rFactor 2) and it is necessary to clear all “paint” by pitting before the end of the race or else receive a penalty (think of it a bit like failing scutineering, but with a much lighter penalty). There would be no performance penalty (so novices didn’t have to suddenly learn new handling techniques on-the-fly) but there would be consequences via a time penalty that, after a certain amount of damage, means it is worthwhile to pit. (Ideally, I’d also want there to be an “appeal” so the paint could be removed if a driver was obviously an innocent party e.g. they were trying to lap a ghosted car that de-ghosted for no good reason).

      Ghosting needs to be made more reliable, as do server connectivity under full load. But Codemasters probably knew that before this series started.

      Manual ERS needs to be made more realistic (though Virtual GP’s decision to automate it seems reasonable given the number of novices involved, it was distinctly sub-optimal for their F2/F3 counterparts who generally weren’t).

      I do wish we could have seen a race where the F1 drivers (and anyone else that got put into the field) got to compete on F1 Race Stars. It’s in some ways as improbable as Mario Karts, is a F1-licenced Codemasters title that remains on sale to this day, and would have made it easier to include people like Pierre Gasly who were stuck in unexpected places with just a laptop. Also, it would have introduced some welcome variety.

      One problem it faced was that F1 tried to be a compromise between “fun” and “serious”. As lockdown progressed, people tended to decide they wanted either “fun” or “serious” (a lot of people in this thread wanted the latter, I wanted the former). Falling between two stools hurt F1’s chances. Indycars, Formula E and W Series (also a few other ) happily took the “serious” crowds. Reverse and lawnmower racing, plus assorted other things, happily took the likes of me (though in my case, I mostly still made time for Virtual F1)…

      The parts that annoyed me about the Virtual GP (because market positioning does not a race series make) were:

      – The betting element (I realise people will bet on anything that moves whether I wish that or not…)

      – The apparent problems with the servers carrying a full load of drivers (something I never saw with iRacing or Dirt. However, Virtual Le Mans (rFactor) handled its similar issues rather less gracefully, and the less said about a certain Assetto Corse race I watched a month ago, the better)

      – Not putting “Strict” penalties on at all times (assuming there was a valid reason human stewarding was not employed). Aside from the game limitations on how penalties are issued, people need to know what they are getting themselves into or they’ll be surprised when things do or don’t work!

      – Not appearing to have much of a plan to include novice F1 2019 players. When over the intended competitors don’t have experience of the game, a proper “on-ramp” so they can improve enough to not be stuck at the back of the grid before they even start needs to be there. This, I think, made it impossible to convince many drivers or influencers to participate consistently. Moreover, they need to be made to feel they are valued for their participation and not just there for their name. I’m not sure exactly what needs to change to make novices feel like they matter, but I noticed even the influencers/non-drivers had a fair bit of turnover. (I’m fine with some people from other walks of life being there to mix things up, but include them properly, please).

      – Finally, the marketing felt over-promoted and over-slick. I don’t want eleventy billion tweets with the same photos with different-coloured backgrounds simply because a few teams have announced driver line-ups (especially when they are wrong!) I don’t need the official outlet to speculate on what is to come pre-broadcast (leave that to commentary teams). Don’t make it look like something it’s not. A super-serious series like IMSA or Virtual Le Mans can get away with that, though even those series’ social media promotion felt a bit more authentic and less samey than F1’s did. A “semifreddo” part-fun-part-serious series cannot. (I am not judging the program itself, for reasons that will become apparent next paragraph).

      Concerning the viewing figures, note that the official YouTube figures for the Virtual Grand Prix don’t count the people who opted instead to watch a specific driver’s feed instead (it was quite common for Charles Leclerc and Lando Norris to each have considerably more “live” viewers than the official race). For myself, I can confirm that I watched every minute bar the last race… …of which I’ve seen perhaps 30 seconds of the official coverage, and that via someone else’s Twitch stream. Also, some people increasingly depended on edited highlights from friends rather than bother to watch any of the streams, because of an increasing number of demands on people’s time (more eSports races that looked interesting, various nations trying to re-open, even the occasional physical motor race). Since re-opening remains a work in progress, and people are increasingly more aware of alternative methods of watching the race, it is unlikely that anything F1 could have done would have arrested the slide.

      Except for resolving never again to (near-)clash with something like a Virtual Le Mans. That was the one race I skipped – and that was only because I was too exhausted from the Virtual Le Mans to stay awake for the F1.

      1. So whats wrong with the betting element? Its my job to pick good betting opportunities and this was a gold mine. Bookmakers forced into pricing up events they hadn’t a clue about, a bit like Formula 1 30 years ago.
        I quite enjoyed the whole thing. It showed the F1 drivers in a good light, at least those that took part. If I was a sponsor of an F1 team and their driver/s wouldn’t take part, I would be having words. That the field was often made up of celebrities and youtubers is as much the fault of F1 teams not insisting that their proper drivers took part. Its not like they where doing anything else.

    35. Sergey Martyn
      17th June 2020, 19:42

      Virtual sex vs a real one.

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