Inaugural F1 ESports Virtual Grand Prix was about much more than the drivers on the track

With the real-life Formula 1 season shut down due to COVID-19, the eyes of the racing world turned to the digital realm.

As elephants in the room go, it was—if possible—larger than most. And when the big question was addressed, the answers spoke to everything from the competitiveness of athletes on all playing fields to the realities of living in a world where all the rules have suddenly changed.

On Sunday night the big-business sport of Formula 1 racing took an innovative step toward salvaging a season that, thanks to the realities of COVID-19, was over before the engines started. With fans taking to stands at race tracks around the world no longer a possibility this spring, owners and stakeholders decided to move competition into the arena of esports.

Give F1 credit for acting quickly. The sport’s season-opening race in Melbourne was cancelled just hours before it was scheduled to get under way on March 13, after a member of the McLaren team tested positive for the coronavirus.

Six days later, Formula 1 announced that the remaining races would still take place, but as a newly launched series called the F1 Esports Virtual Grand Prix. The first in that virtual season took place on March 22, with the online Bahrain Grand Prix eventually won by Chinese Formula 2 racer Guanyu Zhou.

The race attracted a whopping 350,000 views over its hour-and-a-half run time. That number becomes even more impressive when you consider it was almost half of what last year’s Bahrain Grand Prix drew: 711,000 viewers on ESPN. The F1 Esports Virtual Grand Prix numbers become doubly important when you look at who tuned in on Twitch, Facebook, and YouTube.

Stats show that the average age of an eSports fan is 31. In a Forbes interview last year, Formula 1 global research director Matt Roberts admitted that the sport was having a problem attracting a younger audience, with only 14 percent of its fans being under the age of 25.

Roberts said: “Esports have been great for us so far. 80 percent of the audience is under 35 years old. That is amazing when you compare this to ageing TV audiences.”

And that was a year before COVID-19 had F1 fans realizing that, with traditional sporting events a no-go for the foreseeable future, they can begin seriously turning to eSports for their lockdown-world adrenalin fixes.

So what was the elephant in the room for last Sunday’s race? When the F1 Esports Virtual Grand Prix was first announced, the F1 press release stated the following: “The first race of the series will see current F1 drivers line up on the grid.”

That wasn’t exactly the case on race day. Up-and-comer Nicholas Latifi took part, but to date he’s only been behind the Williams team wheel on the F1 circuit during practice runs. Which means he now technically has more experience as an F1 Esports Virtual Grand Prix driver than a real-life Grand Prix one.

Racing for McLaren, Lando Norris was the only one on the F1 Esports Virtual Grand Prix track with a previous start in an F1 race.

Where things got really interesting was who wasn’t on the track Sunday at 7 p.m., and the reasons for that.

Want proof that you don’t rise to an elite level at eSports without paying attention to the 10,000-hour rule of deliberate practice? Consider that F1 driver Romain Grosjean of the Haas team bailed because he realized he didn’t have what it took to hang with experienced gamers. Posting a photo of himself on Instagram in a driving simulator at home, he wrote, “Will hide for now as my level is poor (if not worst).” And then, no doubt because he knows many of us can relate, he added: “My excuse: 3 kids to entertain at home.”

On Saturday, Red Bull–sponsored F1 star Max Verstappen also announced he was pulling out, attributing his decision to not being experienced enough with the official F1 game.

For others, their absence from the F1 Esports Virtual Grand Prix’s Bahrain race came down to the realities of spending weeks travelling around a prepandemic world on the racing circuit—and then suddenly thinking about the implications of that travel after being told to go home and stay home to help COVID-19 from spreading.

Sunday’s race took place on the PC edition of F1 2019, which prevented McLaren’s Carlos Sainz Jr. from participating because he didn’t have the right gaming setup. Presumably, he wasn’t interested in having some random stranger pop by to begin installing a new system.

In the end, it really didn’t matter that almost all F1 pros were AWOL, because that opened up the field to a cast of 20 that included One Direction alumnus Liam Payne, former cycling great Chris Hoy, and pro golfer Ian Poulter. All of whom ended up eating virtual dust, exhaust, and tire smoke at the back of the pack.

From a pure-entertainment standpoint, what was brilliant was that we’ve never seen—and never will see—a real-life racer draw up and execute a battle plan like Johnny Herbert did last Sunday. The 55-year-old former F1er basically made up his own rules, annihilating an advertising banner in qualifying after failing to control his Alfa Romeo, and taking a shortcut across the grass to vault from 16th to first in Lap 1 of the race.

The great success of the F1 Esports Virtual Grand Prix, then, is that it was more insanely entertaining than anything we would have seen in real-world racing. That might turn out to be the new elephant in the room.

Mike Usinger once took the better part of two years to finish Grand Theft Auto. Over the course of his career he has written about everything from eSports to music to movies to travel.

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