Chaotic first ever virtual F1 e-sports race gets mixed reaction, though Lando Norris entertains

Do e-sports have a place in the future of F1?

F1 HAS been asserting repeatedly that last night’s Bahrain e-sports race, as well as the forthcoming virtual grands prix replacements, are designed as “light relief” in what are extraordinary times. The Covid-19 coronavirus has meant that many large gatherings are banned, and international travel is increasingly constrained, making world championship events impossible to stage for the next few months at least.

Sunday’s virtual Bahrain Grand Prix was the debut of the initiative from Formula 1. It is billed as a mix of current and former racing drivers, as well as specialist sim racers and celebrities, competing on the tracks where real-life races have been cancelled or delayed due to the increasingly deadly coronavirus. The list of tracks involved grew by one today, as the real Baku Grand Prix was postponed.

While the maiden voyage of the series definitely wasn’t a titanic catastrophe, it was strewn with disappointments. Only two current F1 drivers actually took part in the race, for example.

The duo were McLaren’s Lando Norris, who is reportedly a keen gamer, and took part in a separate virtual race run by Veloce Esports last weekend, and Williams’ Nicholas Latifi.

Latifi, who was announced as Williams’ replacement for Robert Kubica at the end of the 2019 season, is yet to compete in a real F1 race. Alongside Latifi on the Williams team, inexplicably, was One Direction alumnus Liam Payne.

The lineup was completed by former F1 drivers Nico Hulkenberg and Stoffel Vandoorne, former racer and Sky Sports F1 contributor Johnny Herbert, Olympic gold medallist Sir Chris Hoy, and a motley crew of celebrities, test drivers, commentators, reserve drivers and racers from other motor sports, including Lewis Hamilton’s brother Nic, who competes in the British Touring Car Championship.

It may even be generous to say that both current F1 drivers competed, seeing as due to connectivity issues, Lando Norris did not compete in qualifying, or in parts of the race, with his algorithm-powered car whizzing round the bends of the Bahrain International Circuit without his control.

This did lead to some entertaining action, mainly off the e-track, with a live stream video showing Norris calling other F1 drivers, including fellow e-sports enthusiast Max Verstappen, for advice after qualifying last. “Liam Payne is going to out-qualify me,” said Norris, in a sentence you never thought you’d hear uttered.

In something of a savage phone call, Norris also called Williams driver George Russell, because he wanted to “call the person with most experience from last year starting last on the back row of the grid.”

In addition, Sky Sports commentator and racer Anthony Davidson, who was billed to take part in the race for Haas F1 team, found himself racing a separate race to the other competitors after the race was restarted.

The race itself, which in the end comprised 14 laps, proved entertaining enough for many. It was a messy affair strewn with collisions, which didn’t matter as much in the virtual format, as the damage settings had been altered to account for the grid’s widely differing ability levels.

There were tight battles though, including a midfield tussle between former Renault Driver Nico Hulkenberg and Mercedes reserve driver Esteban Gutierréz, and a battle between Lando Norris and streamer Jimmy Broadbent for fourth position, which ended up with Norris in the barriers.

In the end, the podium was made up of Renault Test Driver Guanyu Zhou in first, followed by ex-Formula 1 and current Formula E driver Stoffel Vandoorne in second and pro racing driver Philipp Eng in third.

While reaction to what can only be described as a chaotic event was mixed, many saw that the format had potential to grow. F1 reporter Will Buxton even theorised that aspects of the format of the virtual race could be applied to real F1 races.

E-sport has a bright future but keeping traditional F1 fans happy is not going to be easy, after an entertaining nevertheless shaky start, though the two formats are entertaining in vastly different ways. Lando Norris, it is safe to presume, has just gained some new fans.

If you’re yet to make your mind up, you can catch the Australian GP replacement on April 5, on Sky Sports F1, or for free on YouTube and Twitch.

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