The spectacular rise of virtual motorsport
The species that flourishes is the best able to adapt and those businesses best able to adapt to the new COVID-19-induced lockdown environment will be in the best shape for the world thereafter. Not surprisingly, sporting enterprises are searching for new ways to cater to the heightened demand of a locked-down world and while most traditional sports flounder in the virtual realm, motorsport is quite the opposite: no other virtual sport can replicate the real deal for a spectator quite like motorsport.
Not surprisingly, as soon as the rumors began circulating that the first Grand Prix of the Formula 1 season was to be cancelled, plans got underway for virtual replacements and in the month since the Australian Formula 1 Grand Prix cancellation on March 15 brought home the reality of COVID-19, six major virtual international motorsport competitions have sprung up across the world, and they are all thriving.
In a sport-deprived world, these televised faux-races are proving to be far more beneficial than first thought. The first eNASCAR Pro Invitational Series race saw 903,000 US viewers on cable TV outlet Fox Sports 1, exposing 255,000 people to NASCAR who hadn’t watched a real-world Nascar race this year. According to Sportbusiness, the subsequent two races grew even larger audiences (1.3 and 1.2 million viewers respectively), set a new record for the highest-rated esports television program of all time in the United States and between the first three broadcasts have attracted 900,000 new viewers who had not previously watched a Nascar race in 2020.
So far we have seen virtual replacement series for Formula 1, NASCAR, IndyCar, IMSA, Supercars, and now Formula E, while an All-Star Series pits simracers against leading real-world drivers. Audiences for all of these series have far surpassed initial expectations and with the lockdown now likely to continue at least until the end of July, it's quite likely that these series will be extended and may indeed become more permanent fixtures on the sports entertainment landscape. Just as Monday Night Football became an institution, perhaps motorsport might one day have a midweek virtual component catering to what is now an obvious latent demand for motorsport entertainment. Equally, virtual motorsport might provide the adrenalin fix and financial rewards for real world racers who would otherwise face the inevitable depression of retirement from an exciting sport.
Suddenly there’s no shortage of realistic and entertaining motorsport competition that is quite different to traditional motorsport coverage as it offers glimpses into the leading personalities that simply weren’t possible under real racing conditions. The COVID-19-induced virtual interlude between real racing events may well bring the fans closer to the racing personalities and catalyze changes in media coverage.
As all the competitors are participating under lockdown conditions, spectators get to see all the superstars without the usual corporate livery, in their own home, sometimes with their dogs, kids and partners, but most importantly, as real people.
Travel to these events is also now virtual for both spectator and participant, so instead of long flights, not-like-home hotel rooms and jet-lag, the most hardship endured by the competitors is a race rig that won’t work as advertised or the need to get up in the middle of the night in order to compete. In the first races of Formula 1’s new virtual Grand Prix series, McLaren driver Lando Norris had rig problems both times, preventing him from showing his true virtual racing capabilities.
If there's a downside to the new virtual world, it's the degree of reality each game platform offers to racers who have state-of-the-art race cars and professional race car simulators at their disposal. Formula 1 has chosen the Codemasters' Official F1 2019 PC video game as the basis for its series, but it is too far removed from reality for many of the superhumans at the top of world racing. Max Verstappen won't even participate in the series due to the lack of authenticity of the platform. Though still a long way removed from the feedback offered by a genuine race car, most real world racers prefer the iRacing or rFactor platforms.
Some racers have taken advantage of the virtual travel to immerse themselves in international competition. New Zealand native Scott McLaughlin has won the last two (real world) Virgin Australia Supercars championships for DJR Team Penske. McLaughlin had been promised a drive in a Snap-on Tools Dallara for Team Penske in the American INDYCAR series this year but got his opportunity earlier than expected by driving in the INDYCAR iRacing Challenge and winning the second round, the Virtual Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama on Saturday, April 4.
McLaughlin then won two of the three races in the Supercars All Stars eSeries on Wednesday night, April 8, taking the checkered flag at virtual Phillip Island in Australia and virtual Monza in Italy on the same night. He then finished second on Saturday, April 11 in the INDYCAR Chevrolet 275 at Michigan International Speedway, all without leaving his home. By the time McLaughlin finally gets to drive a real INDYCAR in competition, he’ll be well known to fans.
Another real world racer with a lot of sim-racing experience who is flourishing in the virtual world is Red Bull Racing’s Formula 1 star Max Verstappen. Verstappen elected not to join the Formula 1 Virtual Grand Prix series (we suspect he'd be in a class of his own in that environment) but has been keen to drive a Supercar for many years, as the Australian series runs a support race for the Australian F1 Grand Prix. Verstappen landed a guest drive in a Holden Commodore ZB for Red Bull Racing in the Supercars All Stars Series and promptly got among the established real world drivers, taking three second places in four races on Wednesday, April 15.
One of the most remarkable aspects of the racing we’ve seen so far is that almost all of the competitors have commented how much harder it is than the real thing. Former World F1 Champ Jensen Button has competed in several of the series so far and tweeted that he was perspiring heavily throughout the races, while everyone from Dario Franchitti to Charles Leclerc have commented on how much harder it is to concentrate and remain near the limit without the benefit of real world feedback.
Each race series is run to different rules, with different entry criteria and general good natured banter and sporting conduct has prevailed. Some racers have conducted themselves so eloquently in these events that a future in media awaits, while others have not fared well. Having a microphone and/or keyboard directly in front of them during the heat of battle has not been fortuitous. Real world racers usually have plenty of time to think about what they’re going to say when they get back to the pits,
For those interested in following one or more of the race series, here's when and where to find them:
F1 Esports Virtual Grand Prix Series
When are the races: Every postponed real-world F1 Grand Prix race weekend will be substituted with a Virtual Grand Prix until lockdown is lifted and the series resumes. The first few races have been half distance and will be adjusted to run for 1 hour 30 minutes, with a short pre-race qualifying period where grid positions will be determined based on the drivers’ fastest lap time. The Chinese Grand Prix will have a 28 lap distance.
Game platform: Official F1 2019 PC video game.
Who is competing: Half a dozen current F1 drivers, a couple of former F1 stars, and numerous celebrities (from English cricketers to Olympians), so it’s not a real race but a bit of a giggle, more's the pity. Indeed, the level of skill can best be described by the fact the winner of the last race, Ferrari F1 driver Charles Leclerc, had his rig and a copy of the F1 2019 PC video game for less than a week before the race. He is an exceptionally gifted human being, but … he's not superhuman. The Chinese Grand Prix will see Leclerc, George Russell, Antonio Giovinazzi, Lando Norris, Alex Albon and Nicholas Latifi joined by Real Madrid and Belgium international goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois. Other celebrity guests will be announced over the coming days.
Where You Can Watch: The race will be streamed on F1.com, plus the official Formula 1 YouTube, Twitch, Weibo and Facebook channels. The Virtual Grand Prix will also be broadcast live with F1's regular international broadcast partners in over 100 countries including in the UK on Sky Sports and in the US on ESPN.
View the last Race:
The Next Race: The next Virtual F1 Grand Prix will be run on the Shanghai International Circuit, home of the Chinese Grand Prix, on Sunday April 19 at 18:00 BST (17:00 UTC) – a change from previous weekends where races have started at 20:00 BST.
eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series
After a scheduled tripleheader at Atlanta Motor Speedway was postponed March 13, NASCAR, Fox Sports and iRacing joined forces to create a stand-in sports series. Denny Hamlin won the series’ first race March 22 at virtual Homestead-Miami Speedway, and wins came on subsequent Sundays by Timmy Hill (Texas Motor Speedway) and William Byron (Bristol). The series was idle Easter weekend.
When are the races: Sunday at 1 pm ET for the feature race and Saturday night at 8 pm for the Saturday Night Thunder complementary race.
Game platform: iRacing
Who is competing: A 26-car field of current and former Cup Series regulars with the most prominent guest being retired legend Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Where can you watch: Fox Sports will return as the broadcasting partner for the Toyota Owners 150 (1 pm ET, Fox, FS1, Fox Sports App). Additionally, Saturday Night Thunder will return on Saturday night. NASCAR Cup Series drivers not competing in Sunday’s event are eligible for this race. The Saturday Night Thunder field will use NASCAR Xfinity Series cars and the race will air on NASCAR’s YouTube channel and eNASCAR.com/live. There’s a Saturday Night Thunder practice at 7 pm ET, and the stream will go live at 8 pm ET.
Single-car qualifying begins at 8:05 pm ET, which sets the lineup for the four 10-lap heat races – with 15 cars possible for each heat. Six cars advance from each heat race advance to the big show, putting in 24 cars. The final two spots in the 26-car field will come from the top two finishers of a 15-lap consolation race, which is scheduled for after the heat races and comprised of drivers who have not yet qualified.
The 125-lap feature race will follow, with one reset allowed and three green-white-checkered attempts. For a list of international broadcast partners, go here.
View the last Race:
The Next Race: Sunday, April 19, 2020 at virtual Richmond Raceway. The Toyota Owners 150 race at the 0.75-mile track will be the fourth iRacing event in the series.
INDYCAR iRacing Challenge
When are the races: After the Firestone 175 at Twin Ring Motegi in Japan on April 18, 2020, there will be races at the Circuit of the Americas on April 25 and another race on May 2 on an as-yet unspecified non-INDYCAR track. Times for those two final races in the series are expected to start at 2:30 pm ET, but best to check closer to the dates.
Game platform: iRacing
Who is competing: current NTT INDYCAR SERIES drivers such as series champions Scott Dixon, Josef Newgarden, Simon Pagenaud, Will Power, Sebastien Bourdais and Tony Kanaan. The special guests for the next race in Japan will be three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Helio Castroneves, 2017 Indianapolis 500 winner Takuma Sato and two-time reigning NASCAR Cup Series champion Kyle Busch.
Where can you watch: Races are televised on NBCSN and streamed on NBCSports.com and the NBC Sports App
View the last Race:
The Next Race: The fourth of six rounds in the series will be the Firestone 175 on the 1.549-mile oval at Twin Ring Motegi in Japan on April 18, 2020. It will be the second straight event on an oval, with a series-high field of 33 drivers ready to race for 113 laps on the tricky, asymmetrical oval that hosted INDYCAR races from 1998-2011. The race starts at 2:30 pm ET.
IMSA iRacing Pro Invitational
When are the races: The next round of the IMSA iRacing Pro Series is set for Thursday, April 30 at the virtual Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course. It also was announced earlier that Round 4 of the series will be held at Road America on Thursday, May 14, and the fifth round will be on the VIRginia International Raceway iRacing circuit on Thursday, May 28.
The season ends Thursday, June 11 at Watkins Glen International.
Game platform: iRacing
Who is competing: The majority of IMSA iRacing Pro Series drivers compete in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, but the 50 grid positions are also filled with select drivers from the IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge, IMSA Prototype Challenge and Porsche GT3 Cup Challenge USA by Yokohama.
Where can you watch: iRacing YouTube Channel, Facebook Live and Twitch
View the last Race:
The Next Race: The next race in the IMSA iRacing Pro Series takes place Thursday, April 30 at the virtual Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course at 6 pm ET
Supercars All Stars Eseries
When are the races: The 10-week series began on Wednesday April 8, 2020 and will be held weekly on Wednesday nights from 7 pm to 9 pm AEST.
Game platform: iRacing computer simulation platform
Who is competing: All the regular Supercars drivers from the real-world series plus guest stars, with the most notable so far being Red Bull Formula 1 star Max Verstappen.
Where can you watch: The action is broadcast live on Fox Sports and Kayo in Australia, and streamed live on Supercars.com, Supercars Facebook Page and Supercars Teams' Facebook Pages
View the last Race: The entire two hours and four races from Wednesday, April 15 can be seen on the series Facebook page.
The Next Race: Wednesday, April 22, 2020
UNICEF ABB Formula E Race at Home Challenge
When are the races: The ABB Formula E Race at Home Challenge will take place every Saturday for nine consecutive weekends, starting with a non-point scoring pre-season test event on April 18.
Game platform: rFactor 2
Who is competing: The ABB Formula E Race at Home Challenge will feature two separate grids running in parallel, one comprising drivers from the ABB FIA Formula E Championship and the other one filled by some of the fastest gamers and influencers. The winning gamer will make the transition from the gaming world to secure real-life track time on a Formula E circuit during a race weekend.
Where can you watch: The ABB Formula E Race at Home Challenge will be available live globally across Formula E’s social media platforms including on the official YouTube channel, Facebook page and Facebook Gaming site, Twitch channel and via @FIAFormulaE on Twitter. Further to this, a selection of Formula E’s international network of broadcast partners will also be offering live coverage and highlights on both linear and digital platforms from April 25.
View the last Race: First race is this weekend