Good news F1 fans! During 2020, when the start of the Formula 1 championship was delayed, the series decided to put on a series of Virtual Gand Prix. These were held using the F1 2019 video game and mixed real-life F1 drivers such as Charles Leclerc against the likes of Sergio Agüero. Random.
But also, good fun, and broadcast online and across TV networks. My dad ended up inadvertently watching an esports event and quite enjoyed it. If nothing else, it shone a light on the virtual world and reached an astounding 30 million global viewers across eight live events. Jonny Herbert cutting the first corner in Bahrain to lead, a particular highlight.
Now, for 2020 the Virtual GPs are back, but with a new format. The three-race event now counts as a championship, which each participant racking up points to crown an overall victor. Professional F1 esports drivers will qualify via a sprint race that will set the grid for their Virtual GP teammates. The main race will then be 50% the length of a real event and this time using the latest F1 2020 video game.
The entry list is the Liquorice Allsorts of esports, including real-life racers such as Nicholas Latifi, Alex Albon and Stoffel Vandoorne alongside online personalities like Jimmy Broadbent, up-and-coming talents such as reigning F3 champion Oscar Piastri and FIFA streamer Jack ‘Pie Face’ McDermott. YouTuber Flowstreet was a last-minute substitution for Williams driver George Russell.
Round one was held at the Red Bul Ring, Austria and officially titled the Virtual Grosser Preis Von Österreich. Here’s how an entreating race went down.
F1 Virtual Grand Prix, Austria, Qualifying
With the drivers of the F1 Esports Series Pro Championship on the grid, a five-lap showdown around the Austrian track was to set the grid for the main race to follow.
Off the line, the Ferrari of 2019 champion David Tonizza led away from Dani Moreno in the Mercedes and Marcel Kierfer in the Red Bull. Back in the pack, the Williams of Alvaro Carreton ended up spinning on the grass after contact with the Alfa Romeo of Dani Bereznay.
While the leading group made a break for it, the battle for seventh between Jarno Opmeer, Cedric Thomé, James Baldwin and Frede Rasmussen raged. That let the top six run clear, all of whom where in a slipstream train.
Back in the pack, on lap four, Alpine’s Fab Donoso tried to make a move for eighth, but its incumbent, Opmeer, held their ground. That let the Haas of Thomé get as DRS-enabled run on the Alpine down the back straight before turn four, but to no avail.
Onto the final lap, and upfront Tonizza and Moreno had bolted. Third place was still up for grabs, as the Red Bull of Kiefer defending into the third corner from a charging two-time champion, Brendon Leigh. Attempt one didn’t work out for Leigh, but he used DRS to draw alongside Kiefer along the straight and tried an audacious move around the outside of turn four.
The two clashed wheels, but stayed on track, with Leigh prevailing on the inside of turn six. Then, quick as a flash, the race was complete, and the grid was set.
- David Tonizza, Ferrari – racing for Marcus Armstrong
- Dani Moreno, Mercedes – racing for Anthony Davidson
- Brendon Leigh, Ferrari – racing for Arthur Leclerc
- Marcel Kiefer, Red Bull – racing for Alex Albon
- Josh Idowu, McLaren – racing for Jimmy Broadbent
- Dani Bereznay, Alfa Romeo – racing for Thibaut Courtois
- James Baldwin, McLaren – racing for Benjamin Daly
- Jarno Opmeer, Mercedes – racing for Stoffel Vandoorne
- Nicolas Longuet, Alpine – racing for Oscar Piastri
- Cedric Thomé, Hass – racing for Enzo Fittipaldi
F1 Virtual Grand Prix, Austria, Main race
Drama struck Alex Albon before the race started, as connection issues meant he had to start from plum last on the grid. As the lights went out, the top three held position around turn one, but further back 2018 MXGP champion Jeffrey Herlings in the Red Bull careened into turn one at seemingly unabated speed. He received a drive-through penalty, with former Toro Rosso and Force India F1 driver Vitantonio Liuzzi spinning as a result of the fracas.
Further around the lap, Davidson looked to have braked too late and ran wide at turn three, dropping to third, before spinning out of contention at turn four. But looking at replays from other driver’s viewpoints, it could have also been connection issues.
Either way, the McLaren of Jimmy Broadbent – competing straight after the PESC iRacing event earlier the same evening – was now up to a podium position and on the medium tyres, ahead of Thibaut Courtois in the Alfa Romeo and Stoffel Vandoorne in the Mercedes.
As the first of the 36 laps were completed, the two Ferraris at the front of the field started to pull away. Behind, the battle for fourth was intense, Enzo Fittipaldi making use of a great run through the first corner to jump up two positions. In the battle, Vandoorne hit the rear of the Haas and suffering from a half spin that also forced the Alfa of Courtois wide simultaneously opening the door for the second Haas of Pietro Fittipaldi.
The battle for the lead had also intensified, with Arthur Leclerc sending a late move down the inside of Armstrong for the lead at the mid-point of lap two.
On to lap three, and Enzo Fittipaldi continued his march forward on soft tyres, catching up to the medium-shod Broadbent in short order and overtaking into turn three. Two laps later, and the second Fittipaldi in the race made the same move on Jimmy at the same place.
Lap seven, and Broadbent lost a position at the same place again, but this time to a recovering Vandoorne who was also on the medium compound tyre, and thus taking the lead of those on the alternative strategy at this point. Turn three was turning into an Achilles’ heel for the shed-based YouTuber as a few laps later Williams F1 driver Nicholas Latifi made his was by into sixth from 13th on the grid. The Alpha Tauri of Luca Salvadori followed him through.
As we completed 15 laps, Tonio Luizzi had received more 3-second penalties for track limits than the number of times engineer Bono has screamed the word ‘in’ to Lewis Hamilton down the radio. It ended in an inevitable disqualification. Meanwhile the battle in the middle of the pack stepped up a notch, with Ben Daly, Real Madrid goalkeeper Courtois, Jimmy Broadbent and Alex Albon going hammer and tongs for P6.
At the same time, race leader Arthur Leclerc pitted to switch his soft tyres for a set of mediums. However, one lap earlier, Enzo Fittipaldi had done the same and setting a fast out lap, leaped into race-leading contention. As Arthur caught the battle pack of medium-shod drivers yet to pit, Enzo was able to close the gap further.
On the next lap, the second Ferrari of Armstrong pitted, but received a five-second penalty for speeding in the pit lane and re-joined behind his colleague and Fittipaldi to compound the issue.
Vandoorne was the last to stop in the race, extending his medium tyres until the end of lap 22 and joining back into the fray in a respectable fifth, with the newest tyres in the race.
As the laps ticked down, Leclerc still led from Enzo, but the gap was less than half a second. With them both on three-seconds of penalties, it was a straight fight. Enzo made contact with the rear of Leclerc’s car at turn three on lap 28, bumping him wide and snatching the lead.
With six laps left, Vandoorne was making use of his fresh rubber, catching and passing Pietro Fittipaldi. He then set about chasing down a podium position, eating away at a 1.6 second gap to Armstrong.
Meanwhile, at the front, Arthur had stayed within DRS activation, trying several moves to retake the lead. He succeeded on lap 31/36 at turn three. But then, Enzo had the DRS advantage. By now Stoffel had snagged a podium place but was five seconds behind the top two.
Then, the race defining moment, as Leclerc received a second time penalty for abusing track limits. All Enzo had to do was to stay behind to win the race, but he went for it anyway. Trying the outside of the first corner on lap 34 before wheel-banging down the straight and putting DRS to good use.
The two continued to battle, but that playing into the hands of Vandoorne behind, who was able to claim second place having received one less time penalty than the Monegasque driver.
It was an exciting race, with a knife-edge fight for the victory. It was strange seeing so many penalties being handed out, only Oscar Piastri finished the race without one. However, I’d rather see this than the crazy track use at China last season. There were also several internet issues, which often cannot be helped, with fourth-place finisher Alex Albon even being disconnected at one point during the event.
The second round is next week, 7th February, at Silverstone, as the driver fight it out for the share of a $100,000 charity prize pool. Stay tuned to Traxion for more F1 esports.
F1 Virtual Grand Prix, Austria, Results
- Enzo Fittipaldi
- Stoffel Vandoorne
- Arthur Leclerc
- Alex Albon
- Pietro Fittipaldi
- Marcus Armstrong
- Oscar Piastri
- Anthony Davidson
- Luca Salvadori
- Thibaut Courtois