Good tidings, all!
As was the case exactly one year ago, my final article of prose to deliver before 2023 dawns concerns the thrilling Formula 1 Esports Series Pro Championship. For one of sim racing’s headline acts as a form of virtual competition, the series never seems to escape a wide misnomer. Many might catch one race, that features hardly any overtakes, and cast it away into the recesses of their memories.
Yet, Formula 1 Esports has never been about the off-chance of sniping a barnstormer to sit down and enjoy. Much like its real-world counterpart, the real joy of watching this championship comes from investing yourself in the season-long story. Engaging characters – some with rich history and some with fate awaiting – form a twisting narrative which never sits still for too long.
Take, if you will, the September scenario as a prime example; all of us on the cusp of a brand new season to enjoy. Now two-times and reigning champion Jarno Opmeer sat just one win away from (statistically speaking) becoming the most successful driver in the competition’s history.
Frederick Rasmussen had once again failed to convert his undoubted speed into a Drivers’ title, while Lucas Blakeley had fully announced himself on the race winners’ stage – yet chose to move teams in the off-season.
These were the stories set up for just three drivers. Moments of elation. The seemingly impossible. Let’s break it all down.
As the first Formula 1 game of the Codemasters era to be published under Electronic Arts, nobody quite knew what to expect once F1 22 hit digital marketplaces. By the time team rosters were locked in, however, there did not seem to be too many backing a major transformation of the pecking order.
Opmeer remained with Mercedes, and Rasmussen remained with Oracle Red Bull Racing Esports. Intriguingly, Blakeley had moved to McLaren Shadow to partner with Bardia Boroumand, which was certainly the most exciting capture for any team on paper. Only time would tell if it would unsettle the Scot’s momentum or propel him and his new home to greater heights.
An early boon was Bahrain International Circuit playing host to the first race; a track that Blakeley remembered fondly as the site of his first win twelve months prior. Any doubters were silenced immediately as Lucas grabbed win number one of 2022, quickly to be followed by a second in Imola.
Despite not achieving the threepeat, another visit to the podium in Great Britain put Blakeley well clear in the early championship picture. Rasmussen’s first-round wobbles persisted for a fifth consecutive year, only registering an eighth to kick off his campaign. Opmeer, conversely, drove masterfully to second only to non-score in Imola.
Undoubtedly the unexpected revelation of the first few races, however, was the emergence of Thomas Ronhaar. Haas Esports endured a torrid 2021 season where they only barely escaped the humiliation of becoming the only team in the history of the championship to not score a single point.
Ronhaar represented a huge roll of the dice, partnering fellow rookie Piotr Stachulec and Matthijs van Erven, who himself only had twelves race under his belt.
Metaphorically speaking, it was incredibly close to being a natural twenty.
Ronhaar can look back on this season as one where he was perhaps unlucky, perhaps too green. Straight out of the gates his pace was genuinely competing for pole positions. A retirement in Bahrain preceded a fourth-place finish before a first podium was secured around Silverstone Circuit. It only required one more round before a win was in the pocket.
Sadly, as history had proven, you cannot afford to drop a retirement in a championship charge. On course for a podium in the desert, a third-place finish would have put him within one point of glory come the end of the year. As it is, the new Dutchman in town has fired an almighty warning shot indicating his 2023 ambitions.
Boroumand’s sophomore season was built upon solid foundations laid in 2021. A breakthrough win in Belgium ignited a searing succession of results that raised eyebrows. Sadly for the Iranian, he also found himself outside of the points during the first slew of events. Blakeley was rightly prioritised in key moments.
Josh Idowu can also count himself as a driver with stock rapidly rising. The Welshman was teammate to Boroumand at McLaren in 2020, both having the dubious honour of claiming a pole position during the season without taking a win. Although that first victory still eludes Idowu, three podium finishes for Alpha Tauri represent a fantastic return when he only competed in eight of the twelves races.
They Who Shone The Brightest
Every moderately competitive pilot in this competition tends to have their day. Brendon Leigh and Daniel Bereznay likely have a greater appreciation of this. Both enjoyed better seasons for their respective teams; Leigh into his second year at Ferrari while Bereznay returned to Alfa Romeo after a car crash stint with McLaren. Yet, we all remember when this duo lit up the 2018 season.
Both could, once again, feel pressure to retain their seats.
Although this will not be the case for Jarno Opmeer, his star has certainly faded a little. For the longest time, many of us sat wondering if Leigh’s win record would be broken in 2022. Perhaps this was silly considering his Bahrain podium, yet six races then went by where the Dutchman recorded two non-scores and a best finish of fourth.
Back-to-back wins in Mexico and the United States reignited hope from some corners of a miraculous end to the season, only for a desperate retirement in Japan to put the final nail in the coffin. Opmeer’s second title defence will be remembered as mismatched. At times we saw the brutally dominant force, yet at others, we saw shocking Q1 eliminations.
Rasmussen, on the other hand, will wonder if the stars will ever align for him. For the second year running, the two-time Formula E: Accelerate champion falls eight points short of the title winner. Eight points which easily could have been found in Bahrain or, most poignantly, Mexico City where a rare moment of madness cost him dearly.
The newly-crowned champion, of course, is Lucas Blakeley – potentially the most popular F1 Esports title winner. There is something so honest about Blakeley; a gutsy determination that makes you want to root for him as a neutral. Had it not been for the unassailable form of his two 2021 title rivals, he would have placed an awful lot closer to their points tallies that year.
This time around, it was his form that was to be unassailable. Although only two more wins would follow his first event triumph, in the Netherlands and Brazil, it was those races where he didn’t score a podium which were impressive. Not a single result under sixth place was the reason that Blakeley claimed glory this time around.
And yet, that knowledge in itself just serves to excite us for next year. With new threats emerging, Blakeley might have to up his game yet again to keep hold of his crown throughout 2023. History certainly doesn’t favour him. Following two years of Leigh came David Tonizza. Following Tonizza came two years of Opmeer.
Is the trend to continue? I cannot wait to find out.