Formula One’s virtual grands prix are a silver lining during dark times

  • The Bahrain Virtual Grand Prix rated well on linear and digital platforms
  • Temporary focus on gaming and esports could boost F1’s young fanbase
  • Young, charismatic drivers like Lando Norris have been key to making it work

In a sports industry now dominated by digital, interactive content, Formula One can sometimes feel like the crown jewel of an analogue world that is fading in the rear-view mirror.

According to statistics released by Formula One Management’s research department in 2019, 17 per cent of F1 fans are over the age of 55 and just 14 per cent are under 24. The percentages skew even older in established markets such as the UK, Italy and Germany – an indication that the sport has been failing to capture young imaginations for a decade or more.

For rights-holders across the sports industry, the Covid-19 crisis has compounded existing problems and the global nature of F1 means its 2020 season looks increasingly likely to be cancelled outright.

It is difficult to see how such dark clouds could have silver linings, especially for a sport that appeals to a older fanbase. But F1 is perhaps the only traditional rights-holder to have turned the crisis into an opportunity to create innovative content.

The Bahrain Virtual Grand Prix – which replaced the postponed Bahrain Grand Prix – saw a mix of professional racing drivers and celebrities race each other on the official F1 2019 video game. The race was shown live on Twitch, YouTube, Facebook and across F1’s linear media partners, producing a blend of high-quality racing and chaotic fun.

The race featured golfer Ian Poulter, One Direction star Liam Payne and ex-F1 driver and Sky Sports presenter Johnny Herbert. But the star of the show was Lando Norris, a 20-year-old driver for McLaren F1 who has cultivated a large and loyal following on Twitch due to his love of motorsport video games.

Underlining the chaotic element of the race, Norris failed to connect to the game, leaving his car to be controlled by AI. The hashtag #LandoBot swept across Twitch and became the event’s central narrative, all while Norris held an online viewing party that included phonecalls with F1 drivers Max Verstappen, Alexander Albon and George Russell.

Norris, who gained 150,000 Twitch followers in March alone, attracted a peak of 104,229 viewers for his personal stream of the race.

For Julian Tan, head of digital business initiatives and esports at Formula 1, drivers like Norris are a godsend during such a lean period: “Lando is a fantastic hero and protagonist for our sport, and esports in particular. He spends a lot of time sim racing across multiple different games and it was so great to have him join us for the race, as it was with [F1 driver for Williams] Nicholas Latifi.”

Putting it together

After the postponement of the Chinese Grand Prix in February, Tan and his team began working toward replacing it with a virtual race. They initially anticipated that the Covid-19 crisis would be contained to China, giving the digital and esports team two months until the April 19 raceday to put something together.

“We had come up with a proposition for the Chinese Grand Prix, approached all the teams and we were starting to work toward that. But then the situation deteriorated very rapidly,” Tan says. “We had to mobilise and tweak the concept we initially had for China in a more scalable way. Everything you saw for the Bahrain Virtual Grand Prix was put together over the course of five days.”

Tan’s team worked day and night to organise the race. The real-world Bahrain Grand Prix was postponed on March 14, six days before the first practice session on March 20. The short notice switch to the Virtual Grand Prix left many drivers unable to compete, either due to a lack of equipment or a lack of familiarity with the F1 2019 video game.

Tan is now working hard to ensure more F1 drivers will be available to compete at the Vietnam Virtual Grand Prix on April 5.

“As it relates to driver participation, the timelines are very tight. The drivers are based all over the world [causing connection problems to the server that hosts the race] and some of them don’t have racing simulator equipment, so we will do the best we can in the circumstances. We’re hopeful that for the next few Virtual Grands Prix, we’ll see a few more of their faces on the grid.”

In a perfect world, Tan would have all 20 F1 drivers competing, but understands this will likely be an impossibility. Some drivers will be unable to compete, while others simply don’t want to.

“I think this is quite challenging to navigate. As a professional athlete, the job first and foremost is to perform on the track. Some of them, like Lando, really enjoy sim racing. Others, when they’re not racing, they want to do something else. All of us understand the opportunity we have here, but you just have to do what makes strategic sense within your capabilities.”

A big part of Tan’s job is now to win round drivers that aren’t motivated to take part. Norris’s rising star will be a key part of his pitch.

“It’s been beneficial for McLaren that Lando has been able to lean in as much as he has, and it’s obviously been very beneficial for Lando, too.”

A chance to shine

The virtual race plugged the gap left by Bahrain’s postponement to a degree, going some way to keeping F1’s media and sponsorship partners satisfied. F1 broadcast and streaming platform partners received rights to the race at no extra cost, while the tracks featured in-game are exact replicas of those in real life, offering sponsors exposure at a time when other rights-holders cannot.

But the race’s popularity among young fans, both new and existing, has shown F1’s senior executives that video games and esports can be central to engaging under-25s. And during a time almost all traditional sport has been cancelled, F1 is grasping its opportunity to sell the legitimacy of its esport not just to its fanbase, but also to media partners and brands.

Tan has been evangelising for F1 esports since its first official series began in 2017. After proving its concept three years ago, The F1 Esports Pro Series – which runs separate to its new Virtual Grands Prix – is now title-sponsored by sportswear company New Balance and is also partnered with logistics company DHL and sim-racing equipment manufacturer Fanatec.

Selling sponsorships around esports properties can be a painful process, especially esports that replicate real-life sports like F1. The Virtual Grand Prix is serving as the perfect advert for Tan to start more conversations ahead of the 2020 Pro Series, which is set to start this autumn.

“Brands often need time to become more familiar with esports, particularly when it comes to sim racing. Esports is a huge industry and it’s growing, but sim racing is a very specific type of esports within this ecosystem. A brand may understand how esports works, but sim racing and esports are actually quite different.”

Tan continues: “There’s an education process, there is an understanding process, and then there’s an element of just making sure that you focus on delivering a kick-ass product.”

Viewership for the 2019 esports season grew 75 per cent year-on-year, indicating that the product is indeed kicking ass in the eyes of young fans – not least because of its crossover appeal between F1 and sim racing fans.

Lando Norris (centre) of McLaren F1 at the F1 New Balance Esports Series Pro Draft in July 2019 (Bryn Lennon/Getty Images)

Breaking down barriers

The crossover appeal concept – the hypothesis that fans watching a real-life sport will become fans of its virtual counterpart – is often oversold, especially in relation to controller-based games such as Fifa or NBA 2K.

In F1 esports, the skills required to excel are very similar to those required in real life. Players use advanced racing wheels and pedals that simulate the effects of driving an F1 car, providing a more immersive and believable experience than most sports simulation games.

Tan says: “We tend to look at F1 esports as within the context of gaming and the traditional definition of esports, but I think we – well, certainly I – look at F1 esports more widely, as something that transcends the traditional definition of what an esport is. Ours is a proposition that is very similar to the real world, and that chasm between the real and virtual is continuously being blurred.

“The ability to break down the barriers to our sport is really important because ultimately, motorsport isn’t the most accessible sport It’s not like other sports where you can pick up a ball and play – you can’t just jump into an F1 car. Esports is a really important way to do that.”

The sense of realism offered by F1 esports is no small factor in why the Bahrain Virtual Grand Prix proved such a success. Esports and gaming fans enjoyed its light-hearted nature, while F1 fans coming to esports for the first time immediately respected the skill required to take part.

The race featured F1 drivers Norris and Latifi, but also included ex-F1 and current Formula E driver Stoffel Vandoorne; ex-F1 driver Esteban Gutiérrez; ex-F1 driver and current Sky Sports presenter Herbert; and Formula 2 driver Guanyu Zhou, who won the race.

Likewise, the skill of esports drivers has been proven outside the virtual world. In the 2019 Race of Champions – a real-life racing event – esports driver Enzo Bonito defeated three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Ryan Hunter-Reay as well as former Formula E world champion Lucas di Grassi.

Now, in these darkest of times, F1 has a golden opportunity to preach its esports gospel. The extent to which its senior executives, teams and drivers lean into esports during the season’s postponement could have huge bearing on the sport’s lasting relevance to young people, as well as its ability to earn revenue during a lockdown of uncertain duration.

However, Tan understands that opportunity extends beyond the world of revenue and ratings. There is a deeply human element to F1’s Virtual Grands Prix; a feeling that F1 is trying its best to entertain us when we need it most, even if that entertainment product isn’t quite ‘on-brand’.

“We were like… let’s just throw it all together,” Tan laughed. “It’s just a bit of fun at the end of the day, just to lift people’s spirits. There are no championship points being awarded, it’s purely for fun. It’s something to watch, to laugh along with. Something to feel good about.”

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