Covid-19 has cancelled sports, so to fill the void organizers are using Twitch and video games as a stopgap. On Sunday, the Formula One Group (F1) organized a digital event for its drivers. Formula One ran a virtual Grand Prix featuring professional racers using the F1 2019 video game and streamed it to Twitch, Facebook, YouTube, and the Sky Sports channel in the U.K. Hundreds of thousands of people tuned in to watch.
Professional motorsports casters did a play-by-play of the race from a studio. “You’ve got some real life racing drivers, some former racing drivers, some celebrities all going at it around the Bahrain circuit,” sportscaster Jack Nichols said during the stream. “It’s not quite the Formula 1 that we want to see, but it’ll be a nice little filler for the time being.”
F1 has run a virtual race in developer Codemasters’ F1 series for several years now, but it modified its rules to accommodate the celebrities and real life drivers who aren’t used to sim racing games. The race was planned to run 28 laps on the digital version of the Sakhir International Circuit in Bahrain
. It went 14 due to technical glitches and used modified rules that made the game slightly easier. Every driver used cars with equalized performance, the cars took reduced damage, and some driver assists—such as power steering—were available in the simulation.
The race proceeded like a digitized and stripped down version of the real thing. Racers ran qualifiers to find their starting position and spoke with the commentators remotely. Some of the drivers even gave their avatars digital versions of their racing outfits while sitting behind the wheel.
Hundreds of thousands tuned in to watch online, and it was broadcast on TV. The YouTube video of the full race has more than a million views. Some drivers, like the U.K.’s Lando Norris, streamed the whole thing from their own Twitch channels.
As entertaining as the virtual Grand Prix was, it also highlighted that esports aren’t a replacement for the real thing. Technical issues, including Norris not being able to connect to the race at all, forced organizers to cut the race’s planned 28 laps down to 14.
The sportscasters and drivers were in good spirits despite the problems, and Sunday’s virtual race wasn’t the last. “We’ll be back in two weeks’ time, we’ll be going to Melbourne,” sportscaster Tom Deacon said. “If you’ve enjoyed it, honestly, I can assure you, we’ll be ironing out all of the kinks. This was definitely the beta version tonight.”