Formula 1 drivers turn to virtual racing amid turmoil

F1 drivers Max Verstappen and Lando Norris are revving up to race in a coronavirus-free virtual world on Sunday after the cancellation of the Formula 1 season-opening Australian Grand Prix.

Norris, whose McLaren team pulled out of the Melbourne race weekend before it was cancelled after a team member tested positive for the virus, will be competing against a field of top gamers.

The ‘Not the Aus GP’ organised by Veloce esports will be live on Twitch.TV and YouTube from 1745 GMT.

“Racing in Australia but not actually in Australia,” the 20-year-old Briton said on Twitter.

Red Bull’s Verstappen, a regular virtual racer alongside Norris, is joining a stellar cast of other top-line real racing drivers in an ‘All Star esports battle’ on YouTube channel.

Other virtual competitors include Indianapolis 500 winner Simon Pagenaud and former F1 drivers Juan Pablo Montoya and Rubens Barrichello, as well as their respective sons, and double Formula One esports champion Brendon Leigh.

Formula E drivers Neel Jani, Max Guenther and Antonio Felix da Costa are also in that lineup along with IndyCar driver Colton Herta.

“We got wind that Australia wouldn’t be going on, we guessed that the IndyCar race might be canned and we already knew that the Formula E races were done,” Darren Cox, founder of the Race and CEO of Torque Esports, told Reuters.

“We started on Thursday morning to put together a plan and then by yesterday (Friday) lunchtime we had the programme launched. We thought some of the real drivers would fancy a go but the reaction has been absolutely massive. It’s snowballed really.”

Cox said the free-to-air streamed race would not use the Australian Grand Prix circuit, with the track kept secret to prevent drivers putting in practice time in the simulators before the start.

BBC radio’s Formula E and F1 esports commentator Jack Nicholls will be the voice of the event, which will start with 60 drivers in three heats and the top 20 competing in the final.

“In 48 hours we’ve turned around what was nothing into something that looks like one of the races of the year,” said Cox.

F1 has said it hopes to start the season in Europe at the end of May, subject to review, while Formula E is temporarily suspended with hopes of racing again in June, while IndyCar has cancelled all events through March and April.