Off Camber: Reality and virtual, the past is now

The COVID-19 situation has thrown a spanner in the works, to say the least, for Formula 1 when it comes to maintaining interest and enthusiasm in the sport while the world remains on lockdown.

The two protagonists in F1’s response: turning the series digital with virtual Grands Prix in place of the real deal and full race replays of some of the greatest races in F1 history.

With a change to scheduled programming, the Veloce eSports group saw the opportunity to fill the void by launching their ‘Not the… GP’ series in which they invite a whole host of drivers, celebrities and content creators to compete in a 50% distance race on the F1 2019 videogame.

The first event, ‘Not the Aus GP’ saw the likes of Lando Norris, Stoffel Vandoorne and Esteban Gutierrez compete alongside a host of eSports drivers and sim racing content creators. Oh, and Real Madrid goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois. The event was streamed across F1’s social media channels including their official YouTube page pulling in 500,000 viewers to date.

The event inspired F1 to get in on the action further by creating an official virtual Grands Prix series in place of impacted events. The Veloce series continues to preface the F1 event with many drivers competing in both events on the same night.

The first official Virtual Grand Prix took place on March 22nd at the virtual Bahrain Sakhir circuit with Lando Norris again taking part with Nicholas Latifi the only other current driver on the grid. Nico Hulkenberg, Johnny Herbert, Anthony Davidson, Stoffel Vandoorne and Esteban Gutierrez all made their F1 returns in a race that was plagued by technical difficulties but that wouldn’t stop the event being viewed 1.8 million times on YouTube since it’s upload.

The numbers are undoubtedly impressive. But by no means does this mean the series is successful. At the beginning, both the Veloce and official F1 series felt extremely gimmicky. Although sim racing is by no means the real deal, it offers the next best thing with meticulously scanned circuits and cars. It seems like the opportunity for a show is already there. That is if the right simulator is used – which F1 2019 is not.

For the eSports gig to work, F1 needs to take the same approach as Indycar, perhaps NASCAR. Both of the American series have their own online replacements running on the lucrative yet popular iRacing simulator, regarded by many as the most accurate when it comes to home simulator software unlike the F1 2019 game.

F1 has struggled when it comes to convincing drivers on the current grid to participate in the series; however, it must be noted that the latest Australian round saw a great improvement with Charles Leclerc, George Russell and Alex Albon all making their online debuts.

The remaining slots on the grids not taken up by those involved in motorsports in some form have been offered up to other sports stars such as Ben Stokes and Thibaut Courtois to provide some respite.

Surprisingly, the results have been no different to seeing Mahaveer Raghunathan make his F1 debut against the current grid.

Both Indycar and NASCAR have managed to rope in a representable number of current drivers with the rest of the grids comprising of drivers from days gone by or the junior series.  In fact, the series Stateside have been taken so seriously, NASCAR driver Bubba Wallace has managed to lose a major sponsor as a result of his actions in the past weekend’s Bristol race.

F1 have already been carrying out the correct way to appease the masses when it comes to ‘off-season’ entertainment. If it weren’t for the corporate nature of the sport, a method that should have been in place for some time now.

F1’s free streaming of classic races such as the chaotic 1996 Monaco Grand Prix this weekend. If you’re looking for serious motorsport action to fill the void, where better to look. We have already seen, in order of appearance, Brazil 2016, Bahrain 2014, Australia 1986 and Monaco 1996 as mentioned. Of course, F1 need to be wary as to not freely stream their entire catalogue of 250 odd full races on F1TV for obvious reasons.

Ignoring the fact that rival series have been doing similar for years, F1 are finally allowing new fans to tap into the sport’s past for free at reasonable quality given F1TV’s history of technical dilemma. As a young member of the F1 community, although I’ve watched hosts of F1 from years gone by with thanks to my dad’s collection of VHS tapes of live race coverage from the 80’s before graduating to DVD in the 2000s.

The experience of watching these races with a live chat to peruse and watching along with friends is unparalleled, reminiscing and recalling random quirks of the sport in the past.  Serious racing with serious characters who have shaped the sport to be what it is to this day.

The races being streamed by F1 are races to remember. I have no doubt that what we are being fed from the virtual world won’t find themselves in a similar situation at some point in the distant future…