When Formula 1 World Champions Fernando Alonso, Jenson Button and Mario Andretti crossed the line at Indianapolis last weekend, it was difficult not to be impressed by the spectacle of those three famous names racing wheel to wheel at The Brickyard – even if Andretti was some way down the field and simply tracking his slightly younger competitors.
When I say ‘slightly younger’ I am sure Mario will not mind me mentioning the fact that, at 80, he outguns the combined ages of Button and Alonso; just one of the reasons why his participation in – deep breath – ‘The Race All-Star Series powered by ROKiT Phones Legends Trophy’ was fun to watch. Organised by Torque Esports, it’s indicative of esports’ growth that it is no longer unusual to see world champions from across the spectrum of motor racing happily committing to honing their skills on-line.
Forty two years after winning the World Championship for Team Lotus and thirty six after securing his 4th ChampCar title, Andretti’s return to front line racing is symptomatic of the seismic shift taking place in global motorsport during the Covid-19. As real racing has been taken off-line, drivers, teams, sponsors and promoters have rushed on-line as never before, accelerating the world of virtual racing at a rate that will leave a permanent legacy when we come out of the current pandemic.
British entrepreneur and Dragon’s Den star Theo Paphitis recently said that Covid-19 was accelerating the shift on-line retail by five years. The same could be said for the esports revolution, particularly in motor sport.
The industry is pivoting at 200 miles per hour.
According to industry analyst Newzoo the eSports sector is set to attract over 500 million gamers and viewers next year, with platforms such as the ubiquitous, Amazon-owned Twitch or competitors – Microsoft’s Mixer, Facebook Gaming and YouTube Gaming – offering gamers increasingly sophisticated ways in which to be entertained or entertain. If you consider that Twitch saw its users stream 9.3 billion hours last year, you will understand that parental exhortations of “you’ve been on that computer too long” is falling on deaf, noise-cancelled ears from London to LA, Sao Paolo to Singapore.
Motor racing has been on a long electronic-gaming journey towards the explosion in esports we are seeing today. While Atari launched the first ‘F-1’ arcade game back in 1976 – way back when James Hunt and Niki Lauda were battling for Formula 1 glory – it could be argued that breakthrough began to take place with Sega’s officially licensed games of the early 1990’s and the mass market impact of Sony Playstation’s ‘Formula 1’ of 1996, a copy of which lies, well used but unloved, in a cupboard in my garage. The official Formula 1 game has been popular ever since.
The arrival of the Gran Turismo game in 1997 led to the creation of the ground breaking Nissan Playstation GT Academy, first launched in 2008 and based on the concept of gamers having the skills necessary to become full time racing drivers. Darren Cox, now President and CEO of Torque Esports, a Nissan executive who saw the opportunity and ran with it, a full decade before others started to claim to have a vision of the gamer-to-racer esports opportunity. Products of the Nissan Grand Turismo initiative include Britain’s Jann Mardenborough who won the competition back in 2011 and has been a professional racing driver ever since.
Today the official F1 game may be derided by diehard on-line gamers as a lightweight product when compared to iRacing – which reminds users that it is the ‘original eSports racing game’ – the fact remains that for purists and casual gamers alike there has never been more choice. At the professional level the merging of the real and virtual communities has taken a significant leap forward during the course of the Covid-19 crisis.
Formula 1’s boss Julian Tan has overseen the further development of virtual Formula 1 World Championship, with drivers including Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc, McLaren’s Lando Norris and Williams’ George Russell battling fellow racing drivers as well as professional and amateur gamers. Formula 1 launched its esports series in 2017, hot on the heels of Liberty Media taken over control of the sport from former CEO Bernie Ecclestone, and since 2018 all the teams have come on board, albeit some more enthusiastically than others.
Now, in the midst of the coronavirus shut down, esports has come of age to remaining sceptics if for no other reason than the fact that virtual racing is driving value at a time when real racing is impossible. In simple terms it has enabled Formula 1’s commercial partners such as Heineken to activate marketing programmes which have undoubtedly benefitted from the unprecedented period of enforced lock-down for fans and gamers alike. We have witnessed some fascinating initiatives such as the head-to-head between my long time associate David Coulthard and former rival Nico Rosberg ten days ago.
If ever you wanted to know just how serious esports has become consider the scandal that erupted following last weekend’s virtual Formula E event when emerged that Audi’s Daniel Abt had secretly brought in a professional esports racer to take his place. The Euro€10,000 fine metted out to Abt was one thing, but when the 27 year old German driver was then sacked from the Audi Formula E team opinion quickly became split between those who considered him to have brought the sport into disrepute and others who complained that ‘it’s only a game.’ The latter view is getting short shrift from an industry which has worked hard to gain credibility and traction, only for it to be undermined by Abt’s bizarre decision
Meanwhile the esports events continue to come thick and fast. With June’s iconic Le Mans 24 Hours event cancelled it was perhaps only natural that an esports version is set to take its place. Using the rFactor2 platform through esports provider Motorsport Games the Automobile Club de l’Ouest will see the 2020 running of it’s event commence online at 3pm CET on June 13th. A total of 50 entrants will compete, each car being driven by 4 drivers (2 professional racing drivers joined by a maximum of 2 professional sim racers) with each driver limited to a total of 7 hours within the 24 hour period. Already signed up are Red Bull Racing superstar Max Verstappen alongside his virtual team mate, McLaren’s Lando Norris, the two Formula 1 drivers entered by UK based esports outfit Team Redline.
Whether Mario Andretti will tune in to watch the virtual running of Le Mans is unknown. He raced at Le Sarthe over four decades, finishing 2nd and 3rd, but never winning the French classic. Perhaps, after his outing at Indianapolis last weekend, the octogenarian will consider that his racing days are not completely over. Who knows, he could yet go for that Le Mans 24 hours win on-line? Anything is possible in this fast-changing world.