A little over three weeks ago when 2020 Formula 1 pre-season testing wrapped up, predicting the biggest race of the year so far would be Lando Norris taking on a music superstar and a golf legend would have been unimaginable but in these uncertain times reality is stranger than fiction.

The impact of the coronavirus on F1 started with a Chinese journalist being banned from McLaren’s hospitality and meeting staff, which became a headline story at the start of winter testing, but what was a tongue in cheek situation has been surpassed rapidly as the virus has spread beyond the control of health authorities.

F1 is looking to recover from the debacle that was the prolonged cancellation of the Australian Grand Prix, waiting until two hours before the start of practice despite a McLaren team member testing positive for COVID-19 the day before.

Since then the majority of teams have been self-isolating, while Ferrari has faced total lockdown as Italy endures the worst of the coronavirus pandemic in Europe with over 5,400 reported deaths so far.

The opening eight races have all been postponed or cancelled, while current predictions see the F1 season starting in June at the earliest, forcing the longest period without races since the second world war.

Not looking to make light of a very serious matter, F1 has reacted by doing what it knows – racing. With actual races out of the question for the coming weeks and months, the Esports and simulation world is aiming to fill the very considerable void.

In the space of a week, F1 now has three separate Esports series sharing centre stage with the sport’s own Virtual Grand Prix series debuting last night.

Running a Bahrain Virtual Grand Prix, all 20 F1 drivers were invited to take part but only two picked up the opportunity, Norris and rookie Nicholas Latifi, leading to F1 bosses filling in the gaps from a variety of other places.

It gave F1 the opportunity to invite interest from outside its usual circles, including golf’s Ian Poulter and music star Liam Payne, while even blasts from the past like Johnny Herbert got behind the electronic steering wheel.

While F1’s maiden race was far from a smooth affair – technical issues denying Norris the chance to take part in qualifying and the first half of the race while Anthony Davidson somehow competed in the wrong race altogether – plenty of work is needed to match the slicker operations it is going up against.

But what F1’s version did have to its advantage, which came about by accident rather than design, was a fun factor in a race where it didn’t really matter who won. For the record, Renault F1 test driver Guanyu Zhou became the first-ever winner in the F1 Virtual Grand Prix series.

In a time when the world worries about the coronavirus, national lockdowns and what happened to normal life, a sense of enjoyment and escapism was probably the best outcome despite its technical hiccups.

Norris became the star of the show with his Twitch stream breaking through the 100,000 viewers barrier at the height of the live ‘action’ when he was calling up Max Verstappen and Carlos Sainz for advice before actually being able to take part in the race. The McLaren driver towered over other Twitch streams as the most-watched in the world that day, beating his previous best of 70,000 set the week before.

In the absence of very few alternatives, F1 enjoyed viewer numbers it usually only reaches during races and testing.

1.7 million views from live and playback watches on the Bahrain Virtual Grand Prix through F1’s YouTube channel doesn’t even include additional figures from simulcasts through its other social media channels and Sky Sports F1, while the five-minute highlights video has already surpassed 400,000 views inside 15 hours of being published.

While viewing figures alone aren’t necessarily enough to fix everything for F1 bosses, it is an impressive start which will engage current, key and new audiences it craves.

But as a way to open the door wider to a $1 billion industry, Chase Carey’s eyes must be lighting up at the results.

F1 now has huge advertising and sponsorship opportunities through its new Esports efforts which will become a vital boost in the absence of races and the revenue which comes from its traditional sources with everyone stuck at home.

According to the Sportcal Intelligence Centre, tech giants Intel spend more than $10m per year on sponsoring the Overwatch League and Nike spends $8m per year on a kit deal with League of Legends’ Pro League.

A welcomed surprise of the action was also the chance for drivers and other stars to see their heroes in a different light, something Norris has jumped at the chance as he enjoyed the lighter side of the Bahrain Virtual Grand Prix – even when he couldn’t even race.

F1 and the other two Esports series will be eager to build on this initial success with a run of events planned each weekend which feasibly can continue until the start of the 2020 F1 season – whenever that might be.

MotoGP is also assessing how it can setup its own alternative to actual racing through its Esports efforts, albeit a harder sell given the trickier simulation task for two-wheel racing, but with time and space to fill it will become a growing force in the coming weeks.

It’s not to say this is forever, you only need to look at the smaller five-figure video viewing numbers last year’s F1 Esports Pro Series gained running alongside the 2019 F1 season, but Esports has been handed an unexpected opportunity which it is grasping tightly as interest in the electronic action grows.

It is too early to tell whether this will lead to significant change and an even bigger rise in Esports, especially when ‘normal’ motorsport does return, but it is one positive light to shine in times of darkness.

 

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