Guanyu Zhou has won the inaugural Formula 1 Virtual Grand Prix, run as a ‘replacement’ event to the postponed Bahrain Grand Prix.

With the global coronavirus pandemic halting all major sport, F1 has launched its new Esports Virtual Grand Prix series opening with the Bahrain GP which has been run when the actual race was scheduled to take place before the 2020 season was postponed by the health crisis.

The sport hopes to fill the void of action using its video game activities given its new campaign isn’t set to start until at least June.

In a competitive qualifying, DTM driver Philipp Eng took pole position for Red Bull ahead of Esteban Gutierrez for Mercedes and Zhou in third place who represented Renault through his F1 test driver role for the French manufacturer.

In a chaotic start, which saw ex-F1 star Johnny Herbert briefly lead, both Eng and Zhou headed up the early laps once the drivers found their rhythm.

Zhou’s early pit stop strategy proved decisive as he profited when all his rivals took their mandatory stop for the 14-lap race, cut back from the planned 28 laps due to technical difficulties, with the Chinese driver easing clear. Stoffel Vandoorne was able to apply late pressure but Zhou saw off the Mercedes driver to win the first F1 Virtual Grand Prix.

With Vandoorne in second place, Eng completed the podium for Red Bull comfortably ahead of Esports star Jimmy Broadbent for Racing Point.

Despite missing qualifying and the start of the race due to technical problems, Lando Norris charged through the field late on before losing out in a final-corner clash with Broadbent to leave him in fifth place for McLaren. Norris was Twitch streaming his race and saw over 100,000 live viewers join his feed during the maiden F1 Virtual GP, while F1’s own live stream gathered over 300,000 viewers across its social media and YouTube channels.

F1 rookie Nicholas Latifi, who is yet to make his Grand Prix debut, claimed sixth place for Williams ahead of ex-World Superbike rider Luca Salvadori for AlphaTauri and RedEye for Haas.

Dino Beganovic (Ferrari) and Gutierrez (Mercedes) rounded out the ‘points’ places, with ex-F1 driver Nico Hulkenberg in 11th for Racing Point and Sadokist in 12th for AlphaTauri.

Herbert finished 13th for Alfa Romeo ahead of Nicolas Hamilton for McLaren, with golf star Ian Poulter 15th, six-time Olympic champion Sir Chris Hoy in 16th and music star Liam Payne in 17th.

A Virtual Grand Prix will take place each weekend of the equivalent F1 race that was set to take place before the postponements, with the Vietnamese and Dutch rounds run virtually at different circuits due to the new tracks not being available on the current game.

The next official virtual race, the Vietnamese GP, will duly take place on April 5 using Australia’s Albert Park circuit followed by the virtual Chinese GP on April 19. Special one-off events are also planned for the weekends in between the Virtual Grand Prix series.

The F1 community has also seen the creation of two separate all-star Esports competitions aiming to entertain fans during the unprecedented gap between racing.