LONDON (Reuters) - Formula One drivers Max Verstappen and Lando Norris were racing on Sunday but, with the season-opening Australian Grand Prix canceled due to the coronavirus, it was against invisible opponents on virtual racetracks.
The world of esports came to the rescue in the absence of a race in Melbourne or indeed of any single-seater series with the Formula E and IndyCar calendars also ravaged by the fast-spreading virus.
Red Bull’s Verstappen finished 11th in an ‘All-star Esports battle’ with a cast of other real racing drivers and professional gamers.
McLaren’s Norris finished sixth in another virtual race, the ‘Not the Aus GP’ organised by Veloce Esports and shown live on Twitch.TV and YouTube.
The 12 lap all-star race, organised by Torque Esports and The Race, featured a virtual version of the Nuerburgring — a German track no longer on the F1 calendar — and was won by Slovenian Jernej Simoncic.
McLaren Shadow’s Kevin Siggy was second with Rudy Van Buren, winner of the inaugural 2017 World’s Fastest Gamer competition and the prize of a simulator role with McLaren, finishing in third place.
Torque had stumped up a total prize pot of $10,000 with $4,000 for the winner.
“More people watched today’s ‘The Race All-Star Esports Battle’ online than watch a Formula One race on Sky TV in the UK. That is an incredible statistic,” commented Torque CEO Darren Cox.
“During the race we were the biggest gaming or esport stream in the world. Bigger than Fortnite.”
Swedish IndyCar drivers Felix Rosenqvist and American Colton Herta were the highest-ranked real world drivers in seventh and 10th places respectively.
Verstappen won one of three qualifying heats from pole position but qualified ninth for the final using rFactor’s Formula ISI 2012 package.
The Dutch 22-year-old spun at the first corner, dropping to 18th, but then showed his familiar overtaking skills and aggression to carve his way back up despite another spin.
Others who took part in the heats included 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.
“Shame we didn’t make the final. Got tangled in someone else’s shunt. Need to work on it as well. Was an amazing event. Can’t wait for the next one,” commented Montoya on Twitter.
Veloce reported 180,000 live viewers across all channels for their event that also featured Real Madrid goalkeeper and avid gamer Thibaut Courtois, as well as former McLaren F1 driver Stoffel Vandoorne.
“This is a huge opportunity for esports because for people who may have been watching the real sport and want to have something to watch and give them that fix, this may be able to provide a bit of that,” Veloce’s Jamie McLaurin told the BBC.
Formula One has said it expects to start the season in Europe at the end of May, subject to review, while Formula E is temporarily suspended and hopes to race again in June.
U.S.-based IndyCar has canceled all events through March and April.
Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Toby Davis