On Sunday, the 2017 Formula 1 season drew to a close with the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. It was a deathly boring end to a season that started with so much promise back in March. The series had a new owner, Liberty Media, which promised to stop ignoring things like the Internet and 21st century. The cars were wider and had more grip than seasons past. And there was the threat of actual competition between Mercedes-AMG and Ferrari as opposed to starting each race weekend knowing that a win by the three-pointed star was a foregone conclusion.
But repeated missteps by Ferrari after the summer break saw Lewis Hamilton clinch his fourth championship weeks ago, and the sad fact remains that technical rules changes meant to improve the racing didn’t deliver anything of the sort. Indeed, so boring was the final race of the season (and to be honest, the two that preceded it) that the biggest story from Abu Dhabi was about the series’ underwhelming new logo. But the weekend did actually deliver a rather thrilling race on the Yas Marina circuit; it’s just that it happened the night before the main event and took place within F1 2017. Yes, it was the final race of F1’s inaugural e-sports series.
As I’ve noted on a few occasions now, e-sports is finally getting some legitimacy from the motorsports world. At the end of last year, Formula E held a big-money rFactor 2 race in Las Vegas, pitching professional drivers against some of the world’s best sim racers. A decade after Nissan and Sony started using Gran Turismo to find new racing talent, the FIA (which organizes global motorsport) officially sanctioned the latest version of that game. Just last week, the McLaren F1 team concluded a massive online competition to find its new simulator test driver. And then there was the F1 e-sports series, which was open to anyone with a copy of Codemasters’ F1 game—in total 63,827 players took part in the online qualifying races earlier this year.
Twenty gamers battled it out across three races. For the first two races (18 laps at Montreal and 11 laps at Spa-Francorchamps) only the top 10 positions earned any points, but the finale upped the stakes, with 45 for the win (instead of 25) and points all the way through to last place. Between Twitch and YouTube, almost half a million people tuned in to watch the finale, an exciting 14 lap battle at a virtual Yas Marina circuit.
At the front of the pack, the race was a marvelous three-way fight between Brendon Leigh, Fabrizio Donoso, and Sven Zurner for the win. All three drivers were in contention for the championship, and Donoso looked set to take the win before an audacious move by Leigh on the final lap saw the 18-year old Englishman beat him to the finish line and the first ever F1 eSeries championship.
By contrast, the actual F1 race that took place the following day seemed faintly pathetic. Romain Grosjean and Lance Stroll managed to entertain us for two or three laps as they fought over 13th place, but the rest of the event was more like a parade than a sporting competition. Hopes are pinned on new, softer tires from Pirelli for 2018, but without tackling the real problem—an over-reliance on aerodynamic grip and cars that cannot follow each other closely in the turns—I’m not optimistic.
But hey, at least there’s the next F1 eSeries to look forward to.