How F1 kept motoring with Virtual Grand Prix races

Charles Leclerc has won the past two Virtual Grand Prix races. Franck Fife/AFP

With the sporting world at a standstill due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, teams and leagues have had to find new ways to keep their fans engaged. For Formula 1, the key has been virtual racing.

Julian Tan, who heads F1's digital and esports initiatives, suddenly found himself spearheading the only competitive action fans had to enjoy on a Grand Prix weekend.

"When the initial announcement of the Chinese Grand Prix postponement came out, the team [began] working really hard to work through a concept of using esports to bring racing entertainment on the weekend," Tan said.

Tan and his team had to adapt even more quickly to get the virtual races up and running after the season-opening Australian Grand Prix was canceled and the Bahrain and Vietnam races were postponed.

The three previous Virtual GPs combined for a total of more than 12.9 million online views, according to Tan.

This weekend, the fourth Virtual GP will run in place of what would have been the return of the Dutch Grand Prix -- the first since 1985 -- to the racing calendar. The previous races included celebrity sports stars such as Real Madrid goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois and English golfer Ian Poulter. The next edition will feature AC Milan captain Alessio Romagnoli, as well as England cricketers Stuart Broad and Ben Stokes.

"I think we're very lucky as a sport -- within the industry of esports -- to have our virtual world overlap in such a meaningful way with our real world," Tan said. "I always use the comparison of tennis, where you can pick up a tennis racket and play in a local court, but you can't just jump into a Formula 1 car."

Although Tan lives in the United Kingdom -- after graduating from Oxford and getting a Ph.D in composites engineering from Cambridge -- he proudly declares himself a "Malaysian through and through."

He counts wanton noodles and banana leaf rice, with the accompanying side of bitter gourd fritters, as two of the dishes he misses the most. "Lahs" and "mahs" -- words that typically mark the dialect of English-language speakers from the region -- automatically find their way back into his speech when he is back home.

F1 has come a long way, considering it did not have a digital department when Tan joined in 2017.

"Esports has proven very effective in breaking down borders to bring our fans closer to our sport," Tan said. "This is across all aspects, from increasing the accessibility to participating in our great sport to revealing new and fresh sides to our drivers, who are terrific personalities."

With a quickly evolving digital landscape, there have been some pitfalls and a learning curve, as NASCAR discovered in its iRacing series, when driver Kyle Larson used a racial slur on a live stream.

On the flip side, Ferrari driver Charles Leclerc -- winner of the past two Virtual GPs -- has been promoting his online races on Twitter and said it was nice for a large audience to see that racing stars are normal people.

"What I've loved a lot is actually seeing how much fun the drivers themselves are having taking part and exploring esports and gaming," Tan said. "The awesome chemistry and camaraderie are things you couldn't have seen behind a helmet, so in many ways, esports is transforming the way our fans gain access."

With F1 now eyeing an early July start to the season, it might not be long before the action spills out of living rooms and back onto the track. For all the inroads they have made, could esports in F1 be at risk when actual racing returns?

"I think it is hard for anyone to say where we will be in two to three weeks, let alone two to three months," Tan said. "It isn't inconceivable that COVID-19 will have a long-lasting impact on the sports industry, and for F1 to have been able to mobilise in the esports space at this time should prove beneficial in the long term."