The return of Formula 1’s Virtual GPs last night was a welcome sight for many awaiting the return of real-world F1 action.
Last year these races acted as replacements of sorts for the many cancelled F1 grands prix and stood out from many other motorsport championships’ virtual events by aiming for maximum entertainment rather than accurately recreating a real-life F1 race.
This was typified in 2020’s Virtual Bahrain Grand Prix, when Johnny Herbert cut the track at the start of the race to skip the first couple of corners entirely, and at the end of the race when Lando Norris and YouTuber Jimmy Broadbent were both forced into the barrier on the last lap in their scrap for fourth place.
The addition of $100,000 in prize money to be shared between the charities each team has chosen meant there was something riding on the line for all of the drivers this time though.
It’s likely not a coincidence that the drivers who were the fastest were also generally the cleanest, with Arthur Leclerc and Enzo Fittipaldi keeping their battle for the win mostly contact-free.
That said, Fittipaldi did push Leclerc out of the way in one of his overtakes and on the final lap, likely in desperation, Leclerc braked extremely late into Turn 3 when trying to get the race lead back and that gave him an extra three second time penalty for track extending.
— Formula 1 (@F1) January 31, 2021
Time penalties were a persistent factor in the race, with 140 seconds worth of penalties added on to the drivers’ race times – an impressive feat given that the race was 50% of the real life grand prix’s distance and that the F1 2020 game hands out penalties in three- or five-second increments.
That’s not even the full total of penalties dished out since former F1 driver Vitantonio Liuzzi was disqualified less than halfway through the race for receiving too many penalties.
The differing amount of penalties for each driver had a huge impact on the final results, with Leclerc being demoted from second to third as he had six seconds more in penalties than Stoffel Vandoorne.
Formula 3 champion Oscar Piastri was the only driver to go the full distance without picking up a single penalty, which meant he moved up from 10th to seventh place.
Surely being the only one with no penalties warrants a prize, right? 😂
Ended up P7. Some good fun, some large shunts, and now it’s time for some sleep. 😴 #VirtualGP
— Oscar Piastri (@OscarPiastri) January 31, 2021
It’s been remarked in the past by some of the F1 Esports drivers that track limits are far more strictly enforced in Codemasters’ F1 games than they are in the real-world sport and that’s undeniably true if the races on F1 2020 are run using the strictest setting.
There’s certainly some evidence for that as Liuzzi was also disqualified from last year’s Virtual Monaco Grand Prix for excessively falling foul of track limits and even current AlphaTauri F1 driver Pierre Gasly was disqualified for the same reason in the Virtual Canadian Grand Prix.
It’s not unheard of for the professional simracers to get the occasional time penalty for track limits or pitlane speeding in F1 Esports, so the insanely high penalty count can be somewhat attributed to the automatic stewarding done by the game.
At the same time, there were some crashes that were certainly deserving of penalties and where the no-damage setting lessened the impact.
MXGP champion Jeffrey Herlings appeared not to brake into the first corner and spun out a few drivers, and was given a drive-through penalty for what the game called a “severe collision”.
— Formula 1 (@F1) January 31, 2021
Anthony Davidson nearly did the same thing as he braked late for Turn 3 and appeared to nearly sideswipe race leader Marcus Armstrong before a connection issue for the Mercedes driver meant Davidson entered the subsequent corner backwards, presumably after contact.
The Virtual GPs are clearly not meant to be serious sim races and have never tried to be that, but the widely differing skills and attitudes each of the drivers have has created a very mixed image – although it helps that the event now includes actual simracers in a sprint race to set the grid.
With $100,000 to be given out to charity on the line, Haas’ decision to field the Fittipaldi brothers and Ferrari picking two drivers from its academy shows their intent, and it produced an action-packed and mostly clean fight at the front of the pack between them.
Of course other priorities mean not every team can field some of its best real-world racing talent, with George Russell, for example, bowing out hours before the start of the latest Virtual GP.
For entertainment and viewership purposes the celebrity guests and drivers who are not overly familiar with simracing are perfect.
But that comes with the big side effect of turning off some hardcore motorsport fans and doing a disservice to the image of serious simracing – which isn’t what the Virtual GPs can make it out to be.