The 2020 F1 Esports Pro Series starts today with new drivers, new circuits, an altered format and a prize pot of $750,000.
Ferrari’s David Tonizza will be hoping he can retain his title for a second year, while Brendon Leigh will want to make up for last year’s performance and become a three-time F1 Esports champion.
Whoever becomes the 2020 champion will not only need to get used to the F1 2020 game and its changes in handling model and ERS mode from last year’s game but will also need to adapt to the new rules in place for this year.
Full qualifying sessions will be broadcast for the first time ever this year, but the banning of team-mates offering one another a slipstream-aided boost will level the playing field according to defending champion Tonizza.
“Last year my team-mates didn’t have a great season, they were really fast at some tracks but they didn’t manage to score any points,” Tonizza said.
“But this year I think it will be a lot different, especially with the slipstream in qualifying banned from this year. Every single driver from any team can be on the front row.
“So we’ll see the second drivers from each team will be able to win some races and score a lot of points.
“The constructors’ championship this year will be a lot different to the last one, in the standings last year you can clearly see that the bigger amount of points were scored by the first drivers.
“So I’m really confident about the constructors’ championship this year and I know it will be a lot different and harder compared to the last one.”
Across all 10 teams, there are a number of returning and new drivers to the F1 Esports grid.
When asked who he feels will be his fiercest challenger himself and Ferrari in both championships, Tonizza picked Alfa Romeo and specifically Jarno Opmeer – who left Renault to join Alfa this year.
“There are many actually but if I had to say one, I’d say Jarno Opmeer because last year he was really fast and from the test races we had this season we saw that he’s insanely fast, as well with Danny Bereznay, his team-mate,” Tonizza said.
“The strongest line-up, in my opinion, is the Alfa Romeo one – so if I had to say one driver and one team I’d say Opmeer and Alfa Romeo.”
One of the newest drivers to join the F1 Esports roster this year is World’s Fastest Gamer winner James Baldwin, who will be racing for McLaren Shadow.
Having previously raced in and won competitions on Project CARS and Assetto Corsa, he’s made the leap to the Codemasters’ Formula 1 games.
“Everyone’s a challenger really. You have 20 cars on the grid and these teams aren’t signing people just for the sake of it” :: Brendon Leigh
Last year he was the F1 Esports test driver for Alfa Romeo and, like Tonizza, also believes Alfa is the favourite for both titles.
“To the eye, the team that is the team to beat has got to be Alfa Romeo because statistically they’ve got the best team,” Baldwin said.
“Dani Bereznay, Jarno Opmeer finished third and fourth last year – having those two in the same team, it sounds like quite a strong combination.
“There are rumours flying around the F1 Esports paddock online that some of the times they’re doing are very quick, whether that’s true or not I don’t know but they’re a strong duo.
“I know both of them quite well, they’re very, very good drivers, they should work well together.
“I’d say those two are probably the favourites going into it but hopefully we can be near them and hot on their heels.”
There are very strong reasons for Baldwin to rate Bereznay and Opmeer’s chances since he raced against both of them earlier in the year in the Veloce Esports’ ‘Not The GP’ races.
Bereznay won both Australian and Bahrain races with Opmeer the runner-up.
Meanwhile, Baldwin finished fourth in the race at Albert Park and went one better with third place around Sakhir.
In the Pro Exhibition races too Bereznay proved to be remarkably consistent, finishing in the top five in over half of the events, while Opmeer won the first Pro Exhibition race he took part in which was around the streets of Baku.
The 2017 and 2018 F1 Esports champion Leigh doesn’t see any particular team or driver as a main rival just yet.
Instead, he’s keeping his eye on the entire grid, believing the time gaps between those at the front and the back will be smaller than ever.
“Everyone’s a challenger really,” Leigh said. “You have 20 cars on the grid and these teams aren’t signing people just for the sake of it.
“They’re signing people because they believe them to be the best person for that seat and within esports the grid is just so competitive that everyone has a chance.
“Of course you can pick out your favourites like Alfa Romeo or any other team you’d like to pick, but ultimately it will be down to who does it on the track.
“I think the racing is going to be closer than ever, I wouldn’t be surprised if qualifying has the top 20 within two tenths, maximum three tenths each session.”
Not only has the qualifying format changed for this year, but so have the race distances which have been increased from 25% to 35% of a typical grand prix distance.
The upping of the race lengths not only changes the race strategies, but it also increases the chance of drivers earning time penalties for corner cuts or track extensions.
“If you get three off-track warnings, so any time you go over the white line, you get a 3-second penalty,” Leigh explained.
“When you only have 14 laps it’s difficult to meet that target already while racing at the limit, and now you have to do it for an extra 10% of distance so it’s quite easy to pick up penalties now.
“So into this series I predict quite a lot more time penalties for corner-cutting to happen.
“In terms of mental fatigue, obviously the races go on for longer now so you have to be a bit sharper for longer.”
The new challenges are ones Leigh thinks he can deal with, believing he will be able to right the wrongs of 2019 and return to his former glory.
“I’m massively confident about being able to replicate results from the past – but the past is the past and the future is now and I’m looking forward to being the best version of me the public has ever seen.”