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Auto Racing Goes Virtual to Ward Off Cabin Fever

Somehow our family became auto racing junkies. Watching F1 became a bonding experience, following a relative of ours who drives in IndyCar became a hobby, and the action of NASCAR wormed its way into our hearts. Even Formula E has grown on us. So when we were first encouraged to stay-at-home as much as possible we looked forward to watching racing as a way to break the monotony. At the time, it looked like racing might continue, minus local fans.

Except, of course, since then, actual auto racing has come to a complete standstill. In its place, its otherwise-second-class sibling of eSports has come to the rescue. Each of the major series has begun to ramp up its virtual racing efforts. We watched a number of the big-name versions over the weekend and found a wide variety of approaches and effectiveness.

eNASCAR Nailed It

By far the most organized and enjoyable event was eNASCAR’s. First, it was raced by the regular NASCAR drivers, which makes it feel like a real NASCAR Cup race. Second, they ran it at their regular time, on their regular cable network and mobile app — Fox Sports. So everyone knew how to view it, and didn’t have to deal with odd scheduling. Production values were also excellent, with regular commentators in the studio (keeping a safe distance, unlike three of the four virtual F1 commentators). Finally, the drivers all had a great attitude and didn’t seem hung up about looking bad, so there was a lot of great chatter between them.

eNASCAR is in its 11th season on the iRacing platform

eNASCAR is in its 11th season on the iRacing platform

Some drivers already had nice iRacing rigs at home, while others either had just gotten them or had more pedestrian racing setups. My personal favorite was Timmy Hill, whose kit was the same as you’d find in the homes of millions of hobbyist racers.

The only place where NASCAR didn’t quite hold up to its rivals was graphics. The iRacing platform it used is a great choice in most respects. Many pro drivers are already familiar with it, it has a great track record of hosting large events, and it has excellent racing simulation. However, it doesn’t have the same realistic lighting models available with some of the other racing sims, so the cars appeared a little more toylike — although they acted correctly and appeared with good detail.

NASCAR driver Alex Bowman delegated some of the work to his dog, Finn

NASCAR driver Alex Bowman delegated some of the work to his dog, Finn.

F1 Scrambled for a Good Start, but They’ll Do Better

F1 was a little late to the party, allowing themselves only a few days to put together their first official virtual Grand Prix. Because of that, it was hard to get many of the actual drivers equipped and up to speed on the F1 2019 platform used for the race. It was also clear that many of the drivers were afraid of looking bad, so they elected not to participate. With any luck that is temporary, and more of the drivers will get up to speed over the coming weeks.

In the event, only two current drivers raced. Lando Norris, a fan favorite, whose participation was unfortunately crippled because of connectivity issues. And Nicolas Latifi, who ironically has now started more virtual GPs than real ones, as he is slated to be a rookie driver this season. Super-popular Max Verstappen was scheduled to race but had to pull out at the last minute. Hopefully, he’ll race in the future. You can watch highlights of the race, along with future races, on F1’s YouTube channel.

The road driver’s skepticism about their ability was justified, with veteran F1 driver Johnny Herbert and others crashing out early and often. Limited damage settings helped at least keep everyone in the race. An F2 driver, Renault’s Guanyu Zhou, who is also an experienced eSports racer, took the checkered flag after a race that was shortened from 28 laps (half-distance) to 14 laps. One fun benefit of virtual racing is that it provides an opportunity for our favorite retired drivers — like Johnny Herbert — to make a comeback, and for participation by celebrities. However, that means fiddling with driver assists and damage levels, so there probably need to be two classes of race: one run as close as possible to real race conditions, and the others in a more flexible format.

Real eSports Drivers Dominate Veloce’s “Not the Bah GP”

In addition to the F1-branded race, there was also a more traditional eSports version. While this event isn’t new, it attracted a lot of extra attention this year for obvious reasons. Like the official F1 race, you needed to track it down on YouTube, Facebook, or Twitch. For eSports regulars, that’s no big deal, but for traditional race fans, it’d be great if these events could also be run on traditional cable and over-the-air channels like the real races. A lot of the most interesting action took place on Twitch, which is also new to many.

Being a true eSports event, this pair of races, like others in its series, was dominated by eSports stars, and not the road-race drivers who participated. There are a few top road drivers who also play a lot of eSports, like Stoffel Vandoorne, but they still can’t finish on top.

One really cool thing about virtual racing is that it is easy to experiment with interesting alternative race formats. The second race of the Not the Bah was run reverse grid (slowest qualifier on pole, etc.). There is a lot of debate about whether that would make for more interesting racing, but it would be expensive and potentially even a bit dangerous to try it out with real drivers and cars. In the virtual world, it made for an interesting change of pace. I might have thought that going virtual would eliminate random mechanical failures, but disconnects are apparently the virtual equivalent of blown motors.

“The Race” Lures Idle Indycar Drivers

Indycar didn’t have its own official eSports race. But “The Race All-Star eSports Battle,” run on the rFactor 2 platform, featured a number of current and former Indycar drivers, including Indy 500 winner Tony Kanaan, and this week’s race took place on a virtual version of the Indy road course. Road pros got multiple chances to qualify for the main event, while eSports pros had just one. That didn’t stop them from dominating the actual race, but as usual, Felix Rosenqvist put in a strong performance for a road racer. You can re-watch the whole race as well as future races on The Race’s YouTube channel.

Production Has Room For Improvement

With the exception of NASCAR, there was a disappointing lack of effective production during the races. You’d think one advantage of a virtual race is that you could easily ask to see any car at any time, from any angle. But commentators struggled to get footage of crashes and passes to show. For race fans used to the super-polished professional production teams that broadcast real races, they’re going to want the same quality if they are going to keep watching eRaces after the novelty wears off.

Overall: A Tribute to How Far Racing Sims and Platforms Have Come

The biggest takeaway from all these events is how impressive racing sims have become, and how well the platforms and network scale to real-time events (although with some glitches). If you didn’t know that the races weren’t real, you might do a double-take when you first tuned in.

[Image credits: The Race, eNASCAR, Alex Bowman]

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