F1 Esports Virtual Grand Prix – Charles Leclerc takes the victory at Albert Park
We’re already aware of how coronavirus has caused motorsport events across the globe to be cancelled or postponed significantly (in case of the Le Mans). Consequently, we’ve seen racing series, such as the MotoGP came up with the idea of the #stayathomeGP. On similar lines, F1 too moved wholly onto the virtual sphere, with the F1 Esports Virtual Grand Prix series. The first race of this ‘season’ was held at the digital rendering of the Bahrain International Circuit, which was won by Renault test driver and Formula 2 racer Guanyu Zhou, who made his F1 Esports debut, with former F1 driver Stoffel Vandoorne coming in second and Red Bull athlete and DTM driver Philipp Eng coming in third.
For race two, the championship moved to Albert Park Circuit in Melbourne, Australia. Qualification consisted of an 18-minute session, followed by a 29-lap race (50 per cent race length). Another interesting point is that the vehicle damage had been taken off, to no doubt help the racers who weren’t used to the virtual racing format. The combination of both of these meant the drivers were prepared to fight tooth-and-nail to snatch victory!
The grid had some interesting names. Sure, there were the usual gamut of F1 racers, like Stoffel Vandoorne and Esteban Gutierrez (Mercedes), siblings Charles and Arthur Leclerc (FDA Hublot Esports), George Russell and Nicholas Latifi (Williams), Alfa Romeo’s Antonio Giovinazzi (on his virtual F1 debut), McLaren’s Lando Norris and Red Bull’s Alex Albon. However, there were also Pietro Fittipaldi and Louis Deletraz (both reserve drivers for Haas F1), 2009 world champion Jenson Button (as Norris’ teammate), cricketer and Red Bull athlete Ben Stokes and F1 broadcaster Johnny Herbert (as Giovinazzi’s teammate. Lastly, WSBK racer Luca Salvadori and streamer Nunzio Todisco made up the AlphaTauri team, F2 driver Christian Lundgaard and Australia Supercars driver Andre Heimgartner making up the Renault DP World team, while the Racing Point team comprised of broadcaster and former F1 racer Anthony Davidson and sim racer Jimmy Broadbent.
As mentioned, qualifying consisted of an 18-minute session (or about 15 laps) of the drivers going around the circuit, the fastest time deciding the grid for the race. Christian Lundgaard set the fastest pace, a blazing 1:19:537 minutes getting him to the head of the race grid, followed by Charles Leclerc in second place and George Russel in third.
The results of the qualifying were as under:
Owing to getting a five-place penalty for making contact with a competitor in the qualifying session, Christian Lundgaard was relegated to the sixth spot, and it was Charles Leclerc started the race from pole position. Right from the get-go, Charles Leclerc held onto his headstart, followed by George Russell and teammate (and brother) Arthur Leclerc. Three corners in, the elder Leclerc was already almost a second ahead of George Russell, a massive feat considering all the cars in the virtual F1 race have the exact same performance and behaviour.
Now, since the damage setting had been switched off, there were quite a few instances of drivers spinning off into the barriers. First to do so was Alex Albon, who rode the kerb too hard onto a 90-degree right-hander, closely followed by Nunzio Todisco who took the exact same undignified detour. Meanwhile, Lundgaard pushed ahead, gradually making it to the fourth place by the starting of lap two.
The next upset was Ben Stokes’ fourth lap, where he overcooked a fast left-hander, landing him into the grass and effectively negating the efforts that saw him climb up to the twelfth place. Up front, the first four racers stayed put, with Charles Leclerc now opening up his lead further to a full two seconds over George Russell, followed by Arthur Leclerc in third and Christian Lundgaard in fourth.
Soon, Louis Deletraz went into the barriers, falling down from fifth to seventh, as did George Russell, whose mistake pushed the younger Leclerc to second and Lundgaard to third. For his part, Lundgaard stayed focussed, and taking advantage of the DRS in Lap 6 briefly overtook Arthur Leclerc, before going too wide in the very next right-hander and losing his spot. However, Lundgaard made good in Lap 8, with Arthur Leclerc losing his line, letting George Russell and even Antonio Giovinazzi overtake him.
However, at a huge five seconds ahead of Lundgaard, Charles Leclerc was at an other-worldly pace. In lap ten, all the four front front-runners (Charles Leclerc, Lundgaard, Russell and Giovinazzi) pitted at the same time. When Charles Leclerc had exited the pit, Jenson Button was at second spot, about two seconds behind. But since Button had not yet pitted, and since the elder Leclerc was on fresh tyres now, he was able to hold the competition at bay. Down the line, Lundgaard, Russell, Giovinazzi and the younger Leclerc were now in the fourth, fifth place, sixth and seventh place, before picking back up the second, third, fourth and fifth place when Button went into the pits. However, a second wind hit Leclerc and he finished lap 11 in fourth place.
In the middle of the pack, Louis Deletraz showed exceptional skill, overtaking Stoffel Vandoorne from the outside line, and claiming the sixth place; and in tenth place, Jenson Button had to keep his wits about him to fend away repeated attempts from Alex Albon. This went on till lap 16, where Albon was finally able to get ahead of Button who ran a bit wide in the chicane. Meanwhile, Arthur Leclerc was able to hold onto his momentum, climbing all the way up to the fourth place by lap 18, before dropping back down to sixth in lap 20, with a 2.7-second deficit from Louis Deletraz.
The final third of the race saw the elder Leclerc in a league of his own, staying a consistent eight seconds ahead of Lundgaard, who himself was nine seconds ahead of George Russell. Next, being a virtual race, quite a few of the racers were consistently penalised for cutting corners. This meant that by Lap 21, Ben Stokes (P18) was 55 seconds behind Anthony Davidson (P17), and Johnny Herbert was a further 20 seconds behind him. This gave rise to a unique feature of the virtual race, where the back marker, when viewed by the front runners, showed a translucent appearance and could be driven straight through by the other racers, which allowed them to keep their pace and line.
By lap 25, Arthur Leclerc, now in fifth place, successfully used both momentum (and the DRS advantage) to breeze past Giovinazzi, cementing his place at the fourth spot. Meanwhile Jenson Button and Nicholas Latifi, in the eleventh and twelfth spot, were in pitched battle. Latifi tried everything, from a pass using DRS to trying to take the inside line on Button, but was unsuccessful until Button went into the gravel at a fast right-hander.
In the penultimate lap of the race, George Russell was still keeping Arthur Leclerc at bay, despite the fact that Russell was on medium-compound tyres while Leclerc was on hard-compound tyres. The last lap saw two-time F1 winner take the win with a commanding, 14-second lead over Christian Lundgaard, who himself was a yawning 11.9 seconds ahead of George Russell. Despite his strong performance, Arthur Leclerc finished the race in the fourth place, a scant (by this virtual race’s standard) two seconds behind Russell.
The final standings were as follows: