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Russell’s first ever Virtual F1 win was in part due to Leclerc getting a three-second penalty, a repeat occurrence from Interlagos
Race five of the F1 Esports Virtual Grand Prix took place at the Circuit de Barcelona – Catalunya in Spain. The 4.655km track at Montmelo in Catalonia consists of 16 turns. Last time’s winner Alex Albon had his work cut out for him, as the Barcelona track isn’t too conducive for overtakes. Qualifying for the race consisted of an 18-minute session, followed by a 33-lap (half of actual race length) race.
As always, the Codemasters’ F1 2019 game (on which the race was contested) gave the racers equal car performance, with driver assists available, track limits strictly enforced (with anything more than two wheels off the track inviting a penalty), and the damage setting turned off.
As has become a hallmark of the Virtual F1 races, the grid had many entrants from outside the F1 (and even motorsport) sphere. In fact, the only team on the grid with both current F1 drivers was the Rokit Williams team, with Nicholas Latifi and George Williams, who placed second at Interlagos last week. The other teams usually consisted of one driver, with his teammate mostly from outside motorsport.
The race grid consisted of:
Mercedes F1 reserve driver Esteban Gutierrez and racer and F1 broadcaster Anthony Davidson in the AMG Petronas F1 team;
Formula 3 driver David Schumacher and streamer Jimmy Broadbent in the BWT Racing Formula 1 team;
F1 driver Alex Albon and Man City Striker Sergio Aguero in the Aston Martin Red Bull Racing team;
Pro golfer Ian Poulter and Formula 3 driver Max Fewtrell in the Renault DP World F1 team;
F1 Driver Antonio Giovinazzi and Real Madrid goalie Thibaut Courtois in the Alfa Romeo Racing team;
Former F1 driver Vitantonio Luizzi and youtuber Andrea Pirillo in the Scuderia Alphatauri team;
F1 driver Charles Leclerc and F1 development driver Antonio Fuoco in the FDA Hublot Esports team;
Haas reserve driver Pietro Fittipaldi and Barcelona midfielder Arthur Melo in the Haas F1 team;
and F1 driver Lando Norris and British Touring Car racer Nicolas Hamilton making up the McLaren team.
George Russell set the fastest time of 1.16.737 minutes, followed by Esteban Gutierrez setting a time of 1:16.946 minutes. In the second row were Charles Leclerc and Antonio Fuoco.
Lastly, despite setting a time of 1:17.863 Lando Norris was relegated to P13 on the starting grid, as he was slapped with a five-place grid penalty for colliding with Leclerc.
The results of the qualifying were as follows:
Esteban Gutierrez got a good jump off the start, leading the grid while Leclerc, Albon and Latifi climbed up the order, pushing Russell down to fifth. As Russell was bullied down the order, so was Broadbent, who had fallen down to 13th from his grid position of 9th.
Lap 2 started with Leclerc outbraking Gutierrez into Corner 1 and snatching the lead. In third place, Albon was trying to get ahead as well. Down the line, Vitantonio Luizzi was given a 3-second penalty for corner-cutting. The lap ended with Leclerc setting the fastest lap. Going into Lap 3, Albon was still hot on Gutierrez’ tail, cutting the gap between them down to less than half a second. Meanwhile, Luizzi was slapped with another 3-second penalty, after multiple warnings, so not at all an ideal start for him.
Going into Lap 4 and Gutierrez was falling behind, his gap with Leclerc widening to over 1.5 seconds, while Albon was now a mere 0.3 seconds away. He made his move just before Corner 1, coming to within 1.1 seconds of Leclerc, all in one fell swoop. Meanwhile, it was Arthur Melo’s chance for a slap on the wrist for corner-cutting. Down the line, George Russell was making amends, getting past Nicholas Latifi and into P4.
Alex Albon was the first into the pits in Lap 5, switching to medium tyres. This move pushed Pietro Fittipaldi and Antonio Fuoco up the order. Up front, Leclerc had upped the pace, pushing Gutierrez 1.5 seconds behind, with Russell just half a second away. Russell then went on to set the fastest Lap, and jumped back to P2, courtesy the DRS.
The next person into the pits was Lando Norris, putting him at the back of the grid, behind even Barca midfielder Arthur Melo, who was way off the pace, a full 16-odd seconds behind golfer Ian Poulter. Soon, Pietro Fittipaldi too entered the pits, but accrued a penalty for overspeeding in the pitlane, as did Lando Norris, though he was given a five-second penalty. The lap ended with Nicholas Latifi getting a 3-second penalty for multiple warnings, and Albon scoring yet another fastest lap, while Lando Norris left the race session.
George Russell, Charles Leclerc and Esteban Gutierrez all pitted in time for Lap 8, handing the lead to Nicholas Latifi, with Anthony Davidson in P2, and Antonio Giovinazzi in P3. Soon, Latifi and Davison also came into the pit, pushing Giovinazzi to the top spot, followed by Max Fewtrell, and Thibaut Courtois . Going into Lap 10, Albon, now with a fresh set of tyres, was making his presence felt, getting to P3 in no time. Down the grid, Latifi in P8 was under attack from Fittipaldi, who was able to pull out of the slipstream and use DRS to briefly get ahead, before Latifi was able to reverse the move.
Going into Lap 11, and Albon was 3.6 seconds ahead of Leclerc, passing Fewtrell to get into P2. In Lap 12 now, and Nicholas Hamilton got a 3 second time penalty for multiple warnings, reiterating how strictly the track limits rules were being enforced.
Into Lap 14 and still with a stop to make, Giovinazzi had the net race winner (Albon) directly behind him. As it appeared, Albon was using the simple stategy of overtaking everyone he could, with the hope of winning, somewhat at odds with Leclerc’s strategy of a consistent one-stop. Just over 3 seconds behind Albon was Max Fewtrell, momentarily ahead of Leclerc.
By Lap 15, and behind current leader Giovinazzi were Albon, Leclerc, Russell, Gutierrez and Fittipaldi, the heavy hitters having set the grid back more or less to what it was before they pitted. Moreover, as this race progressed and Albon came into the pits for fresher rubber, he would again start closing in on Leclerc, who has so far gone with a one-stop strategy. The lap ended with Giovinazzi in the pits, with the others suitably pushed up a spot, with a 5.1-second gap between Albon and Leclerc. For his part, this was very impressive driving for Fittipaldi, as his performance so far has been one of his strongest thus far.
Digressing now to the tyres currently raced upon, and Charles Leclerc has had nine laps on his set of hards, while Albon has had 12 laps on mediums. Lap 18, and the race had now boiled down to the strategy between Albon and Leclerc, especially after the sheer number of overtakes for the lead.
With 14 laps to go, Albon went back into the pits for his second set of hard tyres, coming out of the pits in P7, ahead of Anthony Davidson. Charles Leclerc was meanwhile in the lead, with George Russell up into P2 and Esteban Gutierrez in P3. Soon Pietro Fittipaldo was in the pits again, another one of the two-stoppers.
Up front, the gap between Russell and Leclerc was down to just about a second. Leclerc, Russell and Albon all came up the ladder together earlier in the race, further intensifying the battle for the lead as the laps pass by. In fact, Russell went on to get a fastest lap, and was flying through, his progress undoubtedly troubling the Ferrari driver who was a scant half-a-second ahead, while Albon was up to fifth and about 14 seconds off the leader.
Side note: One thing to consider, going ahead, is all the cars in the Virtual F1 are running automatic DRS. However, since it is the car that activates it, there can be cases of mismatch between two closely spaced cars, which can lead to more than a few sudden bursts of speed on the straight, but with no space to overtake if it’s not uniform across racers. This was the reason for differences between Leclerc and Russell fluctuating so consistently.
With just ten laps to go, Leclerc was able to breathe a sigh of relief as George Russell was slapped with a penalty for multiple warnings. This has happened to Russell in China and to Leclerc at Interlagos, and went on to undo their race efforts, so considering the late stage Russell’s been handed it here, the story seemed to be the same.
As this was happening, Alex Albon set a fastest lap time, the Red Bull driver doing his best to break into the podium spots from his current fifth place. And with nine laps remaining, Albon was just bedding in his tyres, which were just five laps old, while everyone else ahead of him had their tyres running a minimum of 15 laps.
With eight laps to go, Russell pulled the ultimate gamble, and was able to snatch the lead from Leclerc, pulling away to four-tenths of a second ahead of Leclerc. That said, he still needed 2.6 seconds to definitively negate his penalty. Another person whose final position seemed under jeopardy was Alex Albon, who was still not able to bring his pace up as much as he’d liked, and at this late a stage of the race, seemed to need his competitors to have nothing less than a cliff-edge drop in terms of the grip of their tyres.
Into Lap 26 and Russell was still having a hard time keeping Leclerc at bay, as the Ferrari driver was keeping his pace up, even coming to within a tenth of the race leader. Despite that, Leclerc still needed to stay within the race limits, else he could find himself at the short end of the stick, akin to the happenings at Interlagos. But with just six laps remaining, Leclerc was able to time his DRS right, and taking the outer line on Corner 1 (which smoothly transitioned to the inside line on Corner 2) regained the race lead!
A little behind the lead pair, Albon was able to get ahead of Latifi, and was now in P4, albeit 4 seconds off Gutierrez’ pace (and the podium). Post yet another fastest lap, Albon was still 4 seconds off Gutierrez, and 9 seconds behind the race leader.
But in yet another surprising development, Russell was able to – for the seemingly umpteenth time – retake the lead from Leclerc, after straightlining the DRS and almost flinging himself into Corner 1. Into the final stages of the race, and Alex Albon set yet another fastest lap, while Russell had managed to keep Leclerc close to a second away. Once into the DRS zone (start-finish straight) of Lap 29, Leclerc almost made contact with Russell, a move that ended with him losing his line, and paying for it with Russell almost instantly pulling away by 0.5 seconds. Albon too was taking serious risks, being as he was still 3.7 seconds behind Gutierrez and, consequently, the final podium place.
Russell was able to break DRS only in Lap 31, managing a lead of 1.4 seconds, while Albon got a 3-second penalty for multiple warnings, effectively ending his bid on a podium spot. And in an almost last-minute reprieve to Russell, Leclerc got a 3-second penalty for corner-cutting, ostensibly handing over the race victory to Russell.
This was the British driver’s first virtual F1 win, and his first one after his Formula 2 win in Abu Dhabi, way back in 2018.
The final results are as under: