Charles Leclerc takes the victory at race three of the F1 Virtual GP at Shanghai
Charles Leclerc takes the victory at race three of the F1 Virtual GP at Shanghai|F1.com
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F1 Esports Virtual Grand Prix – Leclerc reigns again at Shanghai

The Ferrari racer drove another near-perfect race and finally claimed the top spot, with Alex Albon in second place and Guanyu Zhou winning third at his home race

Sudipto Chaudhury

Coronavirus causing motorsport events to be cancelled has led to everything motorsport-related moving to the virtual sphere. After the first race of this ‘season,’ held at the digital rendering of the Bahrain International Circuit, won by Renault test driver and Formula 2 racer Guanyu Zhou, race two, at Australia's Albert Park circuit, was bagged by Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc. For race three we moved to the digital rendering of the Shanghai International circuit, where the pressure mounted on Guanyu Zhou, to do his best.

Qualifying for the race consisted of a 16-minute session, followed by a 28-lap (half of actual race length) race. As before, the Codemasters’ F1 2019 game (on which the race was contested) had the damage setting turned off.

The racers

As before, the list of racers for this edition of the Virtual F1 included an eclectic mix of racers across formats, and some who aren’t even a part of the motorsport fraternity. Starting off, the Mercedes team (AMG Petronas Formula One) was represented by Stoffel Vandoorne, and Esteban Gutierrez, both reserve drivers for the F1 team. Driving for Ferrari were Charles Leclerc, last time’s winner, with British driver Callum Ilott replacing the younger Leclerc from last time.

Similar was the story with Red Bull, with Alex Albon’s teammate this time being Real Madrid goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois, taking over from cricketer Ben Stokes. In the McLaren team, Lando Norris and Carlos Sainz (the younger, who is an F1 driver, not to confused with his father, also Carlos Sainz, who was a World Rally champion). The Renault team had Guanyu Zhou, winner of the first Virtual F1 race, joined by British professional golfer Ian Poluter. The Toro Rosso team had Kiwi racer Liam Lawson and Italian footballer Ciro Immobile, while the Alfa Romeo team had Antonio Giovinazzi, but replaced Formula 1 broadcaster Johnny Herbert with racing driver Juan Manuel Correa.

Lastly, three teams continued with the last race’s lineup, with Louis Deletraz and Pietro Fittipaldi (Haas), George Russell and Nicholas Latifi (Williams) and Anthony Davidson and Jimmy Broadbent (Racing Point).

Qualifying

The 16-minute qualifying session saw Charles Leclerc once again going all guns blazing, setting the fastest time of 1:29.607, getting him the lead spot on the starting grid. However, Guanyu Zhou, winner of the first race at Bahrain, was leaving no stone unturned. Since Shanghai is such a technical circuit from F1 standards, Zhou went off track at quite a few places, which was luckily not an offense in this virtual F1 format.

The results of the qualifying session are as under:

Qualifying times for the racers at race three of the F1 Virtual GP at Shanghai
Qualifying times for the racers at race three of the F1 Virtual GP at Shanghai Sudipto Chaudhury

Yes, you’re right to notice that the racers’ times do not match their positions on the starting grid, and that’s not without good reason.

The entire qualifying session was peppered with five-place penalties, starting with the Williams teammates: Latifi after his collision with Jimmy Broadbent, and Russell getting his for illegal blocking. This was followed by Antonio Giovinazzi and Stoffel Vandoorne, getting the same punishment for identical offences.

Race

Like last time, Leclerc shot off from the very start. Zhou, desperate to win at his home race, came up to third, putting all kinds of pressure on second-placed Alex Albon. Carlos Sainz who climbed to eighth, dropped to 16th after going head first into the wall post Corner 9.

Going into Lap 2, the story was about the same, with Leclerc ahead, Albon 0.71 seconds behind him, and Zhou breathing down his neck, just 0.165 seconds behind, before going into the twisties of Corners 2, 3 and 4, where the gaps widened to about a second each between either of them. However, Albon’s charge was soon renewed, and going into corner 9, he was almost at touching distance with the race leader. Corners 10 and 16 were turning out to be exciting, with the racers using all the run-off they could get to maintain their pace. Track limits? What are those?

Lap three saw the DRS getting enabled and, coupled with the 1km back straight, promising yet another dose of excitement. Up front, Leclerc and Albon, just half a second apart, were romping away from the others, with third-placed Zhou now 2.3 seconds behind Albon.

Lap four started with George Russell going for an early pitstop gamble. Since one pitstop is mandatory, he decided on Lap 4. Now, most racers would qualify on mediums to set a good time, and then change over to hard tyres on the ninth or tenth lap, so Russell’s decision, at the time, seemed curious.

Estimated pit strategy for race three of the F1 Virtual GP at Shanghai
Estimated pit strategy for race three of the F1 Virtual GP at Shanghai F1.com

Lap five started first with Louis Deletraz getting a three-second time penalty after multiple warnings, and Alex Alon pitting in, pushing Guanyu Zhou to the second place. Soon, both Charles Leclerc and Zhou entered the pits, giving the top spots to Jimmy Broadbent and Liam Lawson. The lap ended with Ian poulter getting the best of George Russell, netting the 13th place, while up front Broadbent was still in the lead followed by Liam Lason, Callum Ilott and Carlos Sainz.

Lap seven saw Ilott’s Ferrari, with its tyres now starting to fade, losing third place to Carlos Sainz. In the middle of the pack, Leclerc was now trying his darndest to overtake Albon, who, with the net race lead, was all over the place. Meanwhile, Giovinazzi got a 3-second penalty after multiple warnings.

With Lap 9 on, and the front runners being those who hadn’t yet pit, Albon was doing his best to maintain his position, fending off Leclerc who was just 0.3 seconds behind him. And, once on the short straight between corners 10 and 11, Albon overtook teammate Thibaut Courtois (who seemed to just get out of the way a little), and put some distance between him and Leclerc. For his part, Leclerc did get past Courtois in the final moments of the lap, albeit after his Ferrari endured some contact with Juan Manuel Correa’s Alfa Romeo.

Contact between Charles Leclerc and Juan Manuel Correa during race three of the F1 Virtual GP at Shanghai
Contact between Charles Leclerc and Juan Manuel Correa during race three of the F1 Virtual GP at Shanghai F1.com

It took till Lap 11 for Leclerc to retake his lead from Albon, and though he was now in second, the race lead was back to him (as front-runner Sainz had not yet pitted). For his part, Sainz continued maintaining a steady pace. The middle of the pack, though, was seeing strong action, with Esteban Guiterrez’ inside-line pass off Guanyu Zhou, and Russell pushing Deletraz out of the way in Corner 10 to take seventh place, losing it just a few corners later, on the Corner 10-11 straight.

Carlos Sainz finally pitted in Lap 14, a brilliant spell on his medium tyres, giving the race lead back to Leclerc, with Albon just 0.4 seconds behind, and Stoffel Vandoorne, Guanyu Zhou and Esteban Gutierrez in third, fourth and fifth respectively. Though Albon had earlier tried an under cut strategy (pitting early and then working up a lead on fresh tyres) with Leclerc, his strategy seemed undone as the Monegasque driver was now consistently inching away.

In lap 17, and third place Stoffel Vandoorne was rudely pushed off his line by Guanyu Zhou, retaking the position he lost in the pitstop (his undercut strategy, it appears, working out). It may have been a virtual grand prix, but it was still his home event. Meanwhile, Carlos Sainz was down in eleventh, and had it not been for his spin early on, would have very much been in contention. However, with just four laps on his hard tyres, as opposed to race leaders’ Leclerc, Albon and Zhou’s 12, 13, and 12 laps, respectively, he was doing his best to maintian his pace.

The middle of the pack, meanwhile, saw Liam Lawson with newer tyres and Antonio Giovinatti with older tyres (but better pace and track position) in a curious spot. Throughout the first sector of Lap 20, the racers repeatedly banged wheels, despite which Giovinatti still held on to his lead, with Lawson losing out crucial milliseconds in Corner 8 and falling behind Nicholas Latifi, then regaining his position by Corner 11. Around the same time, Louis Deletraz was able to get the better of Esteban Gutierrez.

The final third of the race saw Leclerc leading, and Albon just 2.2 seconds behind. Third placed Zhou was 2.9 seconds behind him, with Vandoorne hot on his heels, just 0.6 seconds behind. With five laps remaining, Vandoorne’s repeated attempts bore fruit, with his selection of line and clver utilisation of DRS on the kilometre-long back straight finally getting him the third spot. But strangely, Antonio Giovinazzi left the online game session, his final position lost in a DNF. This also promoted Carlos Sainz to ninth, and Nicholas Latifi to tenth.

With three laps remaining, Leclerc was 2.6 seconds ahead of Albon, who himself had the same kind of lead off Stoffel Vandoorne. At the same time, there was a close battle between Esteban Guiterrez and Louis Deletraz, just about 0.6 seconds apart. Just behind was Liam Lawson in eighth, with Carlos Sainz just fighting to maintain his ninth place.

Esteban Guiterrez goes past back marker Ian Poulter during race three of the F1 Virtual GP at Shanghai
Esteban Guiterrez goes past back marker Ian Poulter during race three of the F1 Virtual GP at Shanghai F1.com

The penultimate lap started with, who else, Charles Leclerc up front, still 2.6 seconds ahead of Albon, who had now been able to garner a 3.6-second lead over Stoffel Vandoorne. At the middle of the pack, the battle between Deletraz and Guiterrez continued to be the most hotly-contested, with just 0.5 seconds between them. Since both of them were in pretty similar situation with regards to tyres, Guiterrez was just looking for weaknesses ahead and planning a brave move.

The final lap, then, looked pretty much set in stone for the top four, so a glimpse lower down had Russell leading Deletraz by 5.6 seconds, Sainz leading Latifi by 1.1 seconds, and at the back with the footballers, Thibaut Courtois a hefty 23 seconds ahead of Ciro Immobile.

Into the final sector, and repeating last race’s performance, Leclerc was a class above everyone else, netting a facile win over Albon, with Guanyu Zhou (getting ahead due to a penalty to Vandoorne) rounding off the podium. This was Albon’s first time on the podium in a virtual grand prix.

The final results are as under

Final results of race three of the F1 Virtual GP at Shanghai
Final results of race three of the F1 Virtual GP at Shanghai Sudipto Chaudhury
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