Formula 1 should be three rounds into its longest-ever season but the coronavirus pandemic has forced competition into the virtual world. But, as Motorsport Week explains, the rise of Esports has had an unexpected, and positive, side effect.
Across the world, in most ‘Western’ countries, the vast majority of people have spent days or even weeks indoors. No-one is quite sure what the future holds, what society will look like once this is over, and that is before the economic situation is considered.
Obviously, in this context, Formula 1 is small fry – but it is nonetheless still important. Aside from its millions of fans worldwide the industry has already played its role in the coronavirus pandemic through Project Pitlane, precise details of which will continue to emerge as the weeks pass.
One side effect of the pandemic has been the rise of Esports, given it is an activity that can not only be undertaken from home, but can also be broadcast.
Formula 1 has set up its studio at the Gfinity Arena and it had its presenters and commentators – social distancing of course, though whether travelling somewhere to broadcast is ‘essential’ is another discussion point – but their stream was not the captivating element. Sorry chaps.
It was on Twitch, where a group of the young drivers were live streaming their own efforts, talking through what was happening, while sometimes messaging or ringing up the others.
For years fans have wanted to know more about drivers, and the advent and rise of social media, as well as longer and more available broadcast packages, have facilitated this. We have greater exposure, and more awareness, of what each driver is like than any other generation in history.
But the Twitch interactions are another level: there’s no team manager or press officer around, there’s no occasionally stifling media Q&A format, there’s no video editing or carefully construced narrative. It’s just drivers unfiltered and unscripted.
There was an element of this first time around with Lando Norris, who became the star of the show two weeks ago when he began ringing the F1 contacts in his phone book and winding up as many as he could.
Norris was effectively a side-show this week as his game (again) crashed, though it prompted another public call with Max Verstappen, who bluntly reasserted his disdain of the simcade-y F1 2019 game and urged Norris to uninstall it. Which he theatrically and gleefully did.
Elsewhere real-life Williams team-mates George Russell and Nicholas Latifi worked together where they could, giving advice and warning the other of anything that could go wrong. “I didn’t score a point last year so a podium… yeah I’d be happy with P10,” quipped Russell at one stage.
Charles Leclerc revealed that he’d spent five hours a day across the past week practicing while joking that “I probably won’t say much, apart from ‘I am stupid’ and ‘come on Charles’, before reiterating his feeling that it was more challenging than real-life driving, and that he was sweating while feeling the pressure of being out front. There were several phone calls with others, including Russell, Norris and Antonio Giovinazzi (whose entrance into the lobby when they practiced the previous day merited a huge cheer from the group). “GIOVINAZZI!” he yelled comically, when Russell asked if the Antonio who’d joined was him or Fuoco. Most of this group – along with a few others who weren’t present – have grown up together from a young age and have a natural rapport. Netflix would kill for these kinds of impromptu interactions. However the highlight was when Leclerc tried to end his stream. Having spent “three hours” creating a screenshot of several real-life images he couldn’t work out how to sign off. “It’s not working… oh no… I’m so disappointed now.” Even highly-skilled racing drivers struggle with computer technology. Before signing off Leclerc’s adrenalin rush was such that he suggested to the others they should race one another each day, away from F1’s official events, and stream the whole thing… it’d surely rake in the viewers.
There is so much more to Formula 1 than driver personalities but the racers themselves are the stars of the show – and if this pandemic has had one positive then it is in seeing the next generation publicly unfiltered and unscripted.