Final Lap Fantasy

As we are all way too aware by now, the Covid-19 situation had basically killed any real motorsport for the last few months until the recent return of NASCAR and IndyCar. This left most racing series scrambling to find something to present to the audiences, lest their eyes wander to other forms of entertainment. The response was basically the same across the board: all racing series have streamed old “classic” events, presenting what they consider the best of their vault or underappreciated classics worthy of being shown to audiences who may have missed out on them the first time. Determining whether those selections are actually worthy of being considered such is an exercise left to the reader.

JuneAOf course that’s only one part of the two-pronged approach used by the majority of racing series. The other method of keeping fans entertained is by starting a virtual racing series involving at least a handful and ideally a majority of the starters in the real-life series. While the platform used varies, usually due to licensing, the general principle of these competitions does not vary much. Furthermore, unofficial video game races featuring real racing drivers have also happened. One of the most prominent events of this type is the The Race All-Star Series that features a who-is-who of the most prominent real-life drivers that includes, amongst many others, DTM champion Bruno Spengler, three-time Indy 500 champion Helio Castroneves and former F1 world champions in Jenson Button and Emerson Fittipaldi. They even lured Sebastian Vettel into debuting in the virtual world.

However, this approach leads to one question, hovering above the enterprise like the camera behind the main character of a third-person shooter: is the whole effort worth it? Are all these motorsport series profiting from virtual races? The author proposes the following answer: no.

As it does not take much to know that this assumption will feed anger like fire and leave cyber-racers asking why nobody wants change, the author is obviously aware that this claim needs to be justified. To establish why these events are not helping racing series, the first question is what is the expected benefit of these events?

JuneBOne was already mentioned in the introduction: it produces content in a time where the series are unable to provide real racing as entertainment product. It also has other advantages: for one, it enables drivers to compete against the mainstays of a series without the need to either establish an outfit that enables them to run in the series or takes away a slot from a driver more affiliated with the series. That is both entertaining for the audiences and has the potential to interest these drivers into bringing their prominence to the series in question one day. To give a prominent example, Lando Norris commented that he has acquired a taste for the venues used by the IndyCar Series, which may open the doors for a future career in IndyCar once he decides he is done with his F1 ventures or Formula One, cruel sport that it is, decides to make that decision for him. Of course, the names already brought drawing power in virtual events: aforementioned Lando Norris certainly brought a number of F1 fan eyes to the Supercars YouTube account. The videos of his appearance in the BP All Stars eSeries outscore the other videos uploaded in the last months by said YouTube account in terms of views by a metaphorical country mile.

Another positive factor is that it allows experimental scenarios: tracks that are in consideration for a race could see a virtual “test” for their suitability in the actual main series. Furthermore, visits to race tracks that just are not feasible for a certain series for whatever reason (mostly travel costs) can be achieved with little effort on a good racing simulator, which can serve as a digital “dream race”, fanservice for the hardcore motorsport crowd. In addition, it allows drivers to connect to a younger fanbase and enhance their image by being stars of a new form of entertainment, the so-called “eSports”.

With the main arguments towards the positive effect of virtual racing series being established, it is now the time to take them apart like the health bars of an opponent in Xenoblade Chronicles 2, ideally without being quite so tedious.

First off, whilst getting outsiders to your virtual series may open the door to a future engagement and thus increased fan interest, it may also result in the opposite. To use the previous example: Lando Norris said he’s interested in the “super fun” IndyCar Series tracks, but the unfortunate incident at the final race of the IndyCar iRacing Challenge and the handling of said event by the people involved may have soured his opinion on IndyCar a bit and removed the goodwill gained earlier. This incident will be addressed further down in this article.

As has been mentioned, these events draw YouTube viewers for their virtual events and thus may create brand interest in the real series, as John Clarke, CEO of Gfinity, noted regarding Formula One’s virtual races. Translating that audience into viewership of real-life racing is unlikely, however. One of the reasons is that motorsport for the most part is still entrenched in the car culture that simply is not as omnipresent in the type of young audiences that watch competitive video gaming. Someone can easily care for virtual racing without wanting any part of the technical details of a racing car. Another is a much simpler reason: you cannot replicate in real life that which can be done in a video game.

The reasons why some venues shown in virtual races are untenable for the real event were explained above. However, even the racing does not translate. The experienced motorsport fan only needs to watch a small bit of virtual motorsport to recognise lines no driver would take in reality. However, that issue pales in comparison to the observation that driving standards between video games and real life simply vary to the point that fans of virtual racing will soon grow bored with real racing if they decide it to give it a shot. This is not just limited to the “sim racers” entering these virtual events, but can also be seen in real-life drivers.

One example is the opening round of the “#DTMEsports Classic Challenge” at the virtual Circuit Zolder (the races can be watched here). All stars of DTM appeared in that event (with Marco Wittmann being the most prominent absence), however, their driving did not compare to the high-tier racing seen in normal DTM events. They attempted overtakes at places you would not see attempts at at the highest levels of racing, mostly because they had little chance of working whilst involving high amount of risk. If the author had an Euro every time a driver tried an overtake on the outside of Jacky Ickxbocht that would never work in a real car, he would be able to write The Gravel Trap as his full-time job. It also featured attacks that are well beyond even the usual aggressive standards seen in touring car events, such as Rene Rast’s last-corner “overtake” (read: bump and run) to take third place in the first race.

JuneDNow to show that this is not only a problem specific to the virtual DTM, let us look at the aforementioned event in which Sebastian Vettel began his blind playthrough of multiplayer rFactor 2. This virtual race happened at the Sepang International Circuit (with all the circuits available in rFactor 2, voluntarily having a race at Kuala Lumpur is to the author is like flying halfway around the world to spend all day sitting in your hotel room watching snooker tournaments on TV whilst EV training in Pokémon, but that’s a matter of personal opinion) and features a first lap that leaves the author wishing he had the financial means to send 16 drunk Malays in open-wheelers on the track to find out whether they would drive a less atrocious opening lap. Looking at said event from a Formula One race steward viewpoint (which, given the event uses Formula One cars, would be the go-to standard), you could assign at least half a dozen penalties, ranging from ten-second stop and go penalties to black-white warning flags before the field has made it through turn 3. Whilst actual accidents are reduced in volume after the chaotic opening lap, there are still divebomb moves that would have early-80s Andrea de Cesaris asking whether the driver in question had a death wish if tried in the real world. These are just two examples, if the author would look at the driving in the Virtual Formula One Grands Prix, which are criticised even by fans of virtual motorsport, this article would be twice as long.

Of course, all of that are just objections that could be dismissed because the author is “old-fashioned” or assuming that fans of virtual racing cannot separate these events from the real thing, simple-minded as those objections would be. One thing that cannot be denied however, is the following argument: there are few people and organisations who actually have received an image boost from these outings.

JuneA (1)Certainly, many simulators will see a boost in sales and subscriptions, but how much will this advertisement actually help? Hardcore racing sims are a niché product, and regardless of how much you promote said niché products, people will eventually learn why they are niché products. It remains to be seen how many iRacing subscriptions bought in the wake of these virtual races will be cancelled by frustrated players with no racing rig. That’s where the more casual racing games like the official Formula One games by Codemasters would come in. The horrendously low attendance rate by actual Formula One drivers in the Formula One Virtual Grands Prix (even when accounting for the cyber-apathy of the older drivers like Kimi Räikkönen and Lewis Hamilton), the dismissive attitude of Max Verstappen, one of the most prominent faces on the grid and Lando Norris’s continued connection issues have made the official video game of the series look like a hack job. In response, Julian Tan, head of digital business of FOM, entertained the notion of a hardcore simulation to complement the official game (of course not addressing how Liberty Media or the hypothetical publisher would plan to deal with the complete lack of economical feasibility of that idea).

So if the games are either being harmed or may or may not have long-term profits, what about the drivers? Certainly, some drivers must be getting more popular or be seen as better drivers, right? Well, not really. Certainly, looking through the comment sections of the world wide web, there is no driver who is seen as a better driver than he was seen as before. Some have profited in their public image like the van der Linde brothers, who have appeared in many prominent events, building an image of fun-loving racers to go with their real racing achievements (ADAC GT Masters Champion in Kelvin’s case; an impressive DTM debut season including one pole position in Sheldon’s case). Lando Norris and Charles Leclerc also managed to connect to the younger fanbase, although they “just” expanded on their existing fanbase in that regard. Another man earning respect even in the fanbase not particularly interested in sim racing was Jacques Villeneuve, who was highly competitive using an Xbox controller against expensive sim rigs (though it must be noted that Villeneuve has been using simulators to practice tracks and racing in general longer than a significant number of drivers on the F1 grid have been alive).

In comparison, let us look at examples of drivers whose image suffered: Simon Pagenaud is one name that quickly comes to mind. His intentional wrecking of Lando Norris made him and other IndyCar drivers look like a bunch of petty thugs, a reputation not deserved by Pagenaud specifically and AOWS drivers in general. IndyCar’s lack of response to their reigning Indianapolis 500 champion violating the most basic rules of ethical conduct in motorsport is a particularly damning statement about both the authenticity of the “replacement” races and the series itself.

The very same race also had an awful accident late when Santino Ferrucci crashed into Oliver Askew, denying the American a likely victory. Of course, Ferrucci is already as popular  as Rosh Penin in motorsport circles, but his good rookie year (including joining names like Mario Andretti, Arie Luyendyk and Rubens Barrichello as Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year) distracted from his questionable antics. With this incident bringing his negative perception to the foreground, it may come to hurt him and/or his team in search of sponsors down the road. It is also worth noting that his justification was that driving in a video game is unlike driving in real life and that he does things he would not do in a real race, which coincidentally proves the author’s argumentation above.

JuneEThe topic of sponsors lead us perfectly to NASCAR and the mishaps in their virtual series. Ragequitting in video games is a common occurrence and whilst it is generally considered to be an unsporting move, it is not agreed to be something that should affect a person’s income in real life. Blue-Emu apparently did not agree with that line of reasoning and cancelled their sponsorship contract with Bubba Wallace, causing a minor controversy.

If that had remained the worst thing happening in an virtual race involving NASCAR drivers, the series could have counted itself lucky.

Kyle Miyata Larson unfortunately managed to top that and hurt his career worse than any of the people mentioned above. The incident itself is still vividly remembered by, so a summary is unnecessary. Especially in light of recent events, it needs to be noted more than ever that his choice of words was not acceptable. However, it is hard to deny that people in a private environment, which video games usually take place in, use words they know better than to use in public. The race where Larson’s incident occurred was not even an officially sanctioned eNascar event, proving just how little Larson could actually gain in the event he lost so much in. NASCAR in particular was hurt by these events, as it only enhanced its unfair reputation as a “redneck sport”, a reputation it seems to actively try to work against right now.

Larson lost his drive with Chip Ganassi Racing, but he was not the only prominent driver to lose their employment on account of a virtual race. Daniel Abt joined him on that list a couple of weeks later, when a prank went wrong: Abt worked together with a sim racer to fool his Formula E rivals. The ruse was revealed very quickly and Audi released the German from his contract, claiming he had violated Audi’s core principles with this action. Given the usual lack of moral principles shown by Audi in motorsport (a subject GP Rejects will address in the future), it stands to reason that the company was probably looking for a way to release him without giving Abt Sportsline reason for complaint, but it is still a termination based on actions in a video game.

In addition to all the negative effects mentioned above, it should also be mentioned that not even the view counts are in favour of continuing these events. The all-star events by The Race are outdrawn in viewership by their editorial videos and the Virtual Grands Prix on the Formula One YouTube account are mostly on par with or slightly ahead/behind the classic events, depending on the popularity of the classic race in question. Therefore, it cannot even be said that the eyeballs on the product alone could justify the harm it does in other aspects.

Considering all the arguments presented against the virtual races, motorsport fans should collectively be overjoyed that real racing either already has returned or is bound to do so soon. It is worth pointing out that this is not the fault of video games: especially for the many, many people who will never have the chance of drive a real racing car, racing simulations both serious and casual provide a thrilling ride. However, for the viewing audience, computer games just are not a sufficient replacement for the real thing.

Sources: Autobild, ESPN, motorsport-total.com, RaceFans, SportBusiness, The Race, YouTube

Image Sources: Assetto Corsa Competizione, Automobilista 2, DUCATI – 90th Anniversary: The Official Video Game, F1 2019, NASCAR Heat 2