Formula 1 has announced the launch of a new Esports Virtual Grand Prix series, featuring a number of current F1 drivers.
The series has been created to enable fans to continue watching races virtually, despite the ongoing COVID-19 situation that has affected this season's opening race calendar.
The virtual races will run in place of every postponed Grand Prix, starting this weekend with the Virtual Bahrain Grand Prix. Every subsequent race weekend will see the postponed real-world race replaced with a Virtual Grand Prix, with the initiative currently scheduled to run until May.
Grands Prix not available in the 2019 official F1 video game will be replaced with an alternative venue, while the Esports Virtual GP initiative will be extended beyond May if the pandemic results in further Grand Prix cancellations/postponements.
The first race of the series will see current F1 drivers line up on the grid alongside a host of stars to be announced in due course. In order to guarantee the participants safety at this time, each driver will join the race remotely, with a host broadcast live from the Gfinity Esports Arena (or remotely if required) from 8:00pm (GMT) on Sunday March 22.
The series will use the official F1 2019 PC video game, developed by Codemasters, and the first virtual GP on the Sakhir track will be a 50% length race with 28 laps. The broadcast, which will be available on the official Formula 1 YouTube, Twitch and Facebook channels, is expected to run for 90 minutes, with a qualifying period where grid positions will be determined based on the drivers' fastest lap time.
Due to the wide variety of gaming skill levels amongst the drivers, game settings will be configured in such a way to encourage competitive and entertaining racing. This includes running equal car performance with fixed setups, reduced vehicle damage, and optional anti-lock brakes and traction control for those less familiar with the game.
On non-race weekends, Formula 1 will host online exhibition races, where fans from around the world will be given the chance to go head-to-head with F1 drivers. More details of these events will be available in the coming weeks.
The move follows Esports races held over the Melbourne weekend, which saw Max Verstappen and Lando Norris take part, the Red Bull driver finishing 11th in the 'All-star Esports battle', while the McLaren driver was sixth in the 'Not the Aus GP' organised by Veloce Esports.
"We are very pleased to be able to bring some light relief in the form of the F1 Esports Virtual GP, in these unpredictable times, as we hope to entertain fans missing the regular sporting action," said Julian Tan, Head of Digital Business Initiatives and Esports. "With every major sports league in the world unable to compete, it is a great time to highlight the benefits of esports and the incredible skill that's on show."
"We're excited to be a part of the new series," added Frank Sagnier, Chief Executive Officer, Codemasters. "With sporting events currently on hold around the world, it's great that the official F1® video game can help fill the void by bringing together an exciting line-up of talent to race online during the postponed race weekends. It's going to be competitive, action-packed, and a lot of fun for everyone involved."
"Gfinity is proud to be playing its part in the design and delivery of the series," said John Clarke, Gfinity Chief Executive Officer, "which will bring exciting virtual racing to a legion of Formula 1 and Esports fans around the globe.
"The virtual Bahrain GP will feature all the thrills and spills of racing with F1 drivers and special guest celebrities going head-to-head, which promises to put a smile back on the faces of millions of sports fans."