Sports around the world are being upended by cancellations due to the COVID-19 pandemic. For some leagues, this is resulting in unfinished or postponed seasons. For others, it’s a cause for creativity. In a set of unprecedented announcements last week, NASCAR and Formula 1 both revealed that they are moving matches that are yet to be played to an esports format.
NASCAR’s virtual plan of action
NASCAR, the American auto racing association, is partnering with iRacing to run the eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series. This series will replace NASCAR matches that have been postponed with simulated ones up to at least May 3. Motorsport fans will quickly recognize some of the competitors that have signed on to play, including Dale Earnhardt Jr., Bobby Labonte, Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin, along with other NASCAR stars.
iRacing is a subscription-based racing platform first released in 2008. The gameplay is designed to simulate the experience of in-person racing as much as possible, employing a cockpit-only view and realistic controls. For instance, players are allowed to use gamepads if they want but they are generally discouraged due to the advantage other players have when using steering wheel controllers. In-game vehicles are designed using the schematics of race cars from official tournaments around the world, so iRacing is a reasonable replacement for NASCAR events.
It’s obvious that the invitational series came together quickly, as matches have already begun to replace the usual Sunday NASCAR broadcasts. The first match occurred on March 22 and will continue to air every week “following CDC guidelines” according to FOX Sports. Ross Chastain and Chris Buescher, two of the racers featured in Sunday’s virtual Homestead-Miami Speedway race, found creative ways to participate in order to follow health protocol. Chastain competed using his iRacing rig at home, and Buescher played from Roush Fenway’s campus in Concord, North Carolina, using a custom rig.
F1 embraces esports again
Formula 1 also started replacing matches in a virtual setting on March 22 with the new F1 Esports Virtual Grand Prix series. The virtual series matches will stand in for postponed real-world Grand Prix events, starting with the Bahrain Grand Prix. Like eNASCAR, this schedule is projected out until May. F1 has already dipped its toes into esports, so this should be a good way to continue their development of a motorsport scene.
F1 opted to use its own licensed software to run the Virtual Grand Prix series, namely the F1 2019 PC video game developed by Codemasters.
The Bahrain Grand Prix featured the game’s 28-lap, 50% length race, with grid positions determined based on the drivers’ fastest lap time. You can watch all the upcoming GPs on the official Formula 1 YouTube, Twitch and Facebook channels, as well as F1.com.
Both NASCAR and F1 recognize that real-life skill level and in-game virtual skill level may not be equal, so both series are aimed at providing entertainment more than anything else. Either way you look at it, having new content coming out during a period of social distancing is a win-win for motorsport fans across the world.