Down but not out: how the motorsport community saved itself from lockdown despair

As the Coronavirus pandemic turned the world on its head in 2020, a series of national lockdowns and instructions to stay at home derailed sporting events, among them the 2020 Australian Grand Prix, cancelled just days before the planned race date. How the motorsport community managed to step into the breach is an uplifting tale of entertainment, competition, and controversy.

The 2020 F1 drivers pictured at pre-season testing in Barcelona, February 2020. The official season would not get underway until July.

As much of the world’s population were confined to their homes, many turned to virtual and online entertainment to get through the endless hours spent indoors. As a result, 17 billion hours of content was watched on the live streaming platform Twitch in 2020, compared to 9 billion hours in 2019.

F1 already had its own esports series and a strong existing network of F1 gamers and streamers. This, combined with F1’s ongoing efforts to make the sport more digitally accessible to increase fan engagement, allowed the sport to ride the wave of growth that esports and online entertainment experienced during lockdown. As a result, motorsport put on an impressive show in this uncertain period.

Following the cancellation of the season-opening race in Australia, Veloce Esports organised an informal ‘Not the Australian GP’ on the F1 racing game. The race saw current McLaren F1 driver Lando Norris take on a host of F1 content creators and esports drivers, along with former F1 drivers Esteban Guttiérez and Stoffel Vandoorne, and Real Madrid goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois. The race was full of incident as the drivers took part in some light-hearted competition to distract from what was unfolding in the outside world.

This set the tone as the motorsport community continued to provide its fans with the sort of escapism we so desperately needed. F1 itself organised a series of more official virtual GPs, featuring former and current F1 drivers, drivers from other series, and a host of other big names such as Sergio Agüero, Ben Stokes, Chris Hoy, Ian Poulter and Liam Payne.

The series ran alongside the regular F1 Esports Series which rose in popularity during lockdown as the most skilled sim racers fought hard on track, providing some serious and intense competition.

As for the virtual GPs, the early races were mostly just a bit of fun, and were full of hilarity as a series of bizarre crashes and technical glitches unfolded. Ex-F1 driver Johnny Herbert went from P15 to P1 by cutting the first corner apex by about 30 metres in the virtual Bahrain GP, as a series of dramatic and comical crashes took place on the first lap, as the commentators struggled to keep up with the chaos.

Lando Norris, perhaps the most prominent gamer and streamer on the F1 grid, suffered some technical difficulties in the early races which prevented him from completing the virtual Australian GP. In the virtual Bahrain GP, after his game crashed, Lando’s car kept driving, controlled by the AI rather than Lando himself. His Twitch stream went crazy for ‘Landobot’, who managed to keep up a strong pace, allowing real-life Lando to reconnect and take control with a few laps remaining to secure a P5 finish.

It seems that as much as human error makes sport unpredictable and entertaining, technical error also kept us guessing, giving a unique, exciting and amusing characteristic to virtual racing.

Twitch streaming was a growing feature of lockdown entertainment in 2020.

As the series continued, drivers increasingly took the racing seriously as it became clear that this would be the only viable competition for the foreseeable future, and was growing in importance for fans and sponsors alike. This led to some genuine high-quality racing, with tense battles at the front of the races from the likes of George Russell and Charles Leclerc. Of course, this could never eclipse the real racing that we so missed during lockdown, nevertheless, watching some of the stars of the sport fight for victory was gripping.

This period also saw the creation of the ‘Twitch Quartet’ of the aforementioned Norris, Russel and Leclerc along with fellow F1 driver Alex Albon. Based on TwitchTracker figures, their combined viewership from their individual Twitch streams totalled just under 21 million between the start of the UK lockdown in March and the first Grand Prix in Austria in July.

Eager to prevent virtual racing from becoming too serious, they would regularly team up on Twitch to engage in some light-hearted competition, friendly banter and at times, utter farce. Leclerc appeared on stream wearing a banana costume (not something you could imagine former Ferrari drivers such as Schumacher, Alesi or Irvine doing), while Norris live streamed himself shaving his head for charity, giving birth to a series of ‘Baldo Norris’ memes.

Three quarters of the Quartet: (from left to right) George Russell, Alex Albon, Lando Norris.

George Russell’s repeated crashing into Alex Albon while racing F1 cars, GT cars, HGVs, or lawnmowers (yes, lawnmowers) caused such frustration that led to a highly amusing compilation of Alex screaming “GEORGE!!!” as the drivers struggled to contain their laughter.

Even for a Ferrari driver like Leclerc, getting subscribers can be difficult, even if you do occasionally dress up as a banana. Fortunately he was given a small boost when his girlfriend subscribed to his Twitch channel so that she could join his live stream, and message the chat to inform him that he had locked her out of their apartment.

It was the entire motorsport community, not just F1, that put on a show during the hardships of 2020. Virtual races were held in Rallycross, the W Series, Formula E, Nascar, IndyCar, and there was even a virtual 24 Hours of Lemans.

Particularly eye-catching was the ‘The Race Legends Trophy’ series, which saw a host of motorsport legends compete in historic racing cars. It was quite a sight to behold as Petter Solberg, a Rallycross legend, drifted the 1975 Brabham BT44B F1 car from P16 to P1 in just two laps.

The likes of Jenson Button, Sebastian Vettel, Fernando Alonso and Juan Pablo Montoya competed in the series, showing that the world of virtual racing was not just for the young guns. Even restaurant owner and singer-songwriter Jacques Villeneuve (who you might also know as the 1997 F1 world champion) got involved, racing on the same sort of controller a teenager might use, in stark contrast to the professional setups the others were using – although it did not seem to slow him down much.

Everyone loves a bit of drama and we motorsport fans are no different. Fortunately, lockdown brought with it a series of tasty controversies for us to enjoy. Virtual races were taken increasingly seriously due to high viewership figures, as brands were keen to continue to promote themselves through virtual racing, replacing some of the sponsorship exposure that motorsport is so reliant on.

Because of this, unsportsmanlike incidents caused significant controversy, such as when Lando Norris was taken out by Simon Pagenaud in the IndyCar iRacing Challenge. After a 3-car incident left Pagenaud in the barriers, Pagenaud pinned the blame on Norris before deliberately exacting his revenge. This made a mockery of the race organisers’ efforts in putting together such an event, of the drivers’ attempts to entertain their fanbase during lockdown, and generally ruined everyone’s fun, which brought him significant criticism throughout the motorsport community.

Although Pagenaud escaped without any reprimand, others were not so fortunate. Nascar driver Bubba Wallace lost a sponsor after he ‘rage-quit’ during a virtual Nascar race was not going the way he had hoped. Kyle Larson’s sacking from his Nascar drive after using a racial slur on stream showed the extent to which drivers are brand ambassadors and role models, meaning that such behaviour can never be tolerated, particularly with so many people watching.

The most controversial of all was the curious case of Daniel Abt’s mystery driver. Competing in a virtual Formula E race, Abt finished P3 despite having never finished higher than P15 in previous rounds. Fellow driver Stoffel Vandoorne suggested that it was not Abt behind the wheel, and after cross-referencing IP addresses, race organisers confirmed his suspicions. Abt had enlisted the services of professional sim racer Lorenz Hoerzing to race on his behalf. When coverage switched to look at Abt driving, it was in fact Hoerzing at the wheel, with some camera equipment obscuring his face. Abt’s screen was conveniently left blank during the post-race podium interviews, supposedly due to a connection error (a trick not even my university lecturers would fall for).

Despite his claim that it had all been a harmless prank, this offence was serious enough for Abt to be suspended then eventually sacked from his actual Formula E drive by Audi, demonstrating that virtual racing had long since moved past the point of being “just a game.” These incidents were the subjects of lengthy debate throughout the motorsport community, as people grappled with our new reality and its many oddities.

Last year’s lockdown was a difficult period, but as is so often the case, it does not take much to lift your spirits and make the day seem that much brighter. The motorsport entertainment on offer did that and so much more. The close racing, the mishaps, the laughs and the controversies went a long way to filling the void that cancelled sport had left. When all this is over, the motorsport community can look back on this period with immense pride for how it kept its fanbase engaged and entertained.

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