This weekend showed the best of racing esports, and some of the worst

Motorsports and racing simulators have long gone hand in hand, whether it’s test drivers putting hour after hour in on the simulator back at a Formula 1 team’s factory to test set up changes and strategies, or the GT Academy programme that helped find 22 real world racing drivers off the back of their prowess in Gran Turismo.

With the skills of racing on a real track and a digital track so obviously transferrable, it’s made racing games one of the more obvious avenues for esports to grow and flourish alongside their real world counterparts. There’s not a licensed racing game that goes by without some mention of an esports championship, with events often planned to tie them neatly together.

It’s also no surprise, then, that with the world having gone into lockdown through the current pandemic, and with these real racing events either postponed or cancelled outright, many sporting bodies and drivers have taken themselves online. In the process it’s revealed some of the best, and the worst, of both people and esports as a whole.

All of the biggest motorsports championships have adapted in their own particular ways. Formula 1 has, for example, tapped into the F1 series of games developed by Codemasters, inviting a mixture of real F1 drivers, other racing drivers and just general sportspeople and celebrities to take part. It’s been set up with accessibility in mind, catering to this range of ability while allowing the natural talents to shine through. By contrast, NASCAR and IndyCar in the US have used racing simulator iRacing to hold their own esports events.

It’s led to some fantastic races, and last night saw a true epic as the Formula 1 virtual grand prix held the Dutch Grand Prix equivalent using the Interlagos circuit in Brazil instead…. because it’s not in last year’s game. After a handful of decent races as people bedded into racing digitally and with varying skill levels, this race had its own fair share of video game-y incidents. A light, potentially slightly lag-induced touch from F3 driver Enzo Fittipaldi seemed to be the cause for pole sitter Stoffel Vandoorne to slide sideways into George Russel, before careening back across the track and collecting Fittipaldi once again.

It was chaos and carnage that, thanks to damage being turned off, didn’t end anyone’s race, but let Alex Albon and Charles Leclerc shoot clear into first and second place with a few seconds gap to everyone else. That same lack of damage let their racing talents shine, though. Albon and Leclerc were nose-to-tail throughout almost the entire half distance race, feeding off each others’ slip streams and constantly handing the lead back and forth, knowing that they’d be in position to trade it back again a lap later.

Sure there was an element of bump drafting at times, but after the pit stops and with differing tyre strategies, it became much more serious as Leclerc on slower harder tyres stuck with Albon into the last few laps, determined to try to beat him on track, even if he had drawn a three second penalty for various small infractions.

Thrilling with tight racing for the lead from start to finish, it was a stark contrast to the last two events that Leclerc had won easily. It was a great advert for what F1 is able to do while we endure this lockdown. It’s unfortunate that it came just 24 hours after a less savoury incident in a different racing category.

While NASCAR and IndyCar have more sim racing credentials to their esports events, and have managed to induct more of their racing stars into the fold, and not just the young up-and-comers, they’ve been marred by controversies. It started off small with NASCAR driver Bubba Wallace rage-quitting a race and losing a sponsor for his bad sportsmanship as a consequence, before escalating quite dramatically to another NASCAR driver, Kyle Larson being dropped by Chevrolet and Chip Ganassi Racing after he casually used the N-word while talking to his race engineer… while all his communications were being broadcast live to the world. The companies involved have to be applauded for their quick action on that matter in particular, but it’s clear that everyone wants these events to have integrity and worth for fans.

While nowhere near as ugly as, you know, racism, the adjacent IndyCar esports event has had its own controversy, with a number of big and seemingly deliberate, vindictive crashes on the final lap.

The IndyCar Challenge had invited a number of other racers to join the IndyCar star, with F1’s Lando Norris taking part for the Arrow McLaren SP team in the oval event, managing to run at the front in the final laps. Having suffered from a crash that knocked him out of contention, IndyCar racer Simon Pagenaud and his spotter attributed blame to Norris – his move up the inside of another racer had left Pagenaud with nowhere but the wall to go – the live-streaming Pagenaud churlishly stated quite plainly “I’m gonna take Lando out” as he left the pits in a reset car.

Much slower than the pack and seemingly slowing further through the corner as the gaggle of racers came through, he then feigns innocence, throwing up his hands as Norris clatters into the back of him. Watching this back, Norris simply laughed at him.

Having spoken to Pagenaud, Norris relayed his account of events on his stream:

He said he wanted to come into the pits, and he wanted to slow me up, he wanted Askew to win. He didn’t want me to win. So he tried slowing me up a little bit, and then was going to come into the pits… had no intention of taking me out.

Do you know how many fricking hours I put into driving the lefts? Trying to perfect it with the most delicate touch. Twenty-four hours, and then cos that guy gets a bit salty that a non-IndyCar driver is about to win an Indy race… just ruins it.

With a subsequent crash as Santino Ferrucci took out Oliver Askew on the final straight, veering left as he was starting to come up alongside, it does ruin it. You simply wouldn’t do these things in real life.

Ferrucci said in his live stream:

I think at the end of the day, it’s a video game, it’s virtual reality. It’s not anything that I think I’d find myself doing in a real car.

If you look at all the weaving down the straight, I feel like I’m almost playing Call of Duty with everybody weaving in and out places.

And with that, I’m sure many will be asking whether there’s any point to it at all? Certainly, there’s no real stakes here, no or reduced vehicular damage, no putting lives on the line, not the same battles of endurance, and the intangible impact of internet connectivity. So when those taking part clearly aren’t taking things seriously in an event organised by the racing series itself, why should we?

A problem that esports have grappled with is that many just don’t see them as being on a par with more physical sports like football or racing, and the attitudes of Pagenaud and Ferrucci don’t help that perception in the slightest. Simply put, I don’t think they should take part in further online events like this, because whether it’s something a bit fun and lighter like the F1 VGPs, or something more sim-oriented and serious like NASCAR and IndyCar have set up, nobody likes a spoilsport, even if it’s an esport.

Image credit: TeamL4NDO, RedBullRacing

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