On Thursday, 12 March, a McLaren engineer tested positive for Covid-19 in Melbourne. By Friday, the Grand Prix was cancelled, in the nick of time. By the end of that fateful weekend, with lockdown measures clicking into gear across the globe, the racing season was postponed until May at the earliest.
The first thoughts were of the necessary losses: refunds on tickets, hospitality and other ways Formula 1 makes money through sponsor and commercial accessibility. A robust insurance policy would answer a few of those revenue questions but, so far, races in Australia, Netherlands, France and Monaco have been cancelled, with the Grand Prix of China, Bahrain, Vietnam, Baku and Canada postponed.
The next question was arguably more pressing and necessitated company-wide brainstorming. An email sent to all departments summed it up: “How do we fill the void?”
No races meant no qualification, which in turn meant no practice, and thus, no pontification. No content. For a sport of such high profile, where 98 per cent of its fans never attend a race but pick the bones from it online through a constant cycle of coverage through broadcasts and social media, this was catastrophic.
One of the most popular suggestions was to fill the gap with the F1 eSport series – a programme that has been running since 2017 and pulled in 8.7million views in 2019, with 2.7m through television. Add to that a further 27m video clicks across social media.
Those figures, however, took them to a conclusion that few others would have reached: if you knew F1, you already knew about the eSport series. And if you weren’t a fan then, you probably wouldn’t be now, even in a pandemic.
However, there was still something to work with, particularly as the reasons for the lack of crossover was due to racing fans enjoying the behind the scenes elements as much, and sometimes more, than what happens on the track. And while they would be unable to provide the technicalities of the pit, there was a way they could offer the personalities.
Their original plans featured just drivers. But following discussions with Gfinity, the company that deliveries theirs and other eSport series, they were advised to enlist high profile names from other fields to add a celebrity Pro-Am slant.
Just ten days after the cancellation at Melbourne, the Virtual Grand Prix series was announced. Virtual races would run in place of postponed Grand Prix, broadcast across the official Formula 1 YouTube channel, Twitch, Facebook and F1.com. Each race would be half the length of its “live” counterpart to ensure the running time – including qualification – would only be two hours.
Two months on from that online reboot, the swiftness of the turnaround is still remarkable to those within Formula 1. When it comes to numbers, it will surely be looked back on as one of the most inspired decisions made by the organisation.
The first five Virtual GPs have drawn in more than 20 million viewers – that’s head and shoulders above other virtual racing series in 2020. Of the top five sports videos uploaded to YouTube, three are from Formula 1, with numbers two and five respectively the Virtual GPs of Bahrain and Australia.
A level of social cut-through has been achieved through an array of celebrity appearances. Enlisting footballers such as Pierre Emerick Aubameyang, Sergio Aguero and Thibauld Courtois, golfer Ian Poulter and cricketer Ben Stokes has also allowed them to appeal to fans of other sports.
Yet for all the decisiveness, there was one key element to all of this that Formula 1 were totally oblivious to. They did not realise just how good their video game actually was.
They knew it was successful, and were aware of the numbers being done by their eSports series. Racing is a thriving genre in gaming. Online as well as offline, cars are everywhere. But they were blissfully ignorant of the popularity of their F1 series from Codemasters among casual gamers. Even some of their own drivers.
“We were very fortunate,” says Ben Pincus, director of commercial partnerships at Formula 1. “From a timing perspective, we just so happen to have a number of young drivers across our teams who are gamers anyway.” Drivers such as McLaren’s Lando Norris who revealed he drove over 600 laps on his gaming simulator at home as preparation for his debut in 2019’s Australian Grand Prix.
They were subsequently taken aback by the enthusiasm of their celebrity participants, and others who are now clamouring to get involved during lockdown. Real Madrid goalkeeper Courtois has asked to be involved as much as he can, while Arsenal striker Aubameyang is so enamoured with the project that he is now considering forming his own eSport stable.
On Twitch, a live-streaming site used mostly for gaming, while most racing simulator games have increased in hours watched since the start of the year, none of come close to F1 2019’s staggering growth rate of 1,061per cent.
There is willingness from other sports in the United Kingdom to engage similarly. But the ones that need it most are hamstrung by inferior products.
The regular offerings from rugby and cricket are mediocre at best, from sub par gameplay to issues over licensing that mean even the athletes represented in the game are less than enthused to pick up a controller.
Cricket in particular has struggled, even with the latest Cricket 19 game developed by Big Ant Studios in collaboration with Maximum Games. Last month, The Cricketer magazine put on a Quarantine Cup with a view to providing virtual county cricket during season hiatus. Only 11 of the 18 clubs took part – most due to the competition being Playstation 4 only – but even some of those that did still had to be given codes by Red Ant Studios to download the game.
“It’s crazy when you think about it,” muses Pincus on the opportunity Formula 1 has been able to seize. “This is something that did not exist three months ago, and yet it has already presented us with new substantial data points that we have to pay attention to going forward.”
To people like Federico Winer, a doctoral researcher at Loughborough University’s Institute of Sports Business, these data points have always been there. Part of his work has involved looking into the blindspots sports and entertainment industries have when it comes to digital gaming.
While virtual racing has worked for Formula 1 in this instance, he believes they are the exception to the rule. Albeit an exception that went about things in the right way.
“The Fifa tournaments coming up from leagues and other federations is perhaps the best example of being misguided during lockdown,” reflects Winer. “Putting Fifa on the television was never going to make up for the lack of real football, nor was it going to bring in an eSport crowd, which is what they hoped.
“If you look at eSports along with figures from Twitch, YouTube and Facebook Live, less than two per cent of the audience are watching sports games.”
Another aspect Winter feels may have been clouded by coronavirus is the need for functional “simulators” within consoles to make a mark in this area of the digital market.
“The NFL is a good example. They have Madden, a very popular franchise. But they are gaining more traction in consumer and competitive gaming by investing in games like Fortnite with mods that you can purchase various kits and team colours for characters. It’s an effective way of moving into a vibrant and thriving marketplace and hitting demographics they wouldn’t command with Madden.”
With more young F1 drivers taking part, the ingrained competitiveness is starting to come through. The informality of the races, which lent itself to some light-hearted trash talking over the second screens, focussed on the competitors is starting to give way to stern silence as personalities are shelved to focus more on besting peers.
Having only just found the sweet spot between live racing and eSports, some further recalibration may be in the offing. “It’s a balancing act,” says Pincus. “Keeping it fun and engaging to the audience and making it serious enough for the more traditional fan.”
Formula 1 intends to keep its Virtual Grand Prix running until June before the track season picks up again in July, all being well. But even when live racing returns, this new venture could be here to stay.
It is one of life’s great truisms that innovation is born out of necessity, and that is especially so in a crisis of this scale that is changing how we live. In Virtual Grand Prix, what started out as a suggestion on a “reply all” email two months ago may already be a vital tool for adapting to this new world.