Drivers take on gamers on virtual track

By Nick Francis Published

Formula E


ONCE, training to be a racing driver meant travelling up and down the country to windswept race tracks and living out of motor homes.

Not to mention needing a daddy with deep pockets to fund the path into one of the richest and most elitist sports on the planet.

Now, you just need a Play-Station.

I’m being a bit facetious, but pro drivers today are turning more and more to so-called “e-racers” — for training.


This weekend, at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, 20 Formula E drivers did battle with ten professional gamers on a virtual track — fighting for a million- dollar prize pot in the comfort and safety of a Vegas hotel conference centre.

Yes, you read that right — one MILLION dollars . . . for a computer game.


It isn’t just a publicity stunt either. Champion Formula E drivers such as Nelson Piquet Jnr (pictured with me below) see it as invaluable experience to prepare for real races.


This is a guy who has been on the F1 podium, raced in Nascar and piloted an Aston Martin DB9 in the Le Mans 24 Hours. Now he is talking to me in what is amusingly called a “training camp” at the Venetian hotel and casino in Las Vegas.

But there isn’t a treadmill or rowing machine in sight — just banks of computers with pixelated cars screaming around virtual tracks. The show is being hosted by Visa (yes, your credit card company) which sponsors both Formula E as a sport, as well as a group of pro gamers called SK Gaming. Visa says its mission is to be at the forefront of new and innovative tech.


Nelson said: “The simulators are important to us to work out strategy. Unlike F1, we have just one day to race, not a long weekend with practice sessions.

“So the simulator will let the engineers work out energy consumption, things like that.

“I’ll race on the simulator and watch the video back to work out at which point I want to be on the last of the battery, to get the perfectly timed pit stop.”

Formula E will get bigger and bigger

Not that the Visa ambassador necessarily has a huge advantage over the pro gamers.

“There’s a lot in a real race that can’t be simulated,” he says. “Weather, the pressure, the nerves. I would have an advantage as an experienced driver over someone coming to it cold, but these guys practise a lot.

“Formula E will get bigger and bigger. I predict one day F1 will have to come on board.

“It might end up being called something like Formula 1E in around ten years or so.”

On Friday night, a Formula E car dragged the iconic Las Vegas Boulevard, being followed by BMW’s production electric car, the i8, and a concept version of Jaguar’s eagerly awaited iPace, out later this year.


Just as electric cars will eventually take over our roads, Formula E will one day be bigger than F1 — or so says Formula E chief Alejandro Agag.

“Formula 1 is no longer relevant,” he told me. “Traditional motorsport had, until now, relevance to the motor industry.

“That’s finished. The industry is going electric, and so is motorsport.

“You’re going to see more manufacturers come to Formula E. We already have BMW, Renault, Jaguar. And Audi has quit Le Mans to race in Formula E, which is a huge step.”

And Formula E is aimed at the likes of you and me — motoring fans.

Alejandro said: “The demographic of people driving an electric car is growing all the time. As it grows, so does the following of Formula E. It be- comes more relevant to people.

“Our mission isn’t just about racing, we want to develop electric car technology and make them more usable day to day.”

Love it or loathe it, this is the future. The crucial thing about this new form of racing is the personalities are still there. Whether played out on a screen or a racetrack, there needs to be a human at the wheel.

We mustn’t let the machines take over completely.



Bono Huis, the Faraday Future Dragon Racing sim racer, clinched victory in the inaugural Visa Vegas eRace and with it the biggest prize in eSports racing history - walking away with $200,000 and an additional $25,000 for pole position.

Huis, who topped every session throughout the event, made a clean getaway from the line and held on to his lead throughout the first stint. Following the first round of pitstops, the Dutch driver dropped to second place behind Olli Pahkala (Mahindra Racing).

Despite entering unknown territory, the Formula E drivers demonstrated that driving ability is comparable across both a real and virtual world.

Felix Rosenqvist (Mahindra Racing) showed his natural ability for sim racing and versatility putting in a strong performance to finish second as the best-placed Formula E driver.

Huis eventually inherited success from Pahkala who was handed a 12-second penalty following a post-race investigation for having gained an unfair performance advantage caused by a software issue.

Pahkala took the lead mid-way through the race, but was later found to have suffered a technical glitch with a sustained power delivery of FanBoost over and above the limit for five laps during his second stint. Pahkala was demoted to third place following the application of the time penalty and rounded out the podium finishers.

Jose Maria Lopez (DS Virgin Racing), Sam Bird (DS Virgin Racing), Daniel Abt (ABT Schaeffler Audi Sport) and Nelson Piquet Jr. (NextEV NIO) finished in the top-10, again highlighting the close competition between the drivers and sim racers.

David Greco (Renault e.dams) crossed the line in 15th place, but picked up fastest lap and $10,000 in the process.


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