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Formula E launches a virtual racing season, joining NASCAR, F1, IndyCar

Formula E launches a virtual racing season, joining NASCAR, F1, IndyCar


Another sim racing series to make up for the real-world races lost to the pandemic

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Photo by Sean O’Kane / The Verge

All-electric racing series Formula E is launching a nine-week sim racing competition after having to put its sixth season on pause due to the novel coronavirus pandemic. The series joins the likes of NASCAR, Formula One, and IndyCar, all of which are already leaning on the robust software and community of online sim racing to keep fans and drivers entertained and occupied in the absence of real-world racing.

The virtual Formula E series will be run in rFactor 2 which, alongside iRacing, is one of the leading sim racing platforms. Races will be run every Saturday, and they will be broadcast on YouTube, Twitch, Twitter, and Facebook, as well as by Formula E’s “broadcast partners” (though further details on what that will entail were not shared on Wednesday). The races will be called by Formula E’s (excellent) standard broadcast crew, and the series will also use the virtual events to fundraise for UNICEF’s pandemic efforts.

But instead of mimicking Formula E’s fairly standard real-world race format, the virtual series will be built on the idea of a “race royale,” where the last-place driver will be eliminated after each completed lap until just 10 competitors are left. After that happens, the remaining 10 competitors will complete one final lap fight for the race win and will be awarded points for where they finish.

Formula E will run separate events for its own drivers and any gamers who want to compete, which is a break from how NASCAR, F1, and IndyCar have been running things over the last few weeks. In most of those other series’ virtual seasons, professional sim racers have gotten the chance to compete against the likes of F1 stars Max Verstappen and Charles Leclerc or NASCAR champions Kyle Busch and Jimmie Johnson. The gamer with the most points at the end of the series will get a chance to drive a Formula E car in the real world.

That it’s taken Formula E this long to come up with a slate of sim racing events is also striking, especially for such a groundbreaking series. Formula E was one of the first major motorsports to cancel races due to the coronavirus, more than a month before the World Health Organization officially declared a pandemic. Yet it took two and a half months for the series to announce this new sim racing effort. In the meantime, Formula E drivers like Antonio Felix da Costa and Stoffel Vandoorne have been competing in some of the other virtual racing events that have thrived in the absence of real-world action. (Even Jack Nicholls, Formula E’s lead announcer, has spent the last few weeks broadcasting some of the other sim races.)

Unless contracts or overall racing politics get in the way, nothing will stop these drivers from competing in multiple sim racing events at the same time. In fact, it’s already happened. That’s part of the beauty of sim racing in the first place: all people need is a computer, the right software, a steering wheel and pedals, and the free time to compete.

Formula E tried to get ahead of the sim racing curve a few years ago when it held a $1 million competition at the 2017 Consumer Electronics Show, but the event was riddled with technical glitches. The series holds driver-versus-gamer competitions at each of its real-world races (using the Real Racing video game), but it never really launched a sim racing series in the same way that NASCAR or F1 have.

“They could have been one of the pioneers,” an organizer of one of the makeshift virtual racing series told me last month. “I think that [CES race] burnt them. They should be the ones that were leading this effort.”

As odd as it is for Formula E to be following in the footsteps of more conventional motorsports, its new virtual series will likely be a welcome addition to the field of substitute sim races, crowded as it may already be. People around the world are simultaneously looking for distraction and connection. And for Formula E’s growing fan base, watching this virtual stand-in for the canceled races should offer both, while also raising money for a good cause.