With countries around the world enacting measures to curb the spread of coronavirus and the populace shutting themselves in for a long drawn out isolation, major events that were scheduled for 2020 have already been dropped or postponed indefinitely. The gears running the world has literally grinded to a halt and now everyone is grounded.
So what are people to do when public events are off-limits in the 21st century? Well, stay at home, and play video games, obviously. Though the party has stopped, racing drivers, organisers, and teams has been busy, quickly taking their brand of racing to the online world and organising online competitions for various racing series with encouraging results.
Nobody is able to leave their front door for leisure, but thousands of racing fans are now able to get their weekend racing fix online with various new online eSeries, such as the Formula One Virtual Grand Prix, IndyCar iRacing Challenge, and NASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational.
More than just a thin facsimile, these events are complete with what you’d expect from your average race weekend. Qualifying sessions, pre-race commentary by professional commentators, proper talent that brings proper racing, and, more importantly, controversies – with one professional racer rage quitting in the middle of a race and getting dropped by his sponsors, and another tossing a casual racial slur in a mic-test who got booted by his team.
Of course, the speed and effortlessness in transitioning over into online racing aren’t all that surprising, the framework for competitive online racing has already been running for years prior to the outbreak. It is just that this time around the big names of motorsport is joining the ranks of the proletariat to participate in their online games in a bid to stay relevant.
Nowadays viewers are able to watch the younger Formula One drivers slug it out on virtual circuits with various invited professional and non-professional players, even Max Verstappen is trying his hand at rubbing fenders with the best of Australia’s Supercars racing. What a time to be alive for shut-ins.
For a non-fan of racing, the enthusiasm of professional drivers and race fans embracing the new medium in such dour times lends a heartwarming tale behind the spectacle, proving to doubters of the sport that there is still a healthy interest in motor racing. However, one has to ask, if this ongoing online experiment is a precipice for a mass migration of the sport to an online format?
The answer is a simple no, and it is not because of the strangely spotless visuals in the video game graphics, the missing acrid aroma of burnt rubber and octane, the potential latency issues, or the surprising resilient cars that bounce off walls instead of shattering like a crystal glass chandelier that destroys one’s suspension of disbelief.
Despite the improvements in televised racing, big race events draw in huge crowds, a significant number of whom are not there to watch the racing or gawk at the crashes, but to soak in the atmosphere. To experience the gasps and cheers of the crowd, indulge in the carnival celebrations taking place all over the venue, and joining in with fellow fans and share their excitement.
As Ron Howard’s Rush and Asif Kapadia’s Senna has shown, racing like any sport is as much about the human experience as it is about the spectacle. We feel invested and excited when seeing fellow humans striving and giving their all for sporting glory, especially amidst the physical demands and risks involved with motorsports.
While a professional e-athlete – a person who plays one type of video game obsessively and gets paid for it – may have the reflexes and focus to give a professional racer a run for their money on a virtual circuit, that doesn’t mean they are able to strap themselves into the real car and go head-to-head with hardened racing veterans the next day.
As mentioned in a previous yarn, life in a slow Formula One car that is going at part tilt is like being put through a meat-grinder. Contrary to popular belief, professional motor racing, like any other sport isn’t for the sedentary. Yes, there are exceptions, like Jann Mardenborough who graduated from Nissan-Sony’s GT Academy and started a fairly successful racing career, but to mount a challenge in the top flight motorsports series, you need more than just a pair of responsive thumbs. Motor racing is still a sport for the most dedicated and tenacious to participate.
Adding to that, while the graphics and physics engines of today’s racing video games are improving by leaps and bounds, the lines of ones and zeros that create the virtual stage these participants perform in cannot account for that great equaliser, chaos theory.
Look up Kimi Raikonnen’s heroic and hopeless struggle with a flat-spotting tyre at the 2005 European Grand Prix, Sebastian Vettel’s race-ending suspension failure after running over a set of innocuous bumps at the 2019 US Grand Prix, or the rear wing of Ralph Firman’s Jordan coming off at speed at the Hungaroring in 2003, for examples of chaos theory at play. The roll of a dice that leads to pure cock-up cascades that neither skill nor foresight could anticipate. You just can’t script this sort of stuff in a video game no matter how advanced it is.
A racing car is made of a million parts all playing an intricate part in going fast, and coupled to the hundreds of engineers and people working behind the scenes to make all of it work, which is impossible for video games to compute to a degree that accounts for pure chances. To say that the digital limitations of virtual racing would rob a sliver of soul and essence from esports in comparison to its real-life counterpart is rather apt.
As it stands, despite the only place motorsports can continue is in the online sphere, professional drivers are in no danger of seeing their roles being handed over to their e-athlete equivalents, or the sport moving in its entirety into the virtual world, even if the world continues on its lockdown till the end of 2020. While each genre of sports will have its fans and critics, the virtual racing arena is doing the right thing of keeping us together, in our homes, and getting through this viral mess.