How Esports Became F1’s Driver Proving Ground

f1 esports virtual grand prix

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Formula 1 has always prided itself for being at the forefront of cutting technology. Many of the vehicle enhancements and aerodynamic tweaks that F1 teams make throughout a season often eventually make their way onto road legal cars in some form.

However, as electric cars attempt to outperform their fossil fuel guzzling counterparts, the organisation is increasingly forced into holding its races in far flung places with enough spare GDP to blow on a race day. And suddenly there is a bit of panic within F1 that it could left behind by up-and-coming race series, like the Formula E and Extreme E series.

In a bid to stay as relevant as possible, and keep pace with other sports governing bodies like FIFA (which has a deal with EA for video games and esports), the powers that be within F1 made the surprise launch of the F1 Esports Series in 2017.

Although the series was initially not taken that seriously within the sport, 2020 was to be a watershed moment, as suddenly a whole host of young F1 team drivers combined with celebrities and other ex-F1 legends to blast the esports series into the mainstream.

We look at how the F1 Esports Series has gone far beyond what anyone imagined it could be, to become one of the main proving grounds for the esports Lewis Hamiltons of tomorrow.

f1 esports series gfinity extension
It’s increasingly the case that new drivers are being sourced from online racing series likes the F1 Esports Series, which shot to prominence in 2020

George Russell – Leading F1’s charge Towards Modernisation

While some fresh-faced drivers get their seats on the F1 grid because of huge financial backing or connections, there are still others who get there through sheer speed and ability alone, challenging the preconceived ideas of sportsbooks and F1 tipsters in the process.

One such driver is the heir apparent to Lewis Hamilton’s throne, George Russell, who even got substituted in for Hamilton last season for a one-off race, which had many bookmakers slashing their odds of Russell one day having a permanent driving spot at Mercedes.

What really makes Russell stand out from the pack, though, is the fact that he is every bit as successful in F1 esports as he is on real life tarmac. As recently as February 2021 he won the Virtual British Grand Prix and continues to feature heavily on the esports betting odds found via this guide to the best bookmakers for betting on esports. By competing online on a regular basis, Russell is able to sharpen his driving tools perhaps more than other old-school drivers, who may not have chosen to venture online.

go karts
There was a time when the only way to get spotted by F1 team bosses was to take up the costly hobby of karting, but esports has suddenly made pro racing more accessible to anyone (Picture credit: Piqsels)

Cem Bolukbasi – From Esports to F3 and Beyond

While Russell took an interest in esports racing, having previously progressed through the traditional driver development channels, Turkish driver Cem Bolukbasi only ever knew racing in video games and simulators before he progressed to Formula 3.

This precocious talent first really turned heads in 2020 when he won the Formula Renault Esport Series and was also selected by Fernando Alonso to race for the Spaniard’s G2 Esports FA Racing outfit.

Since then, he has never looked back, switching a gaming controller for the real thing. Back in February he was already notching up points in all three of the ultra-competitive races that were held during the F3 Asian Championship Weekend. If the 23-year-old can keep up that sort of blistering form, then it may not be too long before he makes the full transition to becoming an F1 star.

Most F1 Teams Now Have an Esports Arm

F1 team bosses never like to feel as though they are being left behind by the competition, and so many have now followed in the footsteps of the likes of McLaren and Ferrari in developing their very own branded esports teams.

As the video games driving tournaments like the F1 Esports Series uses improve their realism, and the simulators that esports drivers use become even more reactive, the more crossover there will continue to be between the esports realm and that of real engines, tyres, and pitstops. It may well be the case that whichever team dominates over the long term in esports, might well be the one that takes over the sport as a whole.

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