Two years ago, getting Ferrari to even acknowledge Formula 1’s fledgling esports operation was a tough ask.
Last year, one of its drivers won the official F1 Esports title. And on Sunday, Charles Leclerc, the present and future of Ferrari’s F1 hopes, won a Virtual Grand Prix as one of half a dozen real-world racers swapping the 2020 grid for an online competition.
It completes a total transformation that would have been unthinkable not too long ago. But such are the strange times we live in.
David Tonizza won last year’s F1 Esports crown, so Ferrari is obviously not only part of the virtual series because of a global health crisis. But Leclerc is.
He should either be basking in glory or brooding over lessons from the inaugural Vietnam Grand Prix today. Instead he’ll be back playing F1 2019 again, having succeeded in getting George Russell, Alex Albon and others back online.
In the space of eight days, Leclerc’s gone from having no involvement in that world to being a race winner and actively trying to organise more privately-run races between drivers, and broadcast them to the public.
Even more basic level, it’s just fun. Laughter’s infectious. Combine that with the feeling you’re part of F1’s inner sanctum and it’s just enjoyable, even if it is a little stupid
The popularity of watching other people playing games is one of the great present-day curiosities. But in these bizarre times, it is a rich source of entertainment.
It’s very interesting to see such a different side to elite-level sportspeople. Simply taking part in these games doesn’t achieve that, but the way Leclerc and co jumped onto Twitch, and are sharing their conversations with each other is something so alien.
Even with the proliferation of social media, we’re used to a world where athletes are out of reach.
And on an even more basic level, it’s just fun. Laughter’s infectious. Combine that with the feeling you’re part of F1’s inner sanctum and it’s just enjoyable, even if it is a little stupid.
If you like it, there’s good news: it should become more common. Leclerc’s been bitten by the bug.
“We should probably organise something, I don’t know, a championship where every day we try to race and stream to everyone,” Leclerc says to his real-world rivals after the Virtual GP.
“Then at the end of the quarantine we’re fit as hell!”
The suggestion of daily races was not greeted too enthusiastically by others, but they have all responded positively to the prospect of more events.
Russell wants multiple drivers in the same chat lobby, which Leclerc seems keen to make a reality.
“We should add all of us,” Leclerc says. “We’ll create that.
“We have the WhatsApp [group] and we’ll try to organise for the next few days.
“We need to do something before [the next F1 race].”
With the first eight rounds of the 2020 season postponed or cancelled, and who knows how many more due to be affected, F1 needs different ways to entertain people. Online racing is an increasingly effective way to do that.
Ferrari’s gone from trailing its rival teams in the esports stakes to having an immensely popular young driver front and centre in the current online explosion.
With Leclerc at the helm, F1’s most serious team – so aloof in the not-too-distant-past – has a powerful resource in F1’s new world.