The esports drivers vying for a place in a Formula 1 team

by Nathan Quinn
8 min read

Later this month a group of sim racers will be vying for a place in the 2021 F1 Esports Pro Series via the all-new Pro Exhibition event.

Replacing the Pro Draft from previous years, the top six racers from each platform of the F1 Esports Challengers championship will take part in the Pro Exhibition event to showcase their skills in an effort to be signed by one of the 10 teams in this year’s Pro Series.

Drivers had to earn their place in the official Challengers feeder championship by performing well in one of the events that were run for a limited time on F1 2020. Those events put players in a specific car with a specific set of circumstances and those who set the highest score, by using minimal assists and completing the event as quickly as possible, were invited to take part in the Challengers championship.

Joining them in the Pro Exhibition will also be the winner of the Women’s Wildcard time trial event, the DHL Time Trial winners as well as Tang Tianyu and Yuan Yifan – the previous two champions of the F1 Esports China Championship.

At the end of the Pro Exhibition event on May 27, there will be a one month signing period will start with all of the teams required to bring in at least one new person to fill its three-driver roster.

Some drivers have made a very strong case to be signed on by a team after a strong set of results in the 10 race long Challengers championship that started in December. Championships were run on Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and PC.

On top of that everyone who raced in last year’s F1 Esports championship, but is no longer a part of a team, are available to be selected by any of the teams during the signing period.

Those drivers who were dropped weren’t eligible to race in the Challengers championship, but many have plied their trade in unaffiliated leagues instead.

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One of those who’s made a name for himself – and not for the first time – is Bardia Boroumand who was a part of Mercedes’ esports team last year. He was only given one opportunity to race in the Pro Series and narrowly missed out on scoring points with an 11th place finish at China.

More recently he’s been a frontrunner in the PSGL (Premier Sim Gaming Leagues) PC championship where he won all of the first three races and currently sits second in the drivers’ championship, only behind the reigning F1 Esports champion Jarno Opmeer.

On top of that, he’s also been included in the ORL (Online Racing League) Nations Cup tournament also on F1 2020 and completed the opening race in third place – one position ahead of F1 Esports race winner Nicolas Longuet.

That’s not to say it’s been all perfect for Boroumand as the reverse grid race at Zandvoort saw him tangle with Opmeer, but that’s one black mark in what’s been a very successful off-season.

Another driver who was drafted by a team for last year’s F1 Esports Pro Series but was only afforded one opportunity out on track was Filip Presnajder who was selected by Ferrari last year.

His one outing was in the Spa-Francorchamps round where he replaced Enzo Bonito and finished the race in 11th, although his qualifying performance saw him line up in sixth on the grid and most of the positions he lost were during the pitstop phase.

Over a full-length championship though his results have been better. A total of three podium finishes, including one race win, saw the Slovakian as the brief championship leader in PSGL’s PC league.

Both Boroumand and Presnajder are eligible for selection for this year’s F1 Esports Pro Series by virtue of being in the 2020 lineup, but there’s a handful of drivers who have yet to take part in a Pro Series event but have already matched up well compared to some of the established names in F1 Esports.

Alessio Di Capua was passed up in the Pro Draft for the past two years but he enters this year’s Pro Exhibition in his best form yet.

In 2020 he earned a spot in the Pro Draft via coming fourth overall in the Xbox One Challengers series. This year he’s the champion of the Challengers series on PC having won four of the 10 races and he has only finished one race outside of the points scoring positions.

More importantly, he’s stacked up well when compared to some of the current F1 Esports drivers. He’s a reserve driver in the PC PSGL league and in both races he’s taken part in he’s ended on the podium, beating the likes of Alvaro Carreton (Williams), Simon Weigang (Alfa Romeo) and Fabrizio Donoso (Alpine).

In ORL he’s also had some success and on two occasions, notably the Bahrain Short round of season 14 and in the race at Silverstone in the first Nations Cup event he’s finished in second and behind only Opmeer.

Hot on his heels in the PC Challengers series was Josh Idowu who is already a part of McLaren Shadow Academy ever since it launched at the end of last year.

Only nine points separated him from Di Capua at the end of the championship and both secured six podium finishes.

Importantly though 18-year-old Welshman Idowu’s results improved throughout the competition as he was inside the top three in every race in the second half of the series and he won both of the final rounds.

In PSGL he’s been a consistent points scorer and is currently fifth in the points standings. Meanwhile, in the most recent ORL season he joined halfway through yet still ended seventh in the drivers’ championship and finished third in his first race.

Most importantly he took back to back victories in the final Challengers event. Given his affiliation with McLaren Shadow, it would be no surprise if he is selected as the team’s mandatory pick.

Of course, all of the drivers who qualify for the Pro Exhibition event will have to prove themselves during it to ensure they convince a team to sign them on. It is worth noting that Presnajder was the previous Challengers champion on PC and was able to be drafted off the back of that achievement.

With regards to players on PS4 and Xbox One it’s more difficult to assess how quick they are since most of the top players on F1 2020 are active on the PC version instead.

PS4 Challengers winner Valentin Bruffer and runner up Thijmen Schutte have both taken part in a handful of the PC PSGL races in the most recent season and both have a best result of fifth place.

On the PS4 side of PSGL though Bruffer and Schutte had a much stronger set of results as they were both able to finish in the top two on more than one occasion. Schutte did the better of the pair as he ended fourth in the drivers’ championship at the end of the recently completed season 27 whilst Bruffer finished sixth in the standings and both individually missed one race.

Many of the most successful racers have come into the F1 Esports Pro Series via the consoles though. Most notably David Tonizza who joined Ferrari after a stunning comeback drive in the PS4 race-off event in 2019 – later that year he was crowned the F1 Esports champion.

It was a last-lap overtake in the final Challengers race that ensured Bruffer won the PS4 championship by a single point, a fact which may prove to be significant to the chances of him being signed by an F1 Esports team.

In the Xbox One division of the Challengers series, it’s Estonian Kedon Lutt who ended the drivers’ championship at the top with a 15 point margin and three race wins.

Runner up Antoine de Zaluski also came first in three of the races as well but was less consistent with one fewer podium result than Lutt and on two occasions he failed to score any points.

Both were passed up in the 2020 Pro Draft and Lutt was turned down the year before then as well.

This year though they are both in a much better position, champion Lutt in particular as he entered the 2020 Pro Draft as only the eighth-best performing driver in the previous Xbox One Challengers series.

Despite their lower profile console players do still get drafted into teams, Shanaka Clay was signed by Racing Point after finishing third in the previous Xbox One Challengers series.

The difference last year was that Clay had won the Canada Pro Exhibition race that was run whilst real-life F1 had been halted. That win against F1 Esports’ finest undoubtedly helped Clay land a seat with an F1 Esports team but this year’s prospects haven’t had that same opportunity.

We don’t know the format of this month’s, non-stand in, Pro Exhibition event yet but it should help the teams suss out who the best drivers are across all platforms and all the different qualification routes. It’s possible those drivers who have flown under the radar until now suddenly have an amazing performance during it that convinces a team to sign them despite their previous form.

There’s also a plethora of drivers outside of the Challengers who could either return or make their debuts in the series. Among the leading contenders is Red Bull Esports’ Sebastian Job, who won the 2020 Porsche Esports Supercup. With no schedule conflicts between F1 Esports and PESC this year, Job will be a fairly safe bet to join either Red Bull or AlphaTauri.

With a minimum of 10 places in F1 Esports proper up for grabs though there’s room for plenty of drivers to make their debut appearances in the Pro Series later in the year, or for returning drivers to be given another chance to establish themselves as one of major names in the championship.

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