The esports events continued to come thick and fast across the motorsport world this weekend. It didn't come without controversy, with outrage online at some unsporting behaviour from one professional racing driver to another.
A genuinely exciting race ... for esports
While esports has filled the gap in racing over the past few months, the majority of races on the official platform have been a little dull. There's been plenty of meme-worthy footage from the drivers' Twitch feeds, but in terms of truly exciting racing, it's been a poor substitute for the real thing.
But that all changed with Sunday's Virtual Dutch Grand Prix (held on Sao Paulo's Interlagos circuit because Zandvoort doesn't yet feature on the official F1 game).
Ferrari's Charles Leclerc, who had won the previous two races hosted by F1, was embroiled in a race-long battle for the lead with Red Bull's Alex Albon. For the first part of the race, the two drivers swapped places every lap, knowing that it was the fastest way to break away from the chasing pack and that the win would likely be decided after the pit stops.
Leclerc pitted first for hard tyres but Albon waited longer so he could fit the mediums for his second stint and push harder towards the end. As the Red Bull returned to the track, they resumed their battle -- only this time they were far more aggressive as an advantage at this stage of the race would likely result in victory. The place swapping continued, but took place at Turn 1 and Turn 4 as the two drivers went wheel-to-virtual-wheel around one of F1's most thrilling circuits.
Sadly, the frustrating side of esports decided the battle when Leclerc was given a three-second penalty for abusing track limits. The settings had been set to strict after a number of drivers took advantage of the leniency of the virtual stewards at the previous round in China, but it ultimately ruined the entertainment as Leclerc continued to attack Albon knowing realistically that his penalty would mean he would lose the victory if he got ahead. In the end, the battle at the front allowed George Russell -- who was third on the road -- to take second from Leclerc when the three-second penalty was applied.
Despite the over-officious virtual stewarding, the battle at the front had been truly engaging and far more evenly matched than anything we have seen in a real F1 race in recent years. Of course, the fact all the cars were set to the exact same performance helped, not to mention the lack of consequences from the numerous taps and bumps between the two cars, yet it made for entertaining viewing.
Better than the real thing? Not a chance. But still great to see two real-life racing drivers going wheel-to-wheel online.
Rekindling karting friendships
Given the money and many thousands of man-hours that go into getting an F1 car on the grid, it's perhaps no surprise that the pressure of being an F1 driver precludes friendships from developing between rivals. But remove that pressure in the virtual world and it turns out the hugely talented 20-somethings have an awful lot in common.
That much has been evident from watching the interactions between Leclerc, Albon and Russell in recent esports events -- three drivers who grew up together in karting and are now getting to spend time together (kind of) online.
Speaking on his Twitch feed over the weekend, Leclerc pointed out some of the positives that had come from the break in real-life racing.
"This situation made George, Alex and myself, we probably lost a bit of contact in terms of speaking with each other over the years, with the different categories we were doing, and now in a situation like this, it's nice to find each other again and have fun together racing and doing what we like."
. @Charles_Leclerc : "This situation made George, Alex and myself, we probably lost a bit of contact, speaking with each other over the years and now in a situation like this, it's nice to find each other again and have fun together."— Charles Leclerc Fan Page (@LeclercNews) May 3, 2020
❤️https://t.co/Hja90wZ0Rn#F1 #Charles16 pic.twitter.com/zk275xt4tx
Vettel makes his online debut
In an online news conference a couple of weeks ago, Ferrari driver Sebastian Vettel revealed he had ordered a sim racing rig for his home in Switzerland, and on Saturday he made his esports debut. He opted to race in the Legends Trophy organised by The-Race.com, meaning he went up against fellow real-world F1 champion Jenson Button and the likes of Juan Pablo Montoya and racer-turned-FIA-steward Emanuele Pirro (the same Pirro who was on the panel of stewards that gave Vettel a penalty in Canada last year!).
Given his lack of sim-racing experience, it was perhaps no surprise that Vettel finished 15th in his first race, but in the reverse-grid race he jumped from seventh to fourth at the start. He was running as high as third at one point but then spun back down the order to finish 12th, underlining the fact that even a four-time world champion can't jump online and expect to be competitive.
We're still hoping we'll see plenty more of him online in the coming weeks, but he made clear two weeks ago that he is doing it only for fun, and -- unlike Leclerc, Albon and Russell -- he has a family life with three young daughters that comes first.
"I consider it as a bit more of a fun thing," he said in the online news conference. "I think racing should still happen in the real world outside, and that is where the focus lies -- the rest is just for fun.
"I'm aware that some people take it very seriously and spend a lot of time there, but I also enjoy doing other things, so it will be a bit of a mix."
Norris/Pagenaud incident causes online outrage
One of the benefits of online racing is that drivers can take part in numerous types of racing across different disciplines without ever leaving their living room. McLaren driver Lando Norris is arguably F1's most prolific sim racer and took a victory on his debut in IndyCar's online racing series last week. This weekend he returned to race on the famous Indianapolis oval, but it didn't quite go to plan.
Once again, he was looking competitive but his chances of securing victory were scuppered when Simon Pagenaud, the winner of last year's actual Indy 500, took him out towards the end of the race. Pagenaud, who dropped a lap down while making a pit stop, was heard saying on his livestream "we take Lando out, let's do it" as he returned to the track and then slowed his car directly in front of Norris as the McLaren driver came to lap him.
The resulting collision saw social media erupt and get stuck into a wider argument of whether esports is "just a game" or something that warrants better on-track behaviour.
Speaking on his Twitch feed later on, Norris made his views clear: "He apologised. He said he wanted to come into the pits and he wanted to slow me up, and he wanted [Oliver] Askew to win, he didn't want me to win.
"So he tried slowing me up a little bit and was going to come into the pits. Had no intention of taking me out. Just wanted to slow me down ... by letting off in the middle of the corner and braking right in front of me. So yeah.
"Do you know how many hours, how much time I put into the left [turn]? How many hours I've spent driving in a straight line and then just doing this.
"I must have spent a day in total, I reckon I've spent 24 hours flicking driving in a straight line and turning left, trying to perfect it. With the most delicate touch, I've tried doing it one-handed, with my knee ... 24 hours!
"And then because that guy gets a bit salty that a non-IndyCar driver is about to win an Indy race. It just ruins it. So, yeah, that's that."