Virtual GP: All you need to know as F1 prepares for second online race
What exactly is a Virtual GP? And how can Stokes expect to compete with Leclerc on-track? The main questions answered...
By Matt Morlidge
Last Updated: 05/04/20 2:43pm
After a highly entertaining debut race, Formula 1 is gearing up for its second official Virtual Grand Prix this weekend as 20 drivers - from Charles Leclerc to Ben Stokes - prepare to battle each other online.
Five F1 drivers from the 2020 grid have signed up for the event, which is taking place around Melbourne's Albert Park track, and you can watch all the action live on Sky Sports Main Event, Sky Sports F1 and our YouTube channel on Sunday evening.
Want to know more? We've got you covered...
What exactly is a Virtual Grand Prix?
The Virtual GP Esports Series was launched by F1 as the sport looked for alternatives during the enforced absence of its 2020 season. The championship is being staged on the official 2019 F1 video game, with a grid of 20 drivers - which will not necessarily be the same in every race - all competing on the same track online from the comfort of their homes.
The 10 F1 teams are all represented (although the team now known as AlphaTauri are racing as Toro Rosso, as the game uses last year's grid).
These are Sunday night events, and a quick qualifying session will set the grid before a short-distance race where all the usual F1 practices are in place. Lights out, car damage, pit-stops, even a podium ceremony after the chequered flag!
How does it compare to the real thing?
While the drivers taking part do not quite boast F1 simulator-esque technology, they will all be competing with steering wheels and pedals. Couple that with superb graphics and accurate representations, whether that be the cars or tracks, and this is about as close as it can get - physical strain aside - to the real thing.
There are not many sports where you can ably replicate the 'official' product - think playing FIFA compared to football, and Madden compared to NFL - but F1 had an Esports avenue it could turn down.
Don't the quicker cars and drivers have a big advantage?
Not necessarily. All 20 cars are configured so that they are all the same speed, while drivers will also all have the same fixed car setups. That means a Williams can, on paper, easily overtake a Mercedes. Renault, without an official F1 race victory since 2008, won the Virtual Bahrain GP.
F1 have also attempted to level a mixed playing field by configuring the game settings to "encourage competitive and entertaining racing". This includes reduced vehicle damage, and optional anti-lock brakes and traction control for those less familiar with the game.
Practice can make perfect, too. Seven F1 drivers, past or present, entered the debut race a fortnight ago, but only one of them - Stoffel Vandoorne - finished in the top three. Less experienced drivers obviously need racing nous, but could feasibly be able to battle a current F1 star on track.
So there's already been one race?
Yes, and it was utterly bonkers! One Direction singer Liam Payne and golfer Ian Poulter took part in the Virtual Bahrain GP, and the race was packed to the brim with chaos, whether that be a big crash at the start as former F1 driver Nico Hulkenberg went spinning, Johnny Herbert cutting the opening corner to take the lead from 16th on the grid, or Lando Norris missing the start of the race but taking over from 'LandoBot' before a last-corner shunt.
There's every reason to expect this weekend's even to be even more spectacular.
Who's taking part this Sunday?
Plenty of big names.
Charles Leclerc, who enjoyed a superb debut season with Ferrari last year, has signed up to make his debut, and he's one of six F1 drivers confirmed on the grid so far. Norris will be in action again for McLaren, alongside none other than Jenson Button, while George Russell and Nicholas Latifi will be involved, meaning Williams' Esports line-up mirrors that of their F1 2020 team.
Alex Albon will be in the Red Bull, with the British-born Thai driver partnered by none other than England cricket star Ben Stokes - who is taking the place of Max Verstappen for this one. No pressure!
Sky F1's Herbert and Anthony Davidson will also be involved again, with Herbert partnered by F1 driver Antonio GIovinazzi for Alfa Romeo.
Esteban Gutierrez and Stoffel Vandoorne are once again racing for Mercedes.
The full line-up will be confirmed before the race.
Why are they racing in Australia?
While the plan for the Esports series was to mirror the corresponding event from the F1 2020 calendar - the Virtual Bahrain GP took place on the same day as the 'real' Bahrain GP was due to happen, for instance - that was not possible this weekend. That's because the Hanoi track which was supposed to host the inaugural Vietnam GP on the F1 calendar on Sunday, is not available on the 2019 F1 game.
That means they are racing 'at' Albert Park - which is handy as they missed out on racing there in the F1 2020 season-opener.
How can I watch?
The event will be live on Sky Sports Main Event and Sky Sports F1 from 8pm, with qualifying taking place first before the race. The show will also be live streamed on our YouTube channel.
You can also follow the race via our digital platforms - we'll be providing updates in a live blog, and on Twitter.