The Las Vegas eRace was lauded as a game changer – a virtual race that would pitch seasoned sim racers against professional racing drivers as they fought it out for a share of a $1million prize pot.
Teams and organisers alike were singing its praises before the event even started, with Abt Schaeffler Audi boss Hans-Jurgen Abt going as far to say that it was “a good example of how Formula E is time and again a step ahead of many other sporting disciplines.”
And speaking after the race founder and CEO of Formula E Alejandro Agag said, “This first eRace in Las Vegas was a great success. I think this can be the first in a big future for Formula E in eSports racing.”
But was it that successful? And will it spark a series of races that are held in the virtual world?
From first impressions, the answer to both of those questions would be a resounding ‘no’.
As a competition the race was a let-down, and ended up being dominated by the expert sim racers, with nine of the top ten places in qualifying being filled by them.
This to be fair was what most of the Formula E drivers were expecting, with Sebastien Buemi admitting “The gaming sims provide a good platform for competition, but the guys who are using them all the time are naturally at an advantage.”
In the end only Mahindra Racing’s Felix Rosenqvist was able to get close to the top of the timesheets, and even he was helpless to stop Bono Huis taking the win.
What also hurt the event were the technical glitches that effected so many of the drivers.
Nico Prost was prevented from qualifying for the race after a glitch on his console held him back, and Lucas di Grassi wasn’t able to make the start thanks to another technical gremlin.
Then in the race itself the driver first across the line was demoted to third as his speed boost was active for the entire distance, when it was supposed to be limited to just a few laps.
None of this helped add to the credibility of the end result, but more significantly it is clear that real driving talent didn’t count for much in terms of competitiveness.
The Formula E grid is a strong one, and to have them being comfortably beaten by members of the public showed that the eRace wasn’t an accurate reflection of skill.
This undermined the race as a competition, and also did nothing to help the reputation of Formula E itself as its best drivers were so resoundingly beaten.
So what was the race like for spectators?
DS Virgin Racing Team Principal Alex Tai proclaimed that the virtual racing has “a potential audience of 1.2 billion”.
But even if a fraction of that viewership tuned in for a race, what they would get is not exactly must-watch television.
There’s no doubting that real racing is far more compelling, especially as you’re able to soak in the atmosphere of some of the great cities that Formula E visits.
By contrast, in Las Vegas we had an attempt to recreate the sights and sounds of the city on screen, and instead of being able to see the drivers fighting for the lead it would cut away to a dark room with a selection of drivers staring at screens.
It lacked any sense of real weight or drama, and tied in with the glitches effecting some of the drivers it didn’t come anywhere near to producing the excitement of real racing.
And while there’s no doubt that there will be some who are attracted to the idea of virtual racing, it’s appeal to motorsport fans in general seems limited.
You therefore have to question why Formula E wanted to give virtual racing a go, and in doing so throw a considerable amount of money behind it.
The Vegas eRace clearly had a role to play in filling the huge gap between rounds two and three of the championship, and this was an attempt to keep some sort of momentum in the story of the 2016-17 season.
But this was no replacement for a real race, and we can only hope that in future organisers can create a schedule that avoids such a large dormant period.
As such this should be seen as a valiant effort from Formula E to try something new, but the future of the series clearly lies elsewhere.