While there was no actual racing to speak of with the Bahrain Grand Prix postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic, racing and sporting stars from around the world took to the virtual racetrack on Saturday and Sunday.
Three high-profile events took place during the weekend: The Race's All-Star Battle, Veloce Esports' "Not the Bahrain Grand Prix" and the F1-endorsed Virtual Racing Series.
Lando races ... eventually
Lando Norris was the undoubted standout of the entire weekend. The British driver, F1's Rookie of the Year in 2019, is known as a hardcore sim racer. Norris raced in the Veloce Esports edition on Sunday evening and was supposed to go straight into F1's official event, although to anyone watching the broadcast, he was notably absent from qualifying as technical issues kept him out of the session.
It did not keep him off Twitch, however, where his stream reached over 100,000 viewers -- another streaming record, to match the one he set during Veloce's "Not the Australian GP" seven days earlier -- as he waited to be invited back into the game.
As he waited, egged on by comments left in the chat, the Briton called several of his fellow F1 racers. First he called Red Bull's Max Verstappen, whom he often partners with in endurance sim racing events, to ask for advice.
Verstappen's advice wasn't the most helpful.
"Don't brake into Turn 1 -- take everyone out and then go backwards! Have you tried turning [your computer] off and on again?"
He followed that up with a call to McLaren teammate Carlos Sainz, who told him to "drive like you have me in front for the whole race," and a call to his friend George Russell to ask for advice from someone who spent all of last year starting from the back of the actual F1 grid with Williams.
For a while, Norris and his Twitch supporters were watching an AI version of his car -- which Norris dubbed LandoBot -- before he was finally invited back in. Norris took over from LandoBot with five of the 14 laps left to run and finished fifth, despite a collision with YouTube sim racer Jimmy Broadbent on the final corner.
That incident prompted a phone call with another old friend, Red Bull's Alex Albon.
When Albon chastised him for clashing with Broadbent, Norris was quick to remind him about Lewis Hamilton's clumsy move that cost the Thai driver a maiden F1 podium.
Norris joked: "I don't like the way you turned in on Lewis Hamilton in Brazil, all right? But you don't have to get aggressive about it!"
Albon also finished the call by saying he would play in the official F1 race next time.
Herbert cuts the first corner
The entire F1 race was carnage, but Johnny Herbert's move at Turn 1 was straight out of the Wacky Racers playbook. As the rest of the field picked a braking point for the first corner, the three-time grand prix winner cut across the inside of the corner and emerged in the lead after starting from the bottom half of the grid. The advantage proved to be short-lived, however, as he went on to finish 13th.
Big accidents for ex-F1 stars as Gutierrez adds dose of reality
Former F1 drivers Esteban Gutierrez and Nico Hulkenberg both looked quick in qualifying as they lined up for Mercedes and Racing Point, respectively. However, both drivers had heavy contact with the wall before Turn 4, taking them out of contention for victory.
They had a good battle toward the end of the race, with Hulkenberg taking 10th and Gutierrez finishing 11th. And if that sounds somewhat familiar, it's probably because Gutierrez spent a large proportion of his actual F1 career finishing one place outside the points. Old habits die hard.
Poulter shows off his road cars
Among the stars from other sports taking part in this weekend's F1 esports offerings, golf's Ian Poulter and cycling's Chris Hoy topped the bill. Poulter added to the star appeal by joining the party with a Norris-style playseat and camera setup placed nonchalantly in front of a few million dollars' worth of road cars.
Both Poulter and Hoy are known petrolheads, and Poulter took the opportunity to show off his $2.2 million LaFerrari in his live stream. Alongside it was a Ferrari F12 TDF (another $1 million of metal and carbon) and what appeared to be a Porsche GT2 RS. In fact, it was a fairly modest showing from Poulter, as the professional golfer reportedly has 14 Ferraris in total -- including a 1962 California Spyder worth upward of $10 million.
A celebrity entrant
Lining up in the F1 race alongside Williams' F1 rookie Nicholas Latifi is a man who boasts 32.8 million Twitter followers -- former One Direction star Liam Payne.
The recording artist is a big racing fan and ahead of the event tweeted a picture of himself as a child at what looks like a makeshift cockpit of some sort.
After Bear has gone to sleep it's time for me to have some fun of my own! As many of you know I love racing so I jumped at the chance to be on the grid and race against some real @F1 drivers! Tune in at 8pm. Wish me luck 😅 @williamsracing #VirtualGP https://t.co/ZWachp9q2s pic.twitter.com/Ds9xhYRk4U— Liam (@LiamPayne) March 22, 2020
Unfortunately for Payne, the only direction he went was backward -- he finished over a lap down at the back of the field.
Verstappen refuses to play
Verstappen is one of F1's biggest superstars and he's also a big name in esports, but he did not take part in the official F1 race on Sunday. Along with Norris, he seemed like an obvious coup for F1, but he rejected the idea because he does not have much experience on the official F1 game.
"No, I won't [take part]," he told Ziggo TV. "Especially since I never play that game. It would take days to understand the game just a little bit better, and I don't want to get into it right now.
"Also because I'm very busy with the other racing games. So switching between all those games just doesn't work for me.
"And on top of that I always race to win. I'm not going to drive around somewhere at the back. Then I'd rather not participate at all."
Those wanting to watch Verstappen in action can follow him on Monday night at 20:00 GMT when he takes part in Team Redline's "Real Racers Never Quit" on YouTube and Twitch.
Verstappen had been advertised in The Race's All-Star Battle on Saturday afternoon, but he withdrew from the event, which was run on a version of the Indianapolis grand prix circuit, that morning.
In that event, it fell to another Dutchman, Rudy van Buren, to take the plaudits at the end of several elimination races and a grand finale. Van Buren's story is quite different to Verstappen's -- a former karter, he gave up on racing due to its financial demands, only to take up sim racing in his twenties. His prowess online led him to McLaren's World's Fastest Gamer competition, which he duly won to earn the role of McLaren F1 simulator driver for the 2018 season.
While The Race's edition had the most star power in terms of real-life racers, the event suffered a bit as it was run on the Indianapolis grand prix circuit. While Veloce and F1 used the Bahrain GP layout to replicate the race that should have been this weekend, The Race's version felt exactly like it was -- an event for the hardcore gamer rather than a casual F1 fan.