It was not at the finish line, beneath the bright lights and grandiose facades on the Las Vegas Strip, that crowds gathered to see the end of the 2017 Formula E Visa Vegas eRace. Neither, rounding the final turn, was it through a visor or even a windshield that winner Bono Huis caught first sight the checkered flag. Indeed, the race that could well come to represent a watershed moment for motorsport never found its way out of a conference hall in the Venetian Hotel.
The Visa Vegas eRace traded-in automotive machinery for motorsports technology of a different kind. Pieces of equipment that, over the past years, have become staples in the design and development of real life race cars have, simultaneously, been adopted and adapted for other purposes. LCD screens, computers, race seats, electronic wheels and pedals – the everyday tools of the modern driver or race engineer – have enabled forms of all-digital motorsport to enter a new generation.
Taking place on a beautiful 3.1 mile circuit, a track designed and supplied specifically for the event by the Spanish company CloudSport, the action came thick and fast. Underpinned by the astonishing rFactor 2 physics engine, the virtual Formula E cars bounced characteristically over high curves and fidgeted as they pushed across the unpolished surface of an entirely feasible imagining of a Las Vegas street circuit.
But if the environment was simulated, the racing action was as intense and fascinating as any other form of motorsport. With a $1,000,000 prize pool, nerves were on show as the thirty drivers took to the stage. Twenty members of the Formula E paddock joined by ten sim racing veterans, celebrities in their own community who had won the right to take their place on the grid after achieving fantastic results in a gruelling qualifying series.
Pre-race speculation had it that the sim racers would walk away, leaving the professional drivers – who were thought to be relatively inexperienced at virtual racing – fighting for the scraps. But from qualifying alone, with only .201 of a second separating virtual racer Bono Huis and Formula E Professional Felix Rosenqvist for first and second in the session, it was clear that this one would come down to the wire.
After a clean start Bono Huis pushed through the early laps, managing to gap Rosenqvist and build himself a comfortable buffer. Further down the pack, a three wide move down the main straight saw Aleksi Elomaa and Graham Carroll crashing from fourth and fifth position. As the pit window opened Rosenqvist turned on the magnets, almost closing the gap before the two dived in late for their mandated car change.
Meanwhile Olli Pahkala, having pit early put in some incredible laps to jumped both second and first for the lead of the race. The race finished with Pahkala leading, Huis second and Rosenqvist third – an amazing result from all three drivers – but trouble was clearly brewing. Pahkala, it was determined, had gained an unfair advantage from a glitched Fanboost system; a feature of Formula E which allows viewers to give a small advantage to their favourite drivers.
Race marshals gave Pahkala a 12 second penalty for the incursion, taking him off the top step of the podium and handing the $200,000 grand prize to his Team Redline teammate Bono Huis. It is always hard to see race results change post hoc, but viewing the live timing screens it was clear that an unfair advantage had result in on track changes – and action was most certainly required.
In each year of motorsport, there are events during which hype and speculation can seem almost as exciting as the racing itself. It is no coincidence that the Visa Vegas eRace took place during the CES trade show, an event during which – behind closed doors – many decisions about the future of eSports racing will have been made. Doubtless, over the coming days we can look forward to much interesting speculation about the legacy of this event.
For now though the Visa Vegas eRace represented a brilliant, if at times controversial, way to reflect on how far eSport racing has come and to welcome in 2017, a year which seems bound to build on the growing popularity of digital motorsports.