A grid of Ferrari esports pros, celebrity guests and Charles Leclerc watching and streaming the race live on his and Ferrari’s Twitch channels: sim racing doesn’t get much more intense.
That is how Ferrari launched its latest esports campaign, set to begin in the Spring as it seeks out the best virtual racing talents to add to its burgeoning esports team.
The new Formula 1 campaign is weeks away but it isn’t the only racing the Scuderia will be focusing on in 2021. Following on from last year’s esports boom during the lockdown period, virtual racing has been growing as more and more teams begin to back the online version in search of a future racing talent.
Ferrari now boasts two of the three F1 Esports champions within its ranks in David Tonnizza and Brendon Leigh, but 24 new drivers will be competing for a spot in the team’s Esports Academy again in its Pro Series.
For its second season, entrants will have to race their way through qualification stages and events until the fastest 48 drivers remain. Beginning in April, a hotlap contest will whittle down the field of entrants to set up four grids of 12 for qualifying races.
Those that are left will then take part in races until there are 24 remaining, with the 12 best-placed drivers from that then being entered into the final stage set for mid-December.
The fastest drivers then graduate to the grand final and compete for the chance to be signed to Ferrari’s Esports Academy. Last year, tens of thousands of drivers entered the inaugural season, all hosted on race sim Assetto Corsa. Registrations will open on the Ferrari Esports Series website from 8pm GMT.
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As part of its preparations for the new series, Ferrari invited guests along to take part in an exhibition event to showcase the talent within its ranks and some celebrity appearances from the likes of Valentino Rossi and Charles Leclerc.
2020 F2 runner-up Callum Ilott and rival Marcus Armstrong were also involved and were joined by 2020 Ferrari esports champion Giovanni De Salvo and fellow sim racer Amos Laurito. Real Madrid goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois was another celebrity invited to compete with influencers, journalists and media filling out the remaining grid slots, including Motor Sport.
Getting to grips with the virtual Mugello circuit took a couple of evenings and fiddling with setups but eventually, I had a rhythm down and was feeling confident that I could keep the car on the road for a 30-minute race. Then the pros joined, lapped 2 seconds quicker than anyone else and left the practice server after just a few flying laps.
Hopes now firmly realigned, a 15-minute qualifying session rapidly passed by and a scruffy lap was only good enough to start 10th. After a great launch — if I say so myself — and surviving the opening fracas, I was up to ninth. From then on out consistency was king.
Pressuring a works Ferrari GT driver into a mistake for eighth was great fun, but there was absolutely no chance of catching the leader 30sec up the road by the time the race was over.
In the end, a P8 finish ahead of most of the pro drivers was a satisfying result, showing off enough promise to be the next Ferrari Driver Academy prospect? Maybe not, did I fail to mention that all of the sim racing pros started from the pitlane?
But for a few incidents amongst themselves, they likely would have caught and passed everyone.
Despite the high level of driving and dedication of the best sim racers, the transition between virtual and real-world racing isn’t quite at a crossover point just yet, though Ferrari’s Brandon Leigh has got real-life racing experience on his racing CV, taking part in the National Formula Ford 1600 series back in 2019 at Snetterton.
He managed to qualify fifth on his debut on an eventful weekend that included a fourth-place finish before a post-race penalty demoted him to 10th and a subsequent crash in a later race. With the investments made into esports by manufacturers and teams, the calibre of drivers it produces will surely continue to rise along with it.