2016/2017 FIA Formula E Championship.
Vegas eRace, Las Vegas, Nevada, United States of America.
Saturday 7 January 2017.

Photo: Zak Mauger/LAT
ref: Digital Image _X0W7406
© Formula E

Smith: First Vegas eRace throws up pitfalls, huge potential, of sim racing as an eSport

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Formula E has a knack for thinking outside of the box and venturing where other series wouldn’t dare to.

So when the all-electric series announced last July at the London ePrix that it would be hosting a virtual non-championship round in Las Vegas, it really came as little surprise.

This is a championship that has one of the fastest-growing and youngest audiences in motorsport. In an era where video games are not only consumed directly en masse, but have also become a spectator sport, the move seemed to be a masterstroke.

And the massive potential of the concept was certainly evident in Las Vegas on Saturday night. But so were the unavoidable pitfalls of sim racing that make eSports so hard to match up with the real-world thing.

The race weekend was intended to go by like any other ePrix. The drivers were afforded a first taste of the track on the Friday before further practices on Saturday, followed by qualifying and the race later in the day. The only difference to the regular FE schedule was the presence of a qualifying race, necessary to reduce the grid from 30 to 20 drivers.

Joining the 20 regular Formula E drivers were 10 of the world’s finest sim racers, who had qualified for the event through the Road to Vegas scheme. Don’t go thinking these were kids mucking about on their PlayStation while sitting on their sofa. Their success on platforms such as iRacing and rFactor 2 – the latter being used for the eRace – has made them household names in the sim racing world, and have even led to a handful of real-life race car run-outs.

The ability of the sim racers was such that few expected the Formula E regulars to stand a chance. One Formula E driver told me before Christmas that they would be “fighting for 11th”, fully expecting the gamers to sweep the board.

And indeed, nine of the top 10 qualifiers in Vegas were from the virtual sphere. The only man to break their dominance was Felix Rosenqvist, who proved that not only is he superhuman behind the wheel of any real racing car, but that he can also cut his teeth as a sim driver.

Rosenqvist put up a good fight through qualifying and the race, but it was five-time Formula Sim Racing world champion Bono Huis who dominated. Huis topped every single practice and qualifying session before shooting off into the distance at the start of the race. Despite coming under pressure from Rosenqvist throughout, the Dutchman entered the pits with five laps to go with a comfortable buffer. Victory and the $200,000 top prize seemed to be his.

But then things turned around.

Finnish racer Olli Pahkala had been running on the fringes of the top five for much of the race before coming in to make an early pit stop. He’d benefitted from an almighty crash involving three sim racers in the battle for third, but somehow, he’d emerged nine seconds clear of Huis at the front. In a race without cautions or safety cars, it didn’t really matter when you pitted – but somehow he’d made the undercut work to great effect.

Pahkala rounded out the final few laps with ease to pick up the first Vegas eRace victory, but didn’t seem too overawed by his success. Huis, on the other hand, was fuming, appearing to refuse to initially take to the podium when called for.

It then transpired that something was up. Pahkala had received one of the FanBoost votes, intended to work in the same way as its real-life Formula E counterpart. But instead of having extra power for a short burst, Pahkala had it for six laps. His times were three seconds per lap faster than what Huis was recording.

As one sim racing reporter and commentator, Justin, put it: “You don’t just go two seconds per lap faster than Bono Huis. I’m sorry but that’s impossible. These are the best of the best, the gaps between them are in hundredths, not two full seconds every lap.”

A post-race stewards investigation – just like a real Formula E race weekend – deemed that Pahkala had gained an unfair advantage, resulting in a 12-second time penalty that dropped the Finn to third in the final classification. Huis was declared the winner with Rosenqvist now second.

While the affair was resolved, it was deeply embarrassing for all of those who looked to make the inaugural eRace such a success. It was like Balance of Performance on steroids. Pahkala did nothing wrong at all, and there was no foul play involved; it just proved that software is no replacement for the real world thing. The fact that Lucas di Grassi and Jerome d’Ambrosio were also denied the chance to race because of issue with their pods is another drawback of such an event.

The chatter on Twitter and in the online chat accompanying the video was of particular interest when gauging how the event was received. There was a definite fervor surrounding it, such was its enormity in sim racing and eSports circles. But you also felt certain level of cynicism; a cynicism that appeared justified in the wake of the FanBoost faux pas and the on-track clashes.

It is admirable what Formula E is aiming to do. The YouTube generation is part of a late-millennial era, a time where teenagers don’t spend their time playing games as much, but instead like to watch others doing battle and having fun online.

While games such as Call of Duty and FIFA remain the biggest hits for YouTube stars, there has been a rapid growth over the past couple of years for motorsport gamers. The likes of Tiametmarduk, Aarava and xMattyG may not be household names in wider motorsport yet, but they could well be in years to come. If you’ve watched any racing video game footage on YouTube, you’ve likely seen one of their videos.

Their popularity is such that they were often the main discussion point in the Twitch chat, not the race itself. Sure, the comments were tongue-in-cheek, but it shows what Formula E is going up against. It is trying to bridge the gap between real-life racing and virtual entertainment. It’s a big, big ask, particularly in something as sensory as motorsport. Fans thrive on the smells and the sounds of a motorsport event; it’s impossible to recreate that in the virtual world.

And despite the pitfalls, for a first go, it was a good effort from Formula E. The presentation was slick, with regular Formula E commentators Jack Nicholls and Dario Franchitti on hand for the call. Nicholls was seamless as ever throughout, and was able to offer an insight that other commentators would have struggled to provide, given he started out on the sim racing scene himself.

Should Formula E push on with plans for an eRacing series, it has the potential to be very lucrative indeed, such is the interest in eSports. It may not be to everyone’s liking, but Formula E has never been about pleasing the traditional motorsport fan. It’s different and fresh.

And that will help to foster a new kind of racing fan, something that the motorsport YouTuber clan is already starting to do.

Instead of going from watching motorsport to racing video games, why not flip that around?

The motorsport YouTubers are helping to create new fans: kids who love their videos and then decide to check out the real-life thing. It may seem like backward thinking to the motorsport purist, but in an ever-changing, millennial-driven world, it could be the right course to take.

The inaugural Vegas eRace wasn’t as smooth as the organizers would have wanted it to be, sure. At times, it was difficult to watch and consume; even a little shambolic, given the ending. I went to bed at 2:30am a little disgruntled given the confusion over the result.

But there are still plenty of positives to be taken from this first event. Formula E has taken the first step towards something that could be huge in years to come; it must take great pride in that.

Jean Argetsinger, pillar of U.S. road racing, dies at 97

WATKINS GLEN, NY - AUGUST 08:  (EDITOR'S NOTE: Image was processed using digital filters.)  A general view of the track prior to qualifying for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Cheez-It 355 at Watkins Glen International on August 8, 2015 in Watkins Glen, New York.  (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)
Watkins Glen International. Photo: Getty Images
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WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. (AP) Jean Argetsinger, the matriarch of early American road racing and a leader in the creation of the International Motor Racing Research Center, has died at 97.

Argetsinger died Monday of natural causes at her home in Burdett, New York, according to Glenda Gephart, director of administration and communications for the research center in Watkins Glen. Argetsinger was predeceased by her husband, Cameron, in 2008.

The Argetsingers are credited with the rebirth of road racing in the United States after World War II. In establishing Watkins Glen as one of the most important racing venues in the world, Jean Argetsinger was at the forefront in hospitality, publicity and community involvement. She was a founder of the IMRRC, an archival and research library that’s dedicated to the preservation and sharing of the history of motorsports, all venues and all series worldwide. She served on the IMRRC governing council since the center opened in 1999.

“It was Jean’s vision, quiet determination and relentless pursuit that made it all a reality,” John Saunders, president of International Speedway Corp., said Wednesday. “While her spirit lives on, I truly will miss the first lady of American road racing.”

In the first years of racing in Watkins Glen, Argetsinger was at the side of her husband, welcoming drivers from around the world to parties at her house and putting together race event programs. In 1958, she established the Paddock Club, now known as the Glen Club, as “a civilized retreat for drivers’ wives and visiting celebrities.”

“I never thought racing would be my life. I don’t know much about cars, but I do know about the people who drive them,” Argetsinger said in 1999 when introducing a film documentary about the history of Watkins Glen racing. “When Cameron presented the idea of a road race to SCCA (Sports Car Club of America) at a cocktail party in Indianapolis, a distinguished member of the group put a fatherly arm around my shoulder and said, `Don’t do it. You’ll work hard, and nobody will come.’ ”

The Argetsingers were honored in 2009 with a Watkins Glen International Legend of the Glen Award.

“Jean will be missed by the entire racing industry, as the matriarch of racing at Watkins Glen and for her support of the racing community as a whole,” Watkins Glen International president Michael Printup said. “What Jean and Cameron accomplished in our small town will always be relished.”

Argetsinger, who raised nine children, was a founder of the League of Women Voters of Schuyler County and the Burdett Players theatrical group. She also was an 11-year member of the Watkins Glen Central School District board and led the Watkins Glen Public Library board for 24 years.

The New York State Legislature named Argetsinger a Woman of Distinction in 1999, the first class of honorees. She also was a columnist for The Watkins Review, a local weekly newspaper, and wrote a history of St. Mary’s of the Lake Catholic Church as well as several books on county history.

A funeral Mass will be held Saturday at St. Mary’s of the Lake Catholic Church in Watkins Glen.

Josef Newgarden already fitting in quite nicely with Team Penske

FORT WORTH, TX - JUNE 10:  Josef Newgarden, driver of the #21 Fuzzy's Vodka Chevrolet, prepares to drive during practice for the Verizon IndyCar Series Firestone 600 at Texas Motor Speedway on June 10, 2016 in Fort Worth, Texas.  (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images for Texas Motor Speedway)
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Josef Newgarden is like a boy with a new toy.

The newest addition to the Team Penske IndyCar lineup – he replaces Juan Pablo Montoya in the No. 2 Chevrolet – is acting like a kid in a candy store: he has arguably the best and winningest team in the sport, three of the best teammates, the best equipment and the best support personnel.

“Dude, it’s all cool, every day is cool with this group,” Newgarden said Wednesday during IndyCar Media Day at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

“Every day there’s something cool that goes on. When I first went down there and got to meet the whole team and I got introduced to the shop, it was very overwhelming because most of the shop was there for the introduction, and they have 425-plus employees. So it’s just very overwhelming and kind of emotional just because of the magnitude of it.”

The biggest change from the 26-year-old Newgarden’s previous tenure with Ed Carpenter Racing to Team Penske is indeed the personnel and available resources. With those kinds of numbers comes great strength.

“Every day, they’re like, ‘Oh, no, we do it like this’ or ‘We’ll sort that out for you, we’ll get this done,’” Newgarden said. “It’s literally every day they’re doing something that I might need or was thinking of, and it just happens, and you’re like, wow, that is so cool the way this works out here.”

Like pretty much every other full-time driver on the Verizon IndyCar Series circuit, Newgarden, who earned his three IndyCar career wins over the last two seasons, has two goals for 2017: winning the series championship and the Indianapolis 500.

Given that the Hendersonville, Tenn., native, who just moved to Penske headquarters in Charlotte from Indianapolis, is racing for the team that has won the 500 the most – 16 times – Newgarden can’t wait for the month of May.

“Yeah, the 500 is going to be very special, but I’m already like feeling that every month and every day,” he said. “Like that just has never been a moment where it’s not been cool with what we do and how we do it.

“Yeah, I’m sure it’s going to be super special for the 500, but I don’t think I’m going to feel that until we get inside the gates in May.”

While Newgarden — who has defending series champion Simon Pagenaud and veterans Will Power and Helio Castroneves as both teammates and mentors — is the envy of many of his young peers in the IndyCar series, he hasn’t forgotten where he came from, namely, Ed Carpenter Racing, where he and his innate driving talent were able to flourish.

‘We had a really great 2016 season, and it’s going to be an interesting transition for me going to Team Penske now,” said Newgarden, who finished fourth in last season’s standings. “I think in some aspects, it’s a difficult move because I really enjoyed my time and I’m going to miss my time at ECR.

“I built a really strong foundation there with the people and with Ed, and even in the past with (former team owners) Sarah (Fisher) and Andy (O’Gara) and Wink (Hartman) and Libba (Hartman). It’s a tough transition, but at the same time, I’m excited about it because from what I’ve seen over the last four or five months at Team Penske, I think it’s going to be a really, really fun experience to try something new to work in a different environment, to learn a different environment, and then try and make the most of that.

“I’m very excited about 2017. I’m not sure how it’s going to pan out yet. I think it’s hard to predict, but I think we’re going to have a pretty good going.”

Given that he’s entering his sixth season in IndyCar and his first with the best team in the series, Newgarden knows what the expectations for him are.

“I’ve got no excuses,” he said of 2017. “I’ve been around quite a while. I’m not a rookie by any stretch. You know, I’ll be in the best equipment from what everyone considers, and I’ve got a good team.

“… But on the whole, I should be pretty much ready to rock and go. If I’m not getting the job done, then I’ll have to figure it out pretty quick. So I think there’s pressure there, yeah, which is okay. That’s how it works.”

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NHRA: Sponsorship woes sideline former Top Fuel champ Shawn Langdon

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As the NHRA prepares to begin its new season in three weeks, a bit of distressing news has emerged.

According to Bobby Bennett of CompetitionPlus.com, former champion Shawn Langdon and his Top Fuel dragster have been parked by team owner Don Schumacher due to lack of sponsorship to start the season.

Langdon’s car was one of four Top Fuel dragsters that Don Schumacher Racing fielded last season. The other three – Tony Schumacher, two-time defending champ Antron Brown and Leah Pritchett – will start the season as planned.

But because enough sponsorship for the entire 24-race NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series has not materialized, Langdon will be parked until more funding is found.

“I am working on some things that will hopefully work out and give me the funding to run the car as soon as possible,” Don Schumacher told Bennett.

This is the second time in a year and a half that Langdon has been sidelined due to a lack of funding. He raced through the 18-race 2015 regular season, but team owner Alan Johnson parked Langdon when the six-race Countdown to the Championship playoffs began because money ran out.

Langdon almost immediately hooked up with DSR to finish out the 2015 season, and then raced the full season in 2016, winning three races and finishing fifth in the final standings.

“At this point, there’s really no other option than just to get back at it and just start talking with companies that we feel would be a good fit over here at Don Schumacher Racing,” Langdon told Bennett.

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Handful of changes identified on Rolex 24 entry list

No. 29 Montaplast by Land-Motorsport Audi R8 LMS, No. 51 Spirit of Race Ferrari 488 GT3. Photo courtesy of IMSA
No. 29 Montaplast by Land-Motorsport Audi R8 LMS, No. 51 Spirit of Race Ferrari 488 GT3. Photo courtesy of IMSA
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The entry lists for both the Rolex 24 at Daytona and BMW Performance 200, the respective curtain-raisers for the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship and Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge (Jan. 28-29), have been released on Wednesday and there’s not too many changes compared to the ones released for the Roar Before the Rolex 24 test earlier this month.

Within Prototype, Brendon Hartley has now been listed as fourth driver for both of the Tequila Patron ESM Nissan Onroak DPis. The New Zealander has driven in a couple Rolex 24s before, last year with Chip Ganassi Racing, and will saddle up with ESM this year despite missing the Roar test.

GT Daytona includes a number of additions, with Turner Motorsport confirming its full race lineup of BMW factory shoes Jens Klingmann, Maxime Martin, Jesse Krohn and sports car/NASCAR veteran Justin Marks in the No. 96 BMW M6 GT3 as the biggest change.

Maro Engel (No. 75 SunEnergy1 Racing Mercedes-AMG GT3), Tim Pappas (No. 991 TRG Porsche 911 GT3 R), Sven Mueller (No. 59 Manthey Racing Porsche 911 GT3 R), and Dion von Moltke (No. 48 Paul Miller Racing Lamborghini Huracán GT3) are among the key drivers added, though some teams have not yet confirmed those signings outright. Pappas’ confirmation brings together the principal of Black Swan Racing with Kevin Buckler’s TRG program in an interesting partnership.

Most of the Prototype Challenge field has been confirmed. Nick Boulle switches to Performance Tech Motorsports after being initially listed at BAR1 Motorsports. Starworks Motorsport’s lineup is set to include Sebastian Saavedra, Remo Ruscitti, Robert Wickens and the at-the-moment unlisted Sean Rayhall as its pro drivers.

Spencer Pumpelly, Guy Cosmo, Marc Miller, Damien Faulkner, Kenton Koch and Cameron Lawrence are among the notables still without a ride at the moment, and judging by the entry list, there’s still a number of TBDs and vacancies still within the GTD class.

The Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge entry list, meanwhile, features an even balance of 20 GS and 20 ST cars for the four-hour season opener.

Entry lists are linked below:

WeatherTech Championship
Continental Tire Challenge