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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.

NHRA 50th Gatornationals winners: Crampton, Hight, Butner, Hines

Gatornationals winners: Hines, Butner, Hight, Crampton. Photos and videos courtesy NHRA.
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Richie Crampton (Top Fuel), Robert Hight (Funny Car), Bo Butner (Pro Stock) and Andrew Hines (Pro Stock Motorcycle) emerged as winners of the 50th annual Amalie Motor Oil NHRA Gatornationals Sunday at Gainesville (Florida) Raceway.

IN TOP FUEL: Crampton successfully defended his win in last year’s Gatornationals with a 3.769-second, 329.89 mph effort to defeat Clay Millican (3.756 seconds, 324.67 mph) in the final round.

Ironically, not only was Sunday’s triumph Crampton’s first win since last year’s Gators, he also finally got past the first round for the first time in the 2019 season’s first three events, going on to earn his ninth career NHRA national event win.

This is just a big race no matter what year you win it,” Crampton said. “There were not too many easy rounds this year. That goes to tell you how difficult this Top Fuel category is.

I think this win is going to take a while to sink in. I’m so lucky to have a team that puts me in a position to win like this. I’m just focusing to be a dependable driver.”

IN FUNNY CAR: Hight keeps rolling along. Not only has he been the No. 1 qualifier in each of the first three NHRA national events, Sunday’s win was the second of the season and 47th of his career.

Hight (3.867 seconds, 331.61 mph) took the win light after Tim Wilkerson (11.165 seconds, 92.63 mph) lost traction shortly after leaving the starting line.

Qualifying No. 1 at the first three races is really impressive,” Hight said. “It shows that we have a really good handle on this car.

We didn’t get the job done on the last day of the season last year (he failed to win the championship, losing to J.R. Todd) and my team worked really hard because they don’t want to be in that spot again.”

IN PRO STOCK: Butner, the 2017 Pro Stock champion, is off to a great season’s start, with Sunday’s triumph being his second of the young season.

Butner (6.505 seconds, 212.29 mph) defeated Alex Laughlin in the final round. Laughlin’s car broke, essentially giving Butner a free pass to the victory.

Butner’s win was all the more sweeter as his fiancee, Randi Lyn Shipp, won the Stock Eliminator class.

I had no shot of winning rounds today,” Butner said. “Second and third round we didn’t get down the track. The guys never gave up and I made the best run of the weekend in the finals. We were real ready for the final.”

IN PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: The two-wheeled guys kicked off their season with an outstanding final round battle between teammates Andrew Hines and Eddie Krawiec.

Hines earned the 49th win of his career and first since the final race of the 2017 season with a run of 6.752 seconds at 199.17 mph to defeat Krawiec (6.762 seconds, 198.90 mph).

The motorcycle I had this weekend was phenomenal,” Hines said. “It was tracking straight down the track and it responded to all of the changes.

That made it so much easier to focus on going out there and racing, cutting good lights and not really worrying about what could happen the very next run.”

The next national event will be the Denso Spark Plugs NHRA Four-Wide Nationals at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, April 5-7 in Las Vegas.

Here’s Sunday’s results and updated point standings:

FINAL FINISHING ORDER:

TOP FUEL: 1. Richie Crampton; 2. Clay Millican; 3.T.J. Zizzo; 4. Doug Kalitta; 5. Steve Torrence; 6. Leah Pritchett; 7. Brittany Force; 8. Jordan Vandergriff; 9. Terry McMillen; 10. Dom Lagana; 11. Mike Salinas; 12. Austin Prock; 13. Antron Brown; 14. Scott Palmer; 15. Pat Dakin; 16. Chris Karamesines.

FUNNY CAR: 1. Robert Hight; 2. Tim Wilkerson; 3. John Force; 4. Jack Beckman; 5. Tommy Johnson Jr.; 6. Cruz Pedregon; 7. Matt Hagan; 8. Ron Capps; 9. Jonnie Lindberg; 10. Shawn Langdon; 11. Bob Tasca III; 12. Terry Haddock; 13. J.R. Todd; 14. Dave Richards; 15. John Smith; 16. Jim Campbell.

PRO STOCK: 1. Bo Butner; 2. Alex Laughlin; 3. Kenny Delco; 4. Rodger Brogdon; 5. Greg Anderson; 6. Shane Tucker; 7. Chris McGaha; 8. Deric Kramer; 9. Jeg Coughlin; 10. Jason Line; 11. Fernando Cuadra; 12. Matt Hartford; 13. Alan Prusiensky; 14. Wally Stroupe; 15. Erica Enders; 16. Val Smeland.

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: 1. Andrew Hines; 2. Eddie Krawiec; 3. Hector Arana Jr; 4. Joey Gladstone; 5. Ryan Oehler; 6. Jerry Savoie; 7. Jim Underdahl; 8. Matt Smith; 9. Angie Smith; 10. Cory Reed; 11. Angelle Sampey; 12. Karen Stoffer; 13. Kelly Clontz; 14. Scotty Pollacheck; 15. Hector Arana; 16. Melissa Surber.

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FINAL RESULTS:

TOP FUEL: Richie Crampton, 3.769 seconds, 323.89 mphdef. Clay Millican, 3.756 seconds, 324.67 mph.

FUNNY CAR: Robert Hight, Chevy Camaro, 3.867, 331.61def. Tim Wilkerson, Ford Mustang, 11.165, 92.63.

PRO STOCK: Bo Butner, Chevy Camaro, 6.505, 212.29def. Alex Laughlin, Camaro, Broke.

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: Andrew Hines, Harley-Davidson, 6.752, 199.17def. Eddie Krawiec, Harley-Davidson, 6.762, 198.90.

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FINAL ROUND-BY-ROUND RESULTS

TOP FUEL: ROUND ONE — T.J. Zizzo, 4.467, 287.84 def. Scott Palmer, 7.510, 92.54; Clay Millican, 3.713, 325.61 def. Austin Prock, 3.996, 311.63; Richie Crampton, 3.783, 318.77 def. Antron Brown, 4.376, 220.40; Brittany Force, 3.712, 304.12 def. Chris Karamesines, 8.179, 68.29; Jordan Vandergriff, 3.721, 322.34 def. Mike Salinas, 3.986, 275.28; Steve Torrence, 3.680, 327.27 def. Dom Lagana, 3.845, 264.18; Leah Pritchett, 3.724, 327.59 def. Pat Dakin, 7.999, 80.28; Doug Kalitta, 3.749, 325.30 def. Terry McMillen, 3.749, 325.22; QUARTERFINALS — Crampton, 3.785, 319.37 def. Pritchett, 3.739, 328.78; Millican, 3.701, 325.69 def. Vandergriff, 10.914, 71.66; Zizzo, 3.764, 325.92 def. Force, 3.751, 326.95; Kalitta, 3.703, 327.51 def. Torrence, 3.708, 329.91; SEMIFINALS — Crampton, 3.734, 326.56 def. Zizzo, 3.844, 297.42; Millican, 3.909, 313.73 def. Kalitta, 4.920, 145.97; FINAL — Crampton, 3.769, 323.89 def. Millican, 3.756, 324.67.

FUNNY CAR: ROUND ONE — Tim Wilkerson, Ford Mustang, 4.759, 231.48 def. Dave Richards, Mustang, 5.240, 213.43; John Force, Chevy Camaro, 3.892, 326.63 def. Jim Campbell, Dodge Charger, 8.295, 78.64; Tommy Johnson Jr., Charger, 3.933, 326.56 def. John Smith, Charger, 5.306, 150.05; Robert Hight, Camaro, 3.869, 331.94 def. Terry Haddock, Mustang, 4.234, 284.03; Matt Hagan, Charger, 3.941, 322.58 def. Jonnie Lindberg, Mustang, 3.950, 324.44; Jack Beckman, Charger, 3.905, 326.79 def. J.R. Todd, Toyota Camry, 4.353, 255.53; Cruz Pedregon, Charger, 3.924, 325.22 def. Shawn Langdon, Camry, 3.966, 323.27; Ron Capps, Charger, 3.910, 324.59 def. Bob Tasca III, Mustang, 3.969, 316.90; QUARTERFINALS — Wilkerson, 3.872, 329.50 def. Pedregon, 8.110, 84.77; Hight, 3.870, 330.88 def. Capps, 10.137, 77.38; Force, 4.471, 185.95 def. Hagan, 9.028, 77.04; Beckman, 3.898, 329.67 def. Johnson Jr., 3.892, 327.03; SEMIFINALS — Wilkerson, 3.896, 329.02 def. Beckman, 4.211, 267.27; Hight, 3.852, 331.20 def. Force, 3.942, 324.12; FINAL — Hight, 3.867, 331.61 def. Wilkerson, 11.165, 92.63.

PRO STOCK: ROUND ONE — Chris McGaha, Chevy Camaro, 6.566, 210.97 def. Erica Enders, Camaro, 6.751, 173.63; Alex Laughlin, Camaro, 6.512, 210.83 def. Jason Line, Camaro, 6.527, 212.39; Kenny Delco, Camaro, 6.533, 210.34 def. Jeg Coughlin, Camaro, 6.516, 212.53; Bo Butner, Camaro, 6.532, 212.46 def. Fernando Cuadra, Camaro, 6.549, 211.63; Shane Tucker, Camaro, 6.593, 209.26 def. Matt Hartford, Camaro, 6.571, 211.13; Greg Anderson, Camaro, 6.504, 212.69 def. Alan Prusiensky, Dodge Dart, 6.625, 208.07; Rodger Brogdon, Camaro, 6.566, 211.23 def. Wally Stroupe, Camaro, Foul – Red Light; Deric Kramer, Camaro, 6.505, 212.33 def. Val Smeland, Camaro, 12.777, 67.47; QUARTERFINALS — Brogdon, 6.513, 211.39 def. McGaha, 7.852, 127.58; Delco, 6.555, 210.01 def. Tucker, 6.610, 209.23; Butner, 6.552, 211.76 def. Kramer, 20.651, 37.89; Laughlin, 6.507, 211.00 def. Anderson, 6.506, 213.16; SEMIFINALS — Butner, 8.103, 115.58 def. Brogdon, Foul – Red Light; Laughlin, 6.531, 210.57 def. Delco, 6.550, 210.41; FINAL — Butner, 6.505, 212.29 def. Laughlin, Broke.

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: ROUND ONE — Jerry Savoie, Suzuki, 6.916, 187.89 def. Hector Arana, 7.095, 196.93; Joey Gladstone, 6.873, 194.46 def. Angelle Sampey, Harley-Davidson, 6.884, 195.39; Ryan Oehler, Buell, 6.853, 196.36 def. Karen Stoffer, Suzuki, 6.901, 194.04; Andrew Hines, Harley-Davidson, 6.781, 198.67 def. Cory Reed, Foul – Red Light; Hector Arana Jr, 6.815, 197.62 def. Kelly Clontz, Suzuki, 6.916, 192.19; Matt Smith, 6.795, 197.36 def. Angie Smith, 6.850, 196.79; Eddie Krawiec, Harley-Davidson, 6.803, 198.17 def. Scotty Pollacheck, 6.964, 192.41; Jim Underdahl, Suzuki, Broke def. Melissa Surber, Buell, Foul – Red Light; QUARTERFINALS — Arana Jr, 6.797, 197.08 def. Oehler, 6.886, 198.44; Krawiec, 6.920, 197.68 def. Underdahl, 7.184, 153.49; Gladstone, 6.811, 194.74 def. M. Smith, Broke; Hines, 6.756, 199.14 def. Savoie, Foul – Red Light; SEMIFINALS — Krawiec, 6.819, 197.08 def. Gladstone, 6.850, 194.72; Hines, 6.758, 199.08 def. Arana Jr, Foul – Red Light; FINAL — Hines, 6.752, 199.17 def. Krawiec, 6.762, 198.90.

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UPDATED POINT STANDINGS:

TOP FUEL: 1.Doug Kalitta, 246; 2.Leah Pritchett, 204; 3.Steve Torrence, 197; 4.(tie) Richie Crampton, 178; Billy Torrence, 178; 6.Terry McMillen, 166; 7.Mike Salinas, 161; 8.Clay Millican, 157; 9.Antron Brown, 150; 10.Austin Prock, 138.

FUNNY CAR: 1.Robert Hight, 330; 2.Jack Beckman, 225; 3.Matt Hagan, 215; 4.John Force, 200; 5.Tommy Johnson Jr., 191; 6.Tim Wilkerson, 165; 7.Bob Tasca III, 163; 8.J.R. Todd, 159; 9.Ron Capps, 146; 10.Shawn Langdon, 143.

PRO STOCK: 1.Bo Butner, 301; 2.Alex Laughlin, 229; 3.Jason Line, 189; 4.Erica Enders, 186; 5.Matt Hartford, 185; 6.Rodger Brogdon, 184; 7.Jeg Coughlin, 180; 8.Deric Kramer, 166; 9.Kenny Delco, 141; 10.Chris McGaha, 137.

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: 1.Andrew Hines, 124; 2.Eddie Krawiec, 106; 3.Hector Arana Jr, 76; 4.Joey Gladstone, 72; 5. Matt Smith, 63; 6.Ryan Oehler, 54; 7.(tie) Jerry Savoie, 53; Jim Underdahl, 53; 9.Angelle Sampey, 35; 10.(tie) Hector Arana, 32; Karen Stoffer, 32; Melissa Surber, 32.

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