Instead of driving his No. 10 NTT Data Honda in the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, Sweden’s Felix Rosenqvist was competing in “The Race All-Star Esports Battle” on Sunday.
The second-year IndyCar Series driver for Chip Ganassi Racing was back at his house in Carmel, Indiana, testing his sim racing skills against other top racing drivers from around the world.
Those included Formula One star Max Verstappen, Indianapolis 500 winner Simon Pagenaud and fellow IndyCar drivers Will Power, Ed Jones and Colton Herta, plus Formula E stars Antonio Felix Da Costa, Max Gunther and Neel Jani and two-time Indy 500 winner Juan Pablo Montoya and his son, Sebastian.
They were testing their racing skills against the world’s leading sim racing drivers.
It wasn’t the streets of St. Petersburg, Florida, but it was the next best thing after that race was canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The Race” was created by Torque Esports, and the event broke all previous records in the motorsport’s genre of gaming. It was streamed live on YouTube and Twitch.
“The Race” was created following the cancellation of the opening round of the Formula One World Championship in Australia and the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.
NASCAR’s Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway also was postponed as well as Formula E and World Endurance Championship events.
According to organizers, the sim race was created in just 48 hours, beginning with Saturday’s fan qualifying event.
“More people watched ‘‘The Race All-Star eSports Battle’ online than watch a Formula One race on Sky TV in the U.K. That is an incredible statistic,” Torque Esports President and CEO Darren Cox said.
The race was won by sim racer Jernej Simoncic. Torque Esports will repeat the ground-breaking esports racing event next week with separate events for both the real-world racers and the regular eSports competitors.
Sunday’s stream featured live commentary from Formula One commentators Jack Nicholls and Jolyon Palmer along with eSports racing caller René Buttler.
Rosenqvist was the highest-finishing professional driver and one of only two pros in the top 10. Both were from the NTT IndyCar Series.
Rosenqvist finished seventh and Herta finished 10th.
“They put it together within a day,” Rosenqvist told NBCSports.com in an exclusive interview. “That was pretty cool. There were a lot of people that watched it after they canceled Formula One and canceled IndyCar and canceled NASCAR. All of the fans were wanting to watch something, and they got to watch this so that was cool.
“I was contacted by somebody from ‘The Race’ and one of the journalists contacted me and asked if I wanted to be part of it. They invited 15 pro racing drivers, then 15 pro sim drivers and 15 guys that qualified in the event from an actual race the day before.
“I said, ‘Hell yes, I’m up for it.’”
There were three groups with each group competing in a qualification round. The top eight of each qualification round advanced into the final. Rosenqvist and Herta advanced through all rounds and finished in the top 10 in the championship.
“I was a little bit surprised at how good the pro sim drivers are,” Rosenqvist said. “These guys are seriously good. I’ve been playing a lot of sim racing this winter, so I know how good they are. This event was held on a Game rFactor and not iRacing, which is a platform I’m more familiar with. I think that was to my advantage because people didn’t have the same amount to practice.
“I did an event like that before in Las Vegas on Formula E and finished second among the real racers category. Perhaps I’m some kind of talent on that form of racing. Colton Herta was very good. We actually chatted a little bit today. I helped him download the game and set everything up. We were both prepared. (With) the time zone difference, he woke up at 2 a.m. to do the practice. He is very good at sim racing on track.”
Fans and gamers are able to participate in sim racing, and each competitor’s computer environment and equipment depends on how much they want to spend.
“You can race for $400 or $500 and that is the minimum,” Rosenqvist explained. “Other guys have a rig worth $30,000. It all depends on what you want. Everything below $1,000, you will probably be slower, but everything above will not make much of a difference lap-time wise.
“It’s like a guy thing. Guys like to build stuff and have their ‘Man Cave’ you can hang around in. You need a steering wheel, pedal and a computer. If you have a desktop computer, you can attach the steering wheel to your desk and have the pedals on the floor. That is how I do iRacing. You can spend however much you feel comfortable racing.”
Torque Esports said the social media impact of “The Race” was enormous based on these statistics:
- “The Race All-Star Esports Battle” on the rFactor 2 platform was Sunday’s top streamed eSports event the world during the broadcast- beating competitions on League of Legends, Call of Duty, Nioh 2 and PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds.
- Stream Hatchet reported Sunday’s event had 90 percent more live viewers in history than any eSports racing event ever held on any streaming platform.
- Sunday’s event outperformed the average major sports league on Twitch, generating more average viewers than major sports leagues.
- “The Race All-Star Esports Battle” viewership was 300 percent larger than the Team USA Road to the Olympics basketball viewership.
- From Thursday to Sunday, The-Race.com website achieved a 160 percent increase in traffic compared to the previous week. Three of the top six stories were on esports racing this week – this is in spite of the last-minute cancellation of the Australian Formula 1 Grand Prix.
- Total subscribers for The Race YouTube channel grew by 10 percent in only three days.
- The Race’s @wearetherace Twitter channel had three consecutive days of record traffic and an 83 percent increase in impressions.
“Race fans around the world are starved of entertainment at the moment – but the beauty of eSports racing competition is the fact you can set up events anywhere around the world at any time,” Cox said. “With the current COVID-19 situation around the world, the ‘stay at home economy’ is surging.”
There are more eSports events planned by the company in the coming weeks while actual racing takes a pause until mid-May at the earliest for IndyCar and NASCAR.
“We know about the massive potential for esports – that is why Torque Esports was created – but Sunday’s event drives home the incredible potential for esports racing as an entertainment platform,” Cox said. “To cultivate a bigger audience than the mainstream combat gaming titles today is quite astounding. Our team raised the bar in the level of the presentation and the race event was run super professionally like a real-world race meeting.”
For Rosenqvist, the second-year IndyCar driver from Sweden was ready to unleash his competitive first on the streets of St. Petersburg in his beast of an Indy car. Instead, he was doing it on his computer.
“It helped a little bit,” Rosenqvist said. “It’s a weird feeling when you have been building up for something for so long mentally, especially in IndyCar where we have such a long offseason. You go into the weekend, and you know what you are going to do. Then, people talk about the race being canceled. When we returned home, we were all pretty disappointed, not only the drivers but also the fans and everybody involved in IndyCar.
“When someone calls and says, ‘Hey, let’s do a sim race,’ it wakes up that fire again. That went for the fans as well. That is why there were so many spectators watching the race. Everyone wanted to do something. It was pretty wild going into Turn 1.
“People were hungry for racing.”