Formula E broke new ground for the motor racing world with its ‘Race Off’ between Bruno Senna and Nicolas Prost. Jamie Klein shares his experiences of an event that offered a possible glimpse of the future.
What do you get when you combine a disused cinema screen, eight Xbox consoles, a bunch of avid gamers and two Formula E drivers? The answer is the inaugural Formula E ‘Race Off’.
The unassuming Gfinity Arena (or Screen 2 of Vue Cinema at Fulham Broadway, as it used to be known) played host to an event symbolic of the increasingly blurred distinction between sim racing and professional motorsport, as Senna and Prost swapped the cockpit for the controller.
Up to now, the realm of ‘eSports’ has been largely a preserve of first-person shooters and real-time strategy games, but from the evidence on display on Saturday, it may not be too long before racing games really start to muscle in on the act.
The races themselves – with commentary provided by regular eSports talker Alan Brice and ex-Formula E pilot Karun Chandhok – were strangely compelling affairs, despite the fact that the only footage visible was that taken from the players’ screens.
But, Motorsport.com didn’t just get to watch – I was granted a chance to get in on the action and have a crack at the racing myself. And, as it happened, it didn’t go too badly.
The day began with ‘open time trials’, allowing all-comers to have a crack at the Long Beach circuit on Forza Motorsport 6 in the season one Spark-McLaren Formula E car.
I managed to hustle my way round the iconic US street venue in a time of 57.0s, which – much to my surprise – was enough to qualify for the semi-final, an eight car race around the same track.
The opposition, however, was stiff, featuring players who had managed to lap some two seconds faster than me, as well as Nissan GT Academy maestro and sportscar ace Jann Mardenborough.
Being randomly allocated the eighth and final position on the starting grid turned out to be a blessing in disguise, as I was able to pick my way through the carnage that unfolded at Turn 1 to grab an unlikely lead.
I was quickly demoted to third after a prang of my own later on the lap, but settled into a rhythm for the remainder before being gifted second at the final corner as the leader bizarrely ground to a halt.
Racing the pros
The top three progressed to the grand final – Mardenborough claiming his spot behind me – along with the top three from the second semi and Senna and Prost themselves.
But the organisers threw a curveball at all of us for the final – instead of racing at Long Beach, with which we were all familiar, we would be racing at the fantasy Rio street track: a long, technical circuit with massive undulation and nightmare blind turns.
I miraculously held my starting position of second through the first-corner melee, but my unfamiliarity with the track cost me dear, my descent through the order hastened by several crashes – one of which occurred during a futile attempt to hold off Mardenborough for fourth.
Still, I finished sixth out of eight, comfortably ahead of both Prost and Senna – who would both, as it turns out, be well advised to stick to the day job.
Senna v Prost
The duo then had the chance to engage in their own private battle, and it was Senna who proved conclusively the better gamer.
Barring a moment of madness during the opening heat around the fantasy Prague street track, when the Brazilian seemingly forgot where the road went, Senna was too quick for Prost, who suffered an ignominious 2-0 defeat.
Then again, the Frenchman did at least have the excuse that the Xbox he was sent beforehand to practice had UK plugs incompatible with the sockets at his Switzerland home…
It was an entertaining end to a day that offered a potential glimpse into the future. For example, it’s not hard to picture Forza 6 players being able to pit themselves against the Formula E racers as they do battle on track in real life.
Along with initiatives like Roborace, it’s a sign of the fresh thinking the all-electric championship has embraced in order to appeal to audiences outside the usual core of motorsport fans.
It’s an approach that the powers that be in other forms of racing, not least of all Formula 1, would certainly do well to emulate.