RACE HIGHLIGHTS: Guanyu Zhou takes victory in a thrilling Bahrain Virtual Grand Prix
With no real world Formula 1 action this weekend, attention turned instead to the first in a brand new series of Virtual Grands Prix, created to give fans some racing action to watch as the ongoing coronavirus situation continues to affect the F1 calendar.
The likes of Nico Hulkenberg, Lando Norris and Johnny Herbert lined up on Sunday night for a no-holds-barred, 14 lap Bahrain Virtual Grand Prix that was won by Formula 2 racer Guanyu Zhou from third on the grid at an impeccably rendered Bahrain International Circuit on Codemasters' F1 2019 game. Click the video above to watch the highlights.
On pole position was sports car racer Philipp Eng (racing for Red Bull), joined by Mercedes reserve driver Esteban Gutierrez on the front row, while Renault’s Zhou and Williams driver Nicholas Latifi started on the second row.
McLaren’s Norris had to start last, with his avatar replaced by a computer for part of the race – dubbed ‘LandoBot’ – as he struggled with technical issues. His preparations included a hilarious phone call to Max Verstappen that was broadcast live on Twitch.
The race began with a bang as Hulkenberg spun off from P5 on the grid in his Racing Point, and Johnny Herbert took the lead from 16th for Alfa Romeo – though he took a drive-through penalty for cutting Turn 1.
Eng barged Herbert on the first lap to retake the lead and Zhou followed as three-time Grand Prix winner Herbert led a train of cars including Esports star Paul ‘Redeye’ Chaloner for Haas, Norris’s bot and ex-McLaren driver Stoffel Vandoorne in a tussle for third.
Zhou pitted first and emerged in the lead to win by 11.392s over runner-up Vandoorne, who shoved past polesitter Eng on the final lap.
YouTuber Jimmy Broadbent, who started 16th for Racing Point, proved a real threat as he set a flurry of fastest laps and made it up to P5 by the halfway point. But he was joined by Norris, who had replaced his computer counterpart and was now in a fight for P4. The final lap ended with Broadbent spinning Norris off into the wall at the final corner, giving Broadbent P4 over the McLaren driver.
Latifi finished sixth ahead of motorcycle racer Luca Salvadori (AlphaTauri) with ‘Redeye’ leading a pack of cars in P8.
Hulkenberg’s early spin did little to put him off, as he fought the likes of Latifi and Ferrari junior Dino Beganovic in a terrific, wheel-to-wheel battle halfway through the race, with Gutierrez also in the mix.
It was Beganovic who won out in that battle, finishing ninth, while Hulkenberg rounded out the top 10 and Gutierrez took 11th, just 0.893s off the former Renault driver.
Herbert settled for P13 behind Esports star Sadokist, while Nicholas Hamilton, brother of Lewis, ended up 14th. Professional golfer Ian Poulter beat Olympic gold medallist Sir Chris Hoy by four seconds, with One Direction’s Liam Payne rounding out the pack.
Alfa Romeo’s Esports driver ‘Cyanide’ dropped out due to technical issues and F2 driver Robert Shwartzman retired his Ferrari late on in an enthralling opening Virtual Grand Prix.
And if that whetted your appetite for more F1 Esports action, don't worry because the virtual races will run in place of every postponed Grand Prix, with the initiative currently scheduled to run until May, though that could be extended if the coronavirus pandemic results in further Grand Prix cancellations or postponements.
The next Virtual Grand Prix will be in two weeks' time on April 5th when the drivers will be racing around the Australian Grand Prix circuit in Melbourne, so don't forget to tune in on F1.com then.