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5 things the Virtual Grand Prix series tells us about the 2020 F1 season

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With Formula 1 racing on hold thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, some of the F1 drivers and – plenty of fans – turned to esports to get their racing fix while they waited for F1 to return.

Drivers from up and down the grid joined in with the Virtual Grand Prix series, with Charles Leclerc, George Russell, Alex Albon and Antonio Giovinazzi among the F1 stars who became regulars in the unofficial championship.

The series wrapped up with the Virtual Canadian Grand Prix earlier this month, but is there anything the virtual racing action can tell us about the real F1 season that's about to begin?

1. Russell is one of the most competitive drivers in F1

All right, so every driver racing in F1 is super competitive – after all, you don't even get to be an F1 driver unless that sense of simply having to win coarses through your veins, but let's look at what we learned about Russell from the Virtual GP series.

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Virtual Canadian GP: The moment George Russell won the Esports championship

Some drivers turned up and had a go, for a bit of a laugh. Some had been doing it for years in their spare time anyway, so were already pretty handy.

But not Russell. He wasn't a sim racer before the series started and in fact he didn't even have a rig set up at home. In his first race, he finished a highly impressive third. But this wasn't good enough for the Williams driver who went away, got advice from the Williams team’s professional esports racers, and put in hour after hour of practice to improve his skills.

READ MORE: Why Virtual GP series win says more about George Russell than you may think

The result? An utterly dominant end to the series with a staggering four wins in a row – many by a sizeable margin to the driver in second place – as he clinched the unofficial championship.

Okay, so it isn't 'real' racing, but Russell's determination to improve and be the absolute best he could in the discipline speaks to his work ethic – and that iron will to win. He won't be winning races when the F1 season starts for real, but you can be sure he'll be wringing every ounce of performance possible out of his Williams.

2. We'll have the friendliest grid for years

It's often said how Formula 1 was a much friendlier sport back in the days when there were fewer people involved, and fewer sponsorship and media commitments, meaning the drivers could spend more time together.

Niki Lauda and James Hunt were famously close, and before that the British drivers in the 1960s like Graham Hill, Jackie Stewart and Jim Clark even used to holiday together.

With the drivers now largely kept pretty separate, other than the joint press conferences, it seemed like true driver friendships in F1 might be a thing of the past. But given the access we've had to the drivers' Twitch channels during the Virtual GP series, we've seen up close how friendly some of them really are with each other.

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The funniest moments from the F1 drivers' esports exploits

When you watch their exploits online, Russell, Alex Albon, Charles Leclerc, Nicholas Latifi and Lando Norris – all of a similar age of course – genuinely seem like a bunch of mates messing around and having a good time together.

Sure, once the white-hot competition of F1 returns it might not be quite so cosy, but off track, it seems like we might have the friendliest grid in years.

3. Did the Virtual GP series provide a clue as to Ricciardo's replacement?

One of the big stories of the off-season has been Daniel Ricciardo electing to quit Renault at the end of the year to sign up for McLaren in 2021.

So far they have not announced a replacement for the Australian, with former world champions Fernando Alonso and Sebastian Vettel both linked with the seat.

ANALYSIS: Alonso? Vettel? Who is really on Renault's driver shopping list for 2021?

But could the team opt to fill the vacancy from a driver at the other end of his career? Among the young prospects in the Renault driver academy is Guanyu Zhou.

The Chinese youngster will race in F2 in 2020, but could he be an outside bet to step up to F1 next year? After all, it wasn't any of the current F1 drivers who took victory in the opening race of the Virtual Grand Prix series – it was Zhou.

Virtual racing success isn't going to tip the scales too much for Zhou, but it certainly won't hurt his prospects.

RACE HIGHLIGHTS: Guanyu Zhou takes victory in a thrilling Bahrain Virtual Grand Prix

4. The 2020 McLaren should be more reliable than Norris's internet connection...

Lando Norris is one of the Grand Prix drivers who was already into his sim racing before the Virtual Grand Prix series began. So it was with much excitement that his fans tuned in to see how he would get on in the very first race back in March.

Unfortunately, Lando's internet connection seemed to give out just at the wrong moment, leaving his McLaren to be controlled by the game itself, with fans quickly dubbing his driverless car 'LandoBot'.

Frustratingly for Norris, the same problem cropped up at a number of subsequent races, somewhat hampering his chances of nabbing any victories.

Still, on the plus side, Lando's new McLaren MCL35 will surely prove to be more reliable than his broadband when real racing gets going again...

5. Drivers will always push the limit on track limits

The F1 2019 game has rules and regulations for racing, just like real Formula 1, but that didn't stop most of the drivers chancing their luck by taking the odd shortcut here are there as they battled for victory. Time and again we saw messages flashing up that drivers have been hit with time penalties for going outside track limits as they fought to gain an advantage.

And with the first two races of the revised F1 season taking place at the Red Bull Ring – a circuit where track limits have been a frequent point of contention in recent years – the stewards will have to be on their toes to make sure the drivers don't bring any bad habits from the sim racing world on to the track.

Mind you, it's unlikely any of them would go as far as Johnny Herbert did in the very first Virtual GP, when he stormed from the back of the grid to the lead at the start – simply by cutting the first corner entirely...

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Hulkenberg crashes & Herbert cheats at start of Bahrain Virtual Grand Prix

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