March 23, 2020 / 8:39 AM / 11 days ago

Zhou wins virtual Bahrain GP as F1 seeks to fill void left by virus

LONDON (Reuters) - Renault’s Chinese test driver Guanyu Zhou won a virtual Bahrain Grand Prix on Sunday as Formula One sought to entertain fans with esports action in a season stalled by the spreading coronavirus.

The first seven rounds of the real championship have been cancelled or postponed, including the showcase Monaco Grand Prix, and it remains to be seen how many there will be ultimately.

Bahrain would have been the second race of the year on Sunday and Liberty Media-owned Formula One had hoped to enlist current drivers in a virtual replacement using the Codemasters F1 2019 game.

In the end McLaren’s Lando Norris and Williams’ Nicholas Latifi, who has yet to make his F1 race debut, were the only ones present.

Others stepped up, however, with former McLaren F1 driver and current Mercedes Formula E racer Stoffel Vandoorne finishing second with Austrian Philipp Eng, who had started on pole position, third.

English golfer Ian Poulter, ‘The Postman’ competing from the garage of his home in Florida, and Britain’s six times Olympic cycling gold medallist Chris Hoy also took part.

So too did Nicolas Hamilton, brother of Britain’s six times world champion Lewis Hamilton, singer-songwriter Liam Payne and retired ex-F1 race winner Johnny Herbert.

TECHNICAL DIFFICULTIES

Technical problems meant the race was reduced from half the real-life distance to 25% while Norris struggled with a poor connection that meant his car was controlled for much of the time by the computer, which he dubbed ‘Landobot’.

Norris also made some cheeky calls seeking advice from other F1 drivers, including real life team mate Carlos Sainz and Red Bull’s Max Verstappen, during the downtime.

The McLaren driver had earlier raced in a separate ‘Not the BAH GP’ event organised by Veloce Esports and also featuring Poulter and Real Madrid’s Belgium goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois.

That event was divided into two separate races of 25% distance, both dominated by professional gamers.

Former F1 driver Nico Hulkenberg, who left Renault at the end of last year, took part in all of the day’s action after also racing on Saturday in an All-Stars Esports Battle organised by Torque Esports.

“Obviously in this current situation with the lack of activity, I thought I’d jump on the train and give it a try,” said the German.

“Yesterday and earlier today I found it quite tough. There’s a lot of geeks on there that are really, really good. I’m just doing it for the love and the fun.”

Reporting by Alan Baldwin; Editing by Ken Ferris

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