Why Formula E’s latest esports competition should be taken seriously

In the midst of a worldwide pandemic, Formula E staged sim-racing to fill the gap, but unfortunately the series itself was underwhelming and overshadowed by controversy. Formula E’s latest sim-racing series starts at the end of the month; we take a look at what went wrong last time, and why those mistakes won’t be repeated with their new championship.

This time last year, Formula E Zone published a feature about Formula E’s then stagnant esports division, and made the case for why, despite a difficult debut, it should make a comeback. Little did we know back then how drastically the COVID-19 pandemic would disrupt the season and force Formula E, who at the time had no existing plans for any future sim-racing events, to hurriedly organise and run a virtual online racing championship.

This was the Race at Home challenge; a series taking place on the PC sim-racing game RFactor 2, comprised of two championships for both the real-life Formula E grid and for professional sim-racers and influencers, with much of the proceeds being donated to children’s charity Unicef.

Unfortunately, the series ended up attracting mostly negative publicity, with an ill-conceived elimination format which took a driver out of the race each lap, embarrassingly clumsy accidents from the Formula E drivers not taking the event seriously, and Formula E’s years of sim-racing neglect leading to a dearth of official tracks available to the series, resulting in RFactor 2’s developer, Studio 397, having to meet very tight deadlines in order to deliver the Berlin Tempelhof and New York circuits for use in the last few rounds.

By far the most bizarre moment, and the story that received more media attention than the series itself due to it’s controversy, came when Daniel Abt sat out the fifth round in Berlin, and professional sim-racer Lorenz Hoerzing (whom Abt had befriended during his popular livestreams) drove under Abt’s alias to third place. Abt had intended this to be a harmless prank to show off Hoerzing’s prowess in the game against the highly-rated Formula E field, but media outlets pounced upon it as an esports cheating scandal during a charity event. Abt issued a public apology and donated a €10,000 fine to charity, but the damage was already done: Audi’s top brass, worried about the damage the incident had done to their brand, decided to dismiss the German driver with immediate effect, bringing a sad and surreal halt to Abt’s top-line Formula E career after a substitution drive at NIO 333 failed to lead to a full-time seat for 2021.

Now, with the pandemic continuing to affect and disrupt the opening rounds of the 2021 season, Formula E are launching a new championship on RFactor 2, this time under the name “Formula E: Accelerate”. Instead of the focus being on the Formula E drivers, this time it’s on the sim-racing professionals, who despite not receiving much attention or publicity, put on a much cleaner and competitive show in their side of the Race at Home challenge, and will rightfully take centre stage; once again there is a prize fund of €100,000 (minimum) and a test in a real life Formula E car up for grabs for the winner. There will be two additional rounds featuring 12 of the real Formula E field, where they’ll be able to score points for their teams, in addition to the points scored by the sim-racers for their assigned squads.

Another encouraging sign is that the changes to the format. Instead of being 15 laps long, the races will have a 25 minute time limit, bringing them more in line with real life. With the longer races, energy management will now become a major factor, as competitors have to manage their strategy carefully to avoid running out before crossing the finish line.

RFactor 2 have also worked to introduce Attack Mode into the game especially for the Accelerate series; this should add another engaging strategy element to proceedings, and it’s something that Studio397 have been developing ever since the Race at Home Challenge ended, so they’ve had plenty of time to iron out any bugs or errors; we should not see a repeat of the FanBoost glitch that overshadowed the Vegas eRace in 2017 for example.

The first round takes place on January 28th, and with the public qualifiers having concluded we already know the three fastest drivers who are among those eligible to be picked by the 12 Formula E teams: Frederick Rasmussen from Red Bull Racing esports, Erhan Jajovski from R8G esports, and Marco Biancolilla from Scuderia Toro Rosso’s F1 esports team. The series will take place over six rounds, ending with the double points Grand Final on March 3rd. It’s unfortunately not been made entirely clear who else is eligible for the teams to pick, with some speculation being made that Formula E teams will be able to pick influencers as well as pro sim-racers.

There are inevitably always going to be critics of Formula E’s esports series who deride it as just a silly and unrealistic crash-fest, and some of Formula E’s marketing of the first corner mayhem in the Race at Home Challenge gave them plenty of ammunition. But with the disciplined sim-racing professionals now finally being given a proper chance in the limelight, the stage is set for a much improved competition this time around, where the focus is on the quality of the racing and not on cheating scandals and controversy.

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