There’s still over a month until the FIA Formula E championship resumes with the first ePrix of 2017 to be held in Buenos Aires. This hasn’t stopped the first competitive Formula E event of the year from happening however, as the series held the its first eRace as part of the CES consumer technology exhibition in Las Vegas.
The event was aimed at strengthening the bridge between on-track racing and the virtual world of sim racing and enhancing Formula E’s work of being a modern, inclusive and engaging form of motorsport. With no championship points on offer, organisers promoted the eRace as ‘the richest event in eSports racing history’ with a prize pool of US $1,000,000 – including $200,000 for the winner.
The twenty regular Formula E drivers we joined by ten professional sim racers, all of whom had earned their place in the competition via Formula E’s ‘Road to Vegas’ online simulator qualifying series. Each sim racer joined one of the ten Formula E teams, giving each team a three driver attack in the eRace.
The event ran in a similar way to any Formula E ePrix meeting, but played out on-screen with the drivers sitting alongside each other in simulators. The circuit used was a virtual temporary street circuit laid out around the streets of Las Vegas, with the 20-turn, 3.1-kilometre lap taking in a portion of the famous Las Vegas strip and worked around landmarks such as the MGM Grand, Luxor and New York New York hotel and casino resorts.
As with every ePrix, two practice sessions (split into two groups each to accommodate the thirty drivers), both of which were topped by Faraday Future Dragon Racing’s sim racer Bono Huis. Qualifying was run as six groups of five drivers (instead of four groups of five at an ePrix) and a SuperPole session, before the race meeting format took a slight change at this point. The results of qualifying locked in the top ten positions on the grid with Huis taking pole from Mahindra’s Felix Rosenqvist, placing one sim racer and one Formula E driver in the front row.
The remaining twenty competitors then moving on to a 14-lap qualification race, with the first nine drivers across the line in that session taking the final spots on the grid for the eRace. The qualification race saw a swag of Formula E drivers make the grid – the race was topped by António Félix da Costa, ahead of José María López, Robin Frijns, Sam Bird and Mitch Evans.
Current championship leader Sébastien Buemi finished in seventh after once again finding himself battling with long-time rival Lucas di Grassi. The Brazilian crossed the line in eighth ahead of his Abt Schaeffler Audi Sport team mate Daniel Abt, who took the final position on the grid.
The eRace main event ran over 28 laps, and as per a normal ePrix; FanBoost was also in play – and would be the cause of an ultimately race-deciding controversy.
Huis led away from the start of the race, and held position at the head of the field through the first round of pit stops. Mahindra’s sim-racer Olli Pahkala, who had started in sixth position made steady progress in the first half of the race, and was one of the drivers awarded with FanBoost for his second stint along with Renault e.Dams sim-racer David Greco and López.
A technical error in the simulator software allowed Pahkala to have the FanBoost power increase consistently available for five laps – instead of five seconds – giving the Mahindra driver an advantage of roughly two seconds per lap over his competitors. With such a lap speed discrepancy, Pahkala was quickly past his team mate Rosenqvist and Huis, and went on to take the provisional victory.
A post-race investigation uncovered the software glitch and a penalty of 12 seconds was added to Pahkala’s race time, dropping him to third and handing Huis a deserved win.
The 22 year old Dutchman had topped every session he competed in during the event, claiming the $200,000 victory prize money along with the $25,000 pole position bonus. Rosenqvist was promoted to second, showing his skills in the race car successfully cross over into the simulator environment and taking a $100,000 reward for his efforts.
Behind Pahkala in third came three more sim-racers: Enzo Bonito (Techeetah), Aleksi Uusi-Jaakkola (Andretti) and Greger Huttu (Jaguar), followed by a string of the Formula E drivers who made the field through the qualification race: López, Bird and Abt. Formula E season one champion Nelson Piquet Jr rounded out the top ten, while reigning series champion Buemi’s impressive current run on-track form did not carry over to the eRace as the Swiss driver finished in eleventh place.
Further technical errors with the simulators plagued di Grassi and Evans, neither of whom were able to start the eRace. A similar problem prevented Jérôme d’Ambrosio from competing in the qualification race.
Like any Formula E event, a bonus was awarded to the driver who set the fastest lap of the race. In lieu of championship points, Greco made the most of his (correctly functioning) FanBoost to claim the $10,000 prize.
Whilst not without its problems – Pahkala’s FanBoost glitch being the most prominent – Formula E CEO Alejandro Agag declared the event a success.
“This first eRace in Las Vegas was a great success. It’s exciting to have brought Formula E into the inner sanctum of CES – the biggest and most influential technology show in the world. I think this can be the first in a big future for Formula E in eSports racing. We will continue to pursue new and innovative ways to improve our presence in this fast growing landscape, while maintaining fan engagement at the forefront of all our initiatives.”
In further comments in the days following the Vegas eRace, Agag has confirmed sim racing and eSports will remain a part of the Formula E program, but a review of this event will determine the event format the series will use in the future.
“We are measuring exactly the pros and cons. Maybe it’s better to do many events that are smaller rather than a big event like this. It’s very important to be at these global shows like CES and we may do it again, but for the moment we are going to analyse everything and look at defining the best strategy.”
Image via FIA Formula E Championship