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Sim racing hits the big time with the $1 million Vegas eRace

Jonathan M. Gitlin


With a total prize purse of $1 million, the Visa Vegas eRace, which took place on Saturday in Las Vegas, was the most lucrative sim racing competition yet. As well as big cash prizes—including $200,000 for first place in the final—it had plenty of support from the owners, teams, and sponsors of the Formula E racing series. And the event delivered racing excitement, with stiff competition between professional drivers and some of the world's best sim racers. But the result wasn't without controversy, and the sim of choice—rFactor 2—drew plenty of complaints from spectators.
All 20 professional Formula E drivers took part, along with 10 leading sim racers, one assigned to each of the 10 race teams. They raced on a virtual 3.13-mile (5km) circuit that snaked through the sights of the Las Vegas Strip. No one got to see the 20-turn track until the day before the race, and each would use an identically set-up Formula E car, identical PlaySeats and Thrustmaster wheels, and rFactor 2 as the platform. Broadcast live on Twitch, the racers put on an entertaining show, even if it wasn't entirely trouble-free.
The sim racers quickly rose to the top in single-lap qualifying pole position going to sim racer Bono Huis, competing this weekend with the Faraday Future team. Huis set a pole time of 1:28.703, earning an extra $25,000 for his efforts. Mahindra Racing's Felix Rosenqvist was the highest-placed pro and would start the final alongside Huis, who admitted surprise at seeing a real driver place so highly. But Rosenqvist is fast making a name for himself, impressing every time he's behind the wheel regardless of the event, and is no stranger to hours-long sim sessions at home.
The next eight spots all went to sim racers, leaving the remaining 20 competitors—which included almost all of the professional Formula E drivers—to fight for the remaining 10 places in the big money final. Well, actually it ended up being a fight for the final nine spots in the final. One of the racing pods suffered technical troubles, and unlike a Formula E race there was no second rig on hand to swap over to. This robbed Jérôme D’Ambrosio, Huis' teammate, from a chance in the final.
The professionals were not too surprised at having such a tough time getting to the final. "It was clear before for us pros that we would have a tough time," explained ABT Schaeffler Audi Sport driver Lucas di Grassi. "After all the simulator is more of a game than a real race car. The fans spend many hours with the software at home and as a result have an advantage, which we also struggle to compensate for with our racing experience. But we are quick learners and the technology continues to develop—perhaps things will look different next time out."
The 14-lap qualifying race was at times carnage-packed, with plenty of cars losing front wings to seemingly little penalty. But then again, actual Formula E races often involve a little paint trading, and the driving standards were generally high. Antonio Felix Da Costa won the 14-lap race, but his good effort only translated to an 11th grid spot in the final, with long odds of securing the $200,000 on offer to the winner. "Can we all go running for half an hour and then go race?" he answered when asked whether he fancied his chances of taking victory.

The big-money final

The final was supposed to take place over 28 laps, with a mid-race mandatory pitstop mirroring the mid-race car swapping that's come to be a hallmark of Formula E. (Although arriving in the pits with a damaged car resulted in a longer stop for repairs, something not necessary when simply jumping into a fresh machine.) But more technical woes meant the race distance was reduced to 20 laps instead. Again, the drivers put on an entertaining race. Huis took the lead from pole and opened a healthy lead on Rosenqvist, the pair leaving the rest of the pack to their own devices.
Sim racer Olli Pahkala (Rosenqvist's Mahindra teammate) was the first to pit, coming in from a multi-car battle for 3rd place on lap 8. Pahkala came out onto a clear track and put his head down, setting a series of blisteringly fast laps with no one around to impede his progress. The exciting fight between Aleksi Uusi-Jaakkola, David Greco, and Graham Carroll for the final trophy continued for another couple of laps. On lap 10, all three tried to simultaneously occupy the apex of turn 1, a fast chicane on the main straight.

Three into one doesn't go. This would be a costly crash for the three sim racers.
/ Three into one doesn't go. This would be a costly crash for the three sim racers.

The spectacular accident at first showed two of the cars barrel-rolling through the Jersey barriers and some palm trees, before glitching quickly to re-render the cars being deflected by the barriers (as one would hope would happen in meat/carbon fiber-space).
Our race leaders hit the pits on lap 15, leaving in the same order they entered, Rosenqvist trailing Huis. They rejoined the pack in second and third, with Pahkala's hard work and clever strategy looking set to pay off to the tune of $200,000. Pahkala set a series of very fast laps, some down in the 1:24 range, some four seconds faster than Huis' pole time. The Mahindra sim racer took the checkered flag and first place, ahead of Huis in second and Rosenqvist in third.
But some time after the podium ceremony, Pahkala was found to have gained an unfair advantage because of a software issue. As with real Formula E, the Vegas eRace featured the fan boost, where fans can vote to give two drivers a few laps of extra power during the race. Pahkala was "found to have suffered a technical glitch with a sustained power delivery of FanBoost over and above the limit for five laps during his second stint," resulting in demotion to third (and the loss of $100,000 in prize money).

Everyone had the same equipment for the race, but technical issues saw one of the 20 racing pods out of action.
/ Everyone had the same equipment for the race, but technical issues saw one of the 20 racing pods out of action.
Zak Mauger/LAT

So it was that hotly favored Huis came out on top in Las Vegas, earning $200,000 for the win on top of the prize for pole position. "It's very exciting to be here, racing in conjunction with pro drivers during one of the most renowned tech forward events," said Huis. "And to be the ultimate grand victor with Faraday Future Dragon Racing is thrilling."
Rosenqvist finished the eRace as the top-placed professional, earning second place and $100,000. "You could tell that the sim racing environment was something very new to all of us, as we are used to being strapped into an actual car and not sitting in front of a lot of people," he said after the race. "In the end it worked out very well for me and I was up the at front in every session. Luckily, in the final I started from the front row and had a very clean race with a long first stint, without any traffic, and I was able to cruise to the podium in P2. I hope I can do more races like this in the future! Now we will celebrate a little!”
His teammate Pahkala was sanguine despite his technical woes. “In the end, P3 was more than welcome for me. It’s been a blast! I made some mistakes in the practice session preparation which cost me pace later on and P3 is more than fair for everyone with what happened," he said. "The event has been something unique and has really pushed the sport to the next level. It’s huge for Formula E, but it’s really massive for all of the sim racers around the world. The two worlds belong together, and it’s good to see the sports develop with an event like this."

Was it a success?

As I discovered during my own e-sports racing adventure earlier this year, there are a lot more potential racing fans out there in places like Twitch than at real race tracks, and Formula E's embrace of gaming as a way to find new fans is laudable. In addition to Formula E cars in Forza Motorsport 6, the series just made its debut in the iOS Real Racing 3, and the sport's CEO Alejandro Agag told me that he sees this strategy paying off. "Definitely, I think gaming is an essential part of bringing new fans to Formula E," he said. "As a series we need to be different from traditional motorsport, and gaming is one of those directions we need to continue to pursue to make Formula E a totally different proposition to other motorsports on offer."

One of Jaguar's Formula E cars on the Las Vegas Strip.
/ One of Jaguar's Formula E cars on the Las Vegas Strip.
Alastair Staley/LAT/Formula E

Will Agag and others look at the Vegas eRace as a success? In terms of eyeballs on product, perhaps not, for the broadcast on Twitch has yet to crack 5,000 views at the time of writing. And if the stream's chat participants were anything to go by, the next Formula E eRace might want to use a different simulation platform. rFactor 2 is beloved by actual race teams; indeed when I went to visit Venturi at its home base, rFactor 2 was powering the team's sim. A high level of fidelity with the real thing is obviously grounds for praise, but as a spectator I felt rather short-changed. Complaints about the graphics—including unkind comparisons to 16- and even 8-bit games of old—dominated the twitch chat stream.
Then again I doubt it's the simplest thing in the world to get an entirely new course rendered for a game. And a platform you know (mostly) works—rFactor 2 having been used for previous, smaller-scale Formula E e-sports races—has to be the preferred option when trying something this high profile. I do hope we see more of these kinds of events in the racing seasons to come.
Listing image by Zak Mauger/LAT
Sim racing hits the big time with the $1 million Vegas eRace Reviewed by Chidinma C Amadi on 8:04 PM Rating: 5

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