The future of Formula 1 can be found not only on a race track but hidden deep inside an imposing concrete bunker on the outskirts of Oxford.
This small corner of the Renault F1 team’s operations base is where a new generation of drivers trains for competition on virtual circuits rather than real ones. Instead of full-blown simulators that cost millions, they use PlayStations, and anyone with a copy of the latest official F1 game can get involved.
Welcome to the burgeoning F1 e-sports scene, part of a push by the sport’s owners Liberty Media to attract younger fans. Renault Sport’s commercial director, Antoine Magnan, gives some context: “The average F1 viewer is 39 years old. Eighty percent of e-sports viewers are younger. It brings our sport and motorsport in general to a much wider audience.” Last year, that audience was 5.8 million viewers, who tuned in largely through YouTube and game-streaming website Twitch rather than via traditional broadcast TV.
The Formula 1 Esports Series holds four fast-paced live events per season. Each one comprises three races, run to one-third of real-life distance. Competition is fierce, with every team effectively using a differently liveried version of the same virtual car. Drivers can tweak their set-up and choose tyre strategies, but no single team dominates proceedings. Renault finished bottom in the 2018 season but ended last season in fourth. And Mercedes failed to take a single podium in 2019 – a far cry from the real thing.