Charles LeClerc has not been sitting idle through the quarantine that has disrupted the normally smooth flow of the Formula 1 season. He has been sitting but in the same sort of intense concentration that won him the Belgian Grand Prix and then that historic win in Monza in Ferrari’s 90th anniversary year. This recent sitting has been on a race-track simulator that takes world class skills to master.
To fill in the huge gap in the weekly rituals of millions of F1 fans there is a Virtual Grand Prix Series pitting the best in the world against each other on these virtual race-tracks. It’s called SIM racing; it’s tough and it’s a thriller. In partnership with Gfinity, Formula 1 has bought this racing action to fans involving the sharpest of the new young generation of drivers.
Immediately throwing down the gauntlet in the first two simulated Grand Prix, the Vietnamese and Chinese Virtual GPs, has been Monaco and Ferrari’s Charles LeClerc. But before he could dominate the sport and become its Michael Schumacher or Lewis Hamilton, a fresh generation of incredibly talented drivers signaled that they also have what it takes. They have been hot on his heels since his early triumphs in karting and all the ways to the top echelon of Formula 1. They include Red Bull’s Alex Albon who was second and too close for comfort to Charles in the fight for the lead in China. McLaren’s Lando Norris, and Williams’ George Russell also have shown they are dangerous competitors and serious challengers for the Virtual GP crown.
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The postponed real Dutch Grand Prix at Zandvoort being a casualty of coronavirus, fans turned to watch the Virtual GP featuring the Brazilian track at Interlagos. It provided more changes of lead than commentators could keep up with, with Albon, who collided with six-times world champion Lewis Hamilton on the penultimate lap of the real Brazilian race last year while running second, in the end making no mistakes, taking first place in a wheel-to-wheel race-long battle.
Leclerc traded the lead on almost every lap but picked up a three second penalty with 13 laps to go for exceeding track limits; which dropped the 22-year-old Monegasque to third at the end behind Williams’ George Russell.
The fourth battle for LeClerc came on the Spanish Virtual GP Barcelona track, already with two wins to his credit before being beaten by Alex Albon in the Brazilian Virtual GP.
At the start of the Barcelona race, we seemed to be heading for a new Leclerc-Albon duel. But the Thai pilot of the Red Bull team, 2nd in China then winner in Brazil, lost ground by opting for a two-stop strategy. Leclerc probably thought he was sitting pretty but on Lap 20 George Russell blitzed the fastest lap of the race closing rapidly on his Ferrari rival. And then five laps later he overtook Leclerc for the lead. The Monegasque Ferrari though tailgated the Williams and was well-placed to press for victory in the 33rd and final lap. But he pressed just that fraction too hard, a bit too much on the inside in the last corner, and got a 3 second penalty for exceeding the limits of the track. So a delighted George Russell crossed the line to win with 2’’503 of margin, Williams defeating a Ferrari who had to settle for second place.