Why Road to Vegas was a missed opportunity

I was watching a video by Shaun Cole for the Sim Pit YouTube channel, talking about the Vegas eRace. He raised a great point; given that it’s such a big deal, especially for the sim-racing community with the vast amounts of money at stake, why has this flown under the radar? Why were the qualifying rounds done in secret?

Well Shaun, the truth is they weren’t done in secret at all. I commentated on them, and not many people watched.

Well okay, in all honesty that’s not telling the full story. For the first qualifier in Long Beach, there was actually a pretty healthy amount of interest. The grid itself was oversubscribed (At least over 100 people set times on the server, probably more than that) and the final was watched live by just approximately 800 people; not amazing and a large percentage left dislikes on the video, but the number was still encouraging and about what you’d expect for a first round. But then look at the Paris final: 480 viewers. Berlin was a slight improvement with 600, but London was back down to 500; and keep in mind that’s just the total viewers on the broadcast date. Whenever I looked at the stream we were lucky after Long Beach to break the 200 barrier to be honest; at London the viewing count was consistently stuck at about 60. Not to mention that we went from having to turn away people who didn’t qualify in the top 80, to by the end in London barely scraping together 37 people and not bothering to even broadcast the semi finals due to the low turnout and the prospect of there just being 6 cars on track; granted by this point only 13 or so were realistically in the hunt for Vegas, but it’s still disappointing although it didn’t affect the finals all that much. It’s a far cry from the 200 Million people that CEO Alejandro Agag cites as watching the real life races.

So back to Shaun’s question: Why didn’t the Road to Vegas attract the attention that it perhaps should have?

1)   The fans didn’t like what they saw

This should be a great story and a boost to the sim-racing community, but from what I heard there was a lot of antipathy and dislike expressed towards the mod and to RFactor 2. It’s no secret that the mod had to be made quickly, but still the mod did what it needed to, including as many Formula E rules as possible; even the car swaps were done fairly well. The lack of slipstream made many races slow-burners, but there was still enough action somewhere in the field to keep things engaging. Naturally a lot of the drivers competing and the sim-racing fans watching were really into iRacing and some of them were a bit over-zealous about how inferior they feel RFactor 2 is by comparison. Not only is that a bit unfair, but it also ignores the fact that iRacing would have probably needed an exclusive license and a lot more time to model the car. The RFactor 2 mod I felt was impressive given the brief timescale that it had, and the Cloud Sport guys really took it seriously, staying up long into the night watching race replays and working out any incidents and penalties that needed to be resolved. Sometimes I felt there were communication issues between the Spanish Cloud Sport team and the largely English-speaking player base, but to their credit as the series went on most of these were resolved.

Finally on this first point, I think an age limit of 18 (enforced, perhaps quite sensibly given the reputation of Las Vegas, by Formula E’s lawyers) was perhaps a bit excluding of FE’s potential target audience; even 17 year old Lando Norris, who has had an extremely successful year in real life motor racing topped off by winning the McLaren Autosport Young Driver award, qualified for the semi-finals in Long Beach but was not allowed to take part on account of his age. Saying that, with a lot of money up for grabs I don’t think Cloud Sport/FE should push for a u-turn and invite pre-adolescents in. Personally I would go for 15/16 for the cut-off point as those are the ages at which kart racers in the UK are allowed to make the step into cars via categories like Formula 4.

(Incidentally this video doesn’t explain the sign up process at all; but at least it’s publicity)

2)   Formula E began their big promotional push too late

The first qualifier was on the 15/16th of October, a week after Hong Kong, but Formula E didn’t really start putting much emphasis on Road to Vegas until after the real life race in Marrakesh, by which time half the qualifying races were done with already.

To be fair, when Formula E finally started advertising and focusing on Road to Vegas and the Vegas eRace they did a very good job: They posted articles within a few days after the finals, they got Sian Welby to talk about it in Channel 5’s FE Magazine show Street Racers and they plugged it on social media, Road to Vegas points leader Graham Carroll got a run in the real life Formula E car in Marrakesh which generated a healthy few column inches, and finally their eSports Twitter account started tweeting more about it, which was good as it had been up to then very under-utilised. I appreciated the effort but at the same time, I can’t help escape the feeling that it was too little, too late and people would only have found out about it after Paris, by which time it would be pointless to enter as you’d already be too many points behind, even with the dropped score rule.

Why didn’t they push it earlier then? Perhaps because they felt they didn’t need to; after all, you’d be forgiven for thinking that it’s only really Vegas that matters, right? Well, personally it just seems like a missed opportunity to me; people will watch Vegas online (And I believe they will attract a decent audience, not as big as for an actual race but nothing near as bad as the qualifiers) and they will ask themselves who on earth these sim-racers are; if they had been building a narrative right from the start and giving it proper attention then Formula E fans might be more familiar with the likes of Graham Carroll, Greger Huttu, Olli Pahkala, etc. They do a great job building narratives for the real championship (I.E. Buemi vs. Di Grassi) so it baffles me that Formula E seemed not to think it was necessary here; and the tragedy is that those that made it through to Vegas are really interesting, highly motivated and passionate characters with some fascinating stories to tell, and I worry that not much of that will come across during the actual event itself. If they’re spending so much money on the prizes why not go all-out on promotion? What’s the point of broadcasting it if nobody beyond a small core of sim-racers is watching or at all invested?

Of course it didn’t really help that races were broadcast on Cloud Sport’s own YouTube channel rather than Formula E’s. Admittedly had they done this then I would never have been allowed to commentate on the action, but it would have been far better for the sport and would have helped to build up interest ahead of Vegas. And for those wondering, I don’t really mind that Formula E retroactively replaced my commentary with Jack Nichols’. Sure, it would have been nice to be an official part of Formula E history but it wasn’t a personal slight against me; it was just business and I understand and accept that. Plus, I actually find it flattering in a way that I got to do the same job as someone of Jack’s high calibre, even if hardly anyone heard it.

3)   Issues with the broadcast

A Screenshot of Olli Pahkala leading the field during the Berlin Road to Vegas final, showing the graphics used for the series.

I have to accept the possibility that maybe it was me or another commentator who people couldn’t stand; I’m extremely reluctant to apportion blame towards any other commentator who I brought in/worked with, because even at the London round when Jack Pickering’s microphone started feeding back and echoing on stream, that was my fault for not picking up the issue prior to broadcast. (We were in a hurry after I got back from Let’s Race) As for myself I did seek a lot of feedback from professionals, such as Motorsport radio commentator Tom Brooks, to help improve my commentary after Long Beach because I was clutching at straws as to why people were getting upset. I mention Tom because he gave me some great advice and feedback, and I did my best to take it to heart.

On the technical side, I heard a fair few people complaining about the presentation of the stream; cars would occasionally lag and in the last two rounds particularly there were a lot of frame drops. Unfortunately though that’s part and parcel of Sim Racing and of online broadcasting; yes, there’s the argument that maybe Cloud Sport could have sacrificed bitrate quality for smoothness, but that could have left them with a lower picture quality which is not what they or Formula E want either. I know for a fact that the guy from Cloud Sport who was hosting the stream for us worked incredibly hard in the limited time between Semi-finals trying to fix it. But the truth is that in an online race not everyone will have a perfect internet connection; it’s unavoidable.

Overall I can’t help but feel slightly disappointed by the lack of impact this series had so far, when I think it’s fair to say that I put a fair bit of effort in promoting this thing myself; (Admittedly my FE Addicts group has a limited range of influence though) I love the sport and I love sim-racing and I really wanted to help make it a success, but I don’t think there’s anything more that I alone could have done to encourage more people to watch. Although I wish it had been done sooner, I’m still grateful that Formula E did eventually put a lot more effort in because it still makes a difference; especially giving Graham the run in the FE car was inspired. So whilst there is a lot to learn from and improve for the qualifiers, Vegas on January 7th can still be a great triumph for FE and for Sim Racing. I’m crossing my fingers.

For those interested I’m working on some interviews I did with all 10 of the Vegas eRace finalists for Cloud Sport. As for this blog, now that he’s retired I think it’s high time I finished the Nico Rosberg evaluation piece I’ve been putting off almost for the whole year now.

Why Road to Vegas was a missed opportunity

Road to Vegas London round-up and Let’s Race to Vegas competition

If that title looks confusing, then there’s a reason for that…

Taken during a rare moment when I wasn’t driving on track

For the past month me and Charlie Fraser practiced (Well, Charlie 3 times, me just twice) for a competition to go to Las Vegas as a guest of eSports and Cars and to watch the Visa Vegas eRace on January 7th. (The final which follows the series of qualifiers that I commentate on) Let’s Race, the local simulator centre in my home-town, ran this competition on their state of the art motion F1 cockpit simulators, so it seemed a perfect opportunity for me. The track was Donington Park, and naturally we were all using the Formula E car.

I had just about qualified into the top 10, but knew I could do better, and Charlie being 2nd fastest was definitely encouraging. The first session was 30 minutes of free-practice, which were very useful as I improved on my previous best time by about 2 seconds. Others seemed to find more though, and I was mid-table and looking slightly average in this session. I did spend some time practicing my starts though, following Charlie’s advice based on driving Teslas.

Hehe, nice try Charlie…

Qualifying was a 10 minute session which I found extremely challenging but rewarding. I had meant to exit the pitlane first but two cars came out ahead, and I followed them around most of the lap until they both spun off in unison into the gravel at Coppice ahead of me. That said I missed my braking point for the last corner hairpin and had to go onto the national circuit to start my lap. But it was, right when I needed it, my personal best fastest lap I set throughout the entire competition: 1:34.061. I couldn’t better it but it was enough to start 4th, one place ahead of Charlie who had been faster up to that point. His advice on the telemetry had actually paid off! I felt very satisfied with my performance here and felt I extracted roughly the maximum that I was capable of that day.

And so, on to the race. And what a disaster the start was! Not only did I completely fail the launch, getting bogged down in wheelspin and having to use to wall to straighten up the car, but going into Redgate there was an almighty pile-up ahead of me; I saw one car go up in the air and decided to opt for the grass, where as soon as I made the decision there was a Venturi reversing backwards which I could not avoid. All in all it was a complete mess, and I thought to myself as I spun hopelessly on the grass trying to reach out for some tarmac that I could kiss my Vegas chances bye-bye. Thankfully, someone else had an even worse start than me and had technical issues which stopped them getting away at all, so on top of the first corner kerfuffle this forced a restart, and suddenly I was back in 4th place, given a second chance that I knew I couldn’t afford to waste again.

This time I was much more cautious and infact made a superb getaway from the grid, but it was almost too good and I found myself with two cars either side of me going into the first corner. Sandwiched, I watched on as the guy on the inside seemed to get caught on the curb and touched me on the inside, tapping me into contact with the rear wheel of the Trulli car on my left (Boy, that shows the age of this mod) which I couldn’t really have avoided but still felt bad about as I saw the guy spin off to the right. The good news after all that though was I was in 2nd place, with the leader, Mathieu Gauthier-Thornton right within touching distance. I’d caused less carnage than the first start and I’d gotten away with it, so a bit of aggression and a bit of luck definitely helped out.

I followed the leading Venturi for a few laps, and noticed that there were one or two areas where Matt was vulnerable to me, but I never felt a move was really on anywhere without it being marginal; mindful of the first corner contact I didn’t wanna end up taking Matt out as well so I bided my time. Quite quickly in my wing mirrors Thomas King showed up in the Dragon car. Before I had time to think about how I was going to defend from him, I ran a bit deep into the last corner and Tom was alongside, but I had the inside for turn 1. It should have been a simple case of out-braking him and maintaining position, right?

Wrong! What happened instead was I got on the brakes and entered a lurid slide which I had to correct for turn 1; not really ideal to be turning fully left on a right hand corner, but somehow I stayed on track. Tom told me afterwards that he was very surprised when he saw me lose control, but clearly I didn’t impede him too much as he immediately undercut and was straight through my inside; I had the option of swerving to the right to block/barge him off but I knew I had failed the corner and with less momentum decided to get my head down and focus on shadowing the two cars ahead for the rest of the race. Into the last corner again we went, with me right up Tom’s gearbox, I tried to get on the accelerator as soon as possible…And round I went like a spinning top.

I didn’t lose too much time from that, but once I got going again with 8-10 seconds thrown away I knew I would have to push to have any chance of winning. So push I did, and I made a far more fatal mistake later in the very same lap which let Charlie through. In pushing to stick with Charlie I spun at the Melbourne hairpin and began to feel a bit frustrated as instead of fighting for the lead I was defending 4th from Melyvn Abraham-Hagan, who I believe was in the Trulli I spun out right at the start. I went into safe mode, and aside from one very heart-stopping slide on the brakes and off-track excursion at the old hairpin, from which I somehow kept the car facing towards the track, I was able to manage the gap and hold him at bay by 2 seconds at the end of the 15 minute race. But Charlie was 25 seconds ahead, and the leader almost 44 seconds.

I can’t complain though because it was a really fun race to be a part of; the battle with the leaders was particularly fun early on and it was encouraging that although I’ve been a bit out of practice from sim-racing since going to Uni, I did have the pace to stick with them when I wasn’t stupidly and stubbornly flooring the throttle like my little brother playing…Well, playing any racing game basically. If I had one regret it’s that I chose to try and play the patient long game, and didn’t dive one up the inside at the Melbourne hairpin on Matt when I had half a chance. But in fairness he fully deserved to win and did brilliantly to swap positions with and hold off Tom once I went out of the picture.

Infact, in a rather unusual and unexpected way I will take this opportunity to really thank Matt, Tom and Charlie as it’s because of them beating me that I didn’t have to do an extra race with eSports and Cars’ drivers, and could instead go home in time to commentate on the final Road to Vegas qualifier on Battersea Park, London; the one that decided the last six spots.

There was no coverage to commentate on for Saturday as so few people ended up qualifying for the semi-finals, and even less showed up. Despite that I have to say it was great to see Gian Trovo, who struggled so much and retired from both his previous semi-finals in Paris and Berlin, actually put in a comparatively much stronger performance and finally finished a race with 6th place, meaning he was on the reserves list, but was not called upon for the final. Sure, he was still last, but I felt really happy to see him walk away from the series with a little tiny bit of success, and I was more than happy to let him have it. Meanwhile Olli Pahkala, who qualified for Vegas already after dominating in Berlin, crashed out in his semi-final, whilst Graham Carroll lost a win against Aleksi Ussi-Jaakkola after marginally crossing the white line exiting the pits; but it was good news for Ussi as having crashed in Long Beach he really needed a top 2 finish to get through. Also needing a great result was Enzo Bonito who did the best job of everyone in the semi finals to start on pole from his already qualified teammate Greger Huttu, Ussi, Petar Brljack and Carroll.

The start was exciting as Carroll gained places on first Brljack, and then after Huttu slowed to allow Ussi through into a certain qualifying position the Scotsman took advantage in a very aggressive move, running side-by-side at the Millenium chicane and the final corner at Chelsea gate, forcing his way through into 3rd place on the bumpy, narrow track.

Thereafter the real drama surrounded Aleksi Elomaa who was very much in and out of the qualifying window he needed to be in through the course of the race. He started 6th ahead of Bono Huis, but then had a temporary brake pedal hold on the straight which allowed Huis past, meaning Jakub Brzezinski just behind in 8th was set to beat him. Elomaa then tried to overcut Bono by staying out longest, only pitting on lap 20 of 33 when he came upon the damaged car of Walter Wedgeworth, whom he had no time to avoid and hit on the carriageway drive chicane, losing his front wing and necessitating a replacement. Elomaa emerged narrowly behind Huis but pushed like crazy to get past. Also around this time Patrik Holzmann had a coming together with Brzezinski, putting the German driver out and his qualifying position in potential jeopardy at the mercy of Elomaa and Brzezinski. Aleksi pushed like crazy to pass Huis, and did so with about half a dozen laps left to run with a well-judged move at the chicane; this put him dead level on points with Brzezinski but marginally ahead on countback, whilst both were only 3 points behind the fortunate Holzmann.

Up front though, Enzo Bonito put in a brilliant drive to take the last win of the season and to ensure that each of the 4 Road to Vegas finals would produce a different winner. After horrendous misfortune with disconnection seconds before the start in Berlin, 18 year old Enzo from Italy was understandably very emotional having believed going into the weekend that he might not make it, he had turned things around, as did Aleksi Ussi-Jaakkola behind him. Whilst he was pleased to get through, Aleksi seemed more satisfied and relieved than elated, explaining that this was the only weekend where he hadn’t had bad luck or difficulty, and this was what he was capable of on such days. Graham Carroll in 3rd was in a genuinely good mood despite the earlier setback of the grid penalty and felt buoyed by the fact that he had taken the lead by a point from Pahkala in the overall standings thanks to his 3 podiums to Olli’s 2. The less fortunate, including the cruelly denied Brzezinski, the consistent Nikodem Wisniewski, (Who ended up in the wall after contact with Muhammed Patel, who was penalised) the luckless Wyatt Gooden and the hard charging Patel (Who was disconnected in Paris) all accepted their defeats with good grace, and can hold their heads high after some strong individual performances that bode well for any future Formula E Sim-racing challenges.

Final standings…All in all I think the 10 who made it through earned it. Lots of hard luck stories lower down though, including our own unofficial FE Addicts team.

It’s also worth mentioning that all 10 finalists have been randomly assigned Formula E teams, so they can be ‘3rd drivers’. I said to Greger Huttu that if he wins this, it will be Jaguar’s first win since the 1990 Le Mans 24 hours. “No pressure then…” was his utterly cool response. Holzmann driving for the German Abt Schaeffler Audi and Carroll driving for the British DS Virgin team is also rather neat. Mahindra though have picked up Olli Pahkala who I think could potentially mount the strongest challenge to Carroll/Huttu. Of the real life guys you’d expect the likes of Daniel Abt, Robin Frijns and Mitch Evans to do pretty well, perhaps challenging any of the sim racers if they hit trouble. Let’s hope we see some good clean racing at Vegas come January.

Visa Vegas eRace – Official entry list

No.        Name                                                    Team

2          Sam Bird (GBR)                           DS Virgin Racing

3          Nelson Piquet Jr. (BRA)              NextEV NIO

4          Stephane Sarrazin (FRA)            Venturi Formula E

5          Maro Engel (DEU)                        Venturi Formula E

6          Loic Duval (FRA)                          Faraday Future Dragon Racing

7          Jerome D’Ambrosio (BEL)             Faraday Future Dragon Racing

8          Nico Prost (FRA)                          Renault e.dams

9          Sebastien Buemi (CHE)                Renault e.dams

11         Lucas di Grassi (BRA)                  ABT Schaeffler Audi Sport

18         Greger Huttu (FIN)                      Panasonic Jaguar Racing

19         Felix Rosenqvist (SWE)               Mahindra Racing

20         Mitch Evans (NZL)                       Panasonic Jaguar Racing

23         Nick Heidfeld (DEU)                    Mahindra Racing

25         Jean-Eric Vergne (FRA)              TECHEETAH

26         Aleksi Uusi-Jaakkola (FIN)         Andretti Formula E

27         Robin Frijns (NED)                      Andretti Formula E

28         Antonio Felix da Costa (PRT)     Andretti Formula E

29         Olli Pahkala (FIN)                      Mahindra Racing

33         Ma Qing Hua (CHN)                    TECHEETAH

37         Jose Maria Lopez (ARG)             DS Virgin Racing

38         Enzo Bonito (ITA)                      TECHEETAH

42         David Greco (ITA)                      Renault e.dams

44         Graham Carroll (GBR)                DS Virgin Racing

47         Adam Carroll (GBR)                   Panasonic Jaguar Racing

55         Aleksi Elomaa (FIN)                  Venturi Formula E

66         Daniel Abt (DEU)                       ABT Schaeffler Audi Sport

67         Bono Huis (NED)                       Faraday Future Dragon Racing

68         Petar Brljak (CRO)                    NextEV NIO

77         Patrik Holzmann (DEU)            ABT Schaeffler Audi Sport

88         Oliver Turvey (GBR)                 NextEV NIO

Road to Vegas London round-up and Let’s Race to Vegas competition