Coronavirus: F1 drivers and other sports stars turn to esports during shutdown

F1 driver Lando Norris (left) and footballer Thibaut Courtois (right) will go head-to-head at a virtual Australian Grand Prix

The Australian Grand Prix may have been cancelled but McLaren driver Lando Norris was still racing on the Albert Park Circuit.

But instead of pitting his wits against Lewis Hamilton et al, he found himself trying to overtake Real Madrid goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois.

That is because Norris was one of several sports stars taking part in esports to fill the void created by the mass postponement of sport this weekend because of the coronavirus.

Norris, Courtois and Formula E driver Stoffel Vandoorne took on esports professionals and Youtube stars in a virtual Australian Grand Prix on Sunday.

"Esports is a very fast growing and exciting industry and what we wanted to do this weekend is put on a fun race for fans that are without racing in Formula 1," Jamie MacLaurin, founder of VeloceEsports - which is running the event - told BBC Sport.

Lando Norris
Norris has a computer racing simulator set up in his home

"We sat down together and thought people will be without a Formula 1 race and sport in general and they will be staying at home trying to avoid the coronavirus so where better to put on a race than online?"

Getting Norris on board was easy, with the Briton often spending his free time away from the real track competing on virtual ones. Courtois, meanwhile, is a big gamer himself and approached MacLaurin and his team to be able to take part.

"We got in touch with Lando and he was really interested," added MacLaurin. Both parties were really excited about continuing and not letting the coronavirus affect things as much as it could - and putting a positive spin on what is a negative situation we are all in."

It was not just drivers looking to fill the void on Sunday, however, with BBC Radio 5 live commentators Jack Nicholls and Jolyon Palmer lending their voices for another virtual race that had Max Verstappen and ex-F1 driver Juan Pablo Montoya competing in.

Jack Nicholls

With F1 now unlikely to resume until the end of June, could we see more esports races plugging the gap?

"Definitely - and I don't just think for the racing side of it either," added MacLaurin. "There's also Fifa for football, and lots of athletes are into Fortnite too.

"It is hard to get too positive about it given the circumstances with the coronavirus but what we'd like to do is keep people upbeat and give people something fun to watch.

"This is a huge opportunity for esports because for people who may have been watching the real sport and want to have something to watch and give them that fix, this may be able to provide a bit of that."

Norris and Courtois went head-to-head in a virtual Australian Grand Prix on Youtube from 17:45 GMT on Sunday. It was also streamed on Norris' Twitch page.

Cycling and football also goes virtual

F1 drivers were not the only sports stars to embrace the virtual versions of their chosen disciplines.

Professional cyclists have also found themselves having to work from home - and to help pass the time, they have been hosting or taking part in virtual events.

Geraint Thomas, winner of the 2018 Tour de France, has been hosting his own races while Vuelta a Espana winner Simon Yates and his twin brother Adam have almost daily events planned, with riders from their men's and women's squads taking part.

"We can't do too much training because we don't know when the next race is," Yates said. "You can't keep going full gas but you need to keep ticking over, just keeping fit, keep active."

Meanwhile, Sunday's Seville football derby between Sevilla and Real Betis - postponed because of the coronavirus outbreak - will instead go ahead in the virtual world. Real Betis striker Borja Iglesias and Seville left-back Sergio Reguilon take each other on at Fifa 20.

Real Betis

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