Formula 1 is set to jump aboard the world of virtual racing.
On the face of it, this has already happened in the form of the official F1 Esports Series, which has raced since 2017 starring top gamers.
But it was only after Melbourne was cancelled did F1’s wider fan-base embrace the full potential of simulated online racing.
There were actually two online alternative Australian GPs that went mainstream on the day of what should have been the real-life race last Sunday.
One of them involved Max Verstappen, but the other – organised by former F1 driver Jean-Eric Vergne – was on the virtual Melbourne circuit of the official F1 2019 game.
Among those on the simulated grid were Lando Norris and former F1 drivers Stoffel Vandoorne and Esteban Gutierrez, and even Real Madrid goalkeeper Thibaut Courois.
“We didn’t have all the F1 drivers, but we did have stars,” Vergne told Ouest France newspaper.
“There are also the gamers who are stars of esports, with millions of followers. Some have almost more fans than some drivers,” the Frenchman said.
Vergne, who races in Formula E, said he was motivated to organise what turned out to be a highly popular event in order to compensate disappointed fans.
“I just wanted to give fans the opportunity to see a race,” he said. “Everyone was waiting for the start of the season and was frustrated, so we created this one in two days.
“We said to ourselves ‘why not bring all these people together, drivers and gamers, and do races here instead of the ones that should happen?’
“It was a great success, with overtaking, fighting, different strategies. You could see the atmosphere of F1 and motorsport a bit, although it’s obviously different.
“But in the end we saw real drivers competing in a very realistic video game,” added Vergne.
He said another replacement race will be in the real Bahrain’s place this weekend, while grander plans for 2020 are now in the works.
“The distribution will evolve,” said Vergne. “We will professionalise.
“For example, we had a minor crash because there were so many people at the start of the race – too much compared to normal. So we have invested in servers and computers.”
Vergne said even more active F1 drivers, and other professional racing drivers, are being invited to contest the next one.
“We will try to do all the grands prix of the season,” he said.
“We should have more F1 drivers coming, which will be announced in the coming days before Bahrain.”
However, Germany’s Bild newspaper says it has learned that “Formula 1 is reacting to this and will organise its own virtual races with its star drivers”.