Leclerc holds off Albon for back-to-back VirtualGP wins

Simon Galloway/Motorsport Images

Leclerc holds off Albon for back-to-back VirtualGP wins

Esports

Leclerc holds off Albon for back-to-back VirtualGP wins

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Charles Leclerc made it two wins in a row in Formula 1’s official virtual race series by holding off Alexander Albon for victory in the Virtual Chinese Grand Prix.

The Ferrari driver replicated his performance on his debut in Melbourne with pole position but didn’t have it all his own way as Albon put on pressure from the opening laps. Albon started from second place, inheriting a position after George Russell was given a penalty for blocking Carlos Sainz on an out lap, something that the Williams driver was livid about.

“If I’m not starting second I’m going to be furious!” Russell said before the race started. “We need a customized grid — you can do this on this game, I’m not happy!”

Albon had jokingly stated Russell deserved his penalty — one of many drivers to get such a grid drop — and duly made the most of his elevated starting position to hustle Leclerc and try and take the lead on the third lap of the 28-lap race.

The irony of the grid penalties was not lost as drivers are able to be very liberal with track limits at Turn 10 and the final corner, so an annoyed Russell went for an early pit stop to switch to hard tires after just three laps, and Albon followed suit a lap later, gaining the undercut to jump ahead of Leclerc. However, after a close battle the Monegasque managed to regain the position, with Albon slotting in behind after some light contact.

While those pitting early had started on the soft tire, the likes of Carlos Sainz — on debut in the series and the sole McLaren as Lando Norris again suffered connection issues — started on mediums and ran longer. Sainz would have been well-placed but he spun from eighth on the opening lap after a promising qualifying session, and was second on the road to Red Bull youngster Liam Lawson for a spell until the AlphaTauri pit two laps before the McLaren.

Sainz did not lead for long, pitting at the end of Lap 13 to promote Leclerc back into first place, but Albon was within a second and the pair had Guanyu Zhou and Stoffel Vandoorne close behind. Zhou had won the first VirtualGP and robustly held off the Mercedes before Vandoorne picked up a pair of three-second time penalties for abusing track limits elsewhere too often.

Just as Leclerc started to edge away to eventually win by 2.5 seconds from Albon, Vandoorne set the fastest lap and overtook Zhou, but the Chinese driver stayed close enough to benefit at the flag to be classified on the podium in third. Russell also showed impressive pace in the closing stages to erase enough of the gap to the front-runners and finish fourth despite a three-second time penalty of his own, with Vandoorne demoted to fifth.

“I think we should get George a penalty for every race, he was so angry!” Albon joked afterwards. “Normally if he got a five-place grid penalty his position wouldn’t change! But this time I guess it’s the difference between P2 and P7.

“I didn’t crash this time!” he added, after hitting the wall on the opening lap in the last race. “I kept it on the black stuff, so it was good. When we first started testing around China, Thibault (Courtois) was quicker than me so I was fearing for my job. Did you even see there were some team tactics?! He held up Charles for a couple of corners, so we were having a laugh over here.”

Real Madrid goalkeeper Courtois had looked good in running the alternate strategy early on and duly helping out his Red Bull teammate while Albon was leading, but he faded to finish 15th ahead of only Anthony Davidson, footballer Ciro Immobile and golfer Ian Poulter. Esteban Gutierrez finished sixth after an earlier battle with Vandoorne, holding off Haas reserve Louis Deletraz, Lawson, Nicholas Latifi and Sainz.

An honorable mention goes to Juan Manuel Correa who made his debut for Alfa Romeo in the series, holding off Courtois for 14th as he continues his rehabilitation from injuries suffered in the horrific crash that claimed the life of fellow F2 driver Anthoine Hubert at Spa last year.

Correa was the only Alfa Romeo to finish as teammate Antonio Giovinazzi was unfortunate, suffering a suspected disconnection and retired from eighth place, meaning there were 18 classified finishers after Norris’ failure to start.

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