Alexander Albon ended Charles Leclerc’s run of victories in Formula 1’s Virtual Grand Prix series after an epic battle between the two at Interlagos.
On what would have been the date of the returning Dutch Grand Prix, the lack of the Zandvoort circuit in the F1 2019 game used as the series platform led to the event held in Brazil and it delivered a thrilling battle between the Red Bull and Ferrari drivers. It was Stoffel Vandoorne who started on pole position but crashed into George Russell off the line, allowing Albon to take the lead into Turn 1 ahead of Leclerc.
Leclerc had won each of his two appearances in the series so far and initially he and Albon — who fought closely for victory in China last time out — worked together to pull away from the rest of the field. The pair swapped the lead on a lap-by-lap basis and there was even some bump-drafting, but the friendly approach disappeared when it came to the pit stop window.
A 36-lap race requiring at least one stop, Leclerc opted to pit from P2 at the end of Lap 12 to switch from soft tires to hards, but Albon used the experience of the pro Esports racers — who had competed in their own event just before — to stay out until Lap 16 and switch to mediums. Despite four laps apart, when Albon emerged from the pits he was still in Leclerc’s slipstream and the battle got feisty from that point onwards.
The overtakes continued as they often pulled moves into Turn 1 only to reverse positions at Turn 4, and there was even contact on occasion as both fought hard, knowing they needed to break the DRS to pull away. On Lap 21 Albon cleverly waited to make his move at Turn 4 and use the softer tire compound to try and pull a gap, but Leclerc just stayed in touch and was back in the lead a few laps later.
Unfortunately the battle was dampened when Leclerc picked up a three-second time penalty for multiple warnings regarding track limits, that were being strictly enforced after a slightly farcical approach to the layout in China. From there, Albon had the race under control but they raced hard to the flag as the Red Bull driver edged it, bringing Russell into the picture at the same time.
“I was shaking afterwards, I had so much adrenaline in my body,” Albon said. “I feel more scared driving a simulator than the real thing — the pressure was unbelievable!
“I think (the strategy was crucial). I think on pace Charles was very quick. I was quite surprised to be honest, because I thought most people were going to go on soft-mediums. Charles decided to pit earlier than us and I definitely had the better strategy.
“I tried to get Charles out of DRS but he was still there and he kept overtaking me and I was getting nervous about George coming, it was all going on.”
Russell dropped to fourth at the start after being collected by Vandoorne and took a few laps to clear Antonio Giovinazzi before following Albon’s strategy of soft-medium. Having been nearly seven seconds adrift of the leaders, consistent laps saw Russell closing in as the front two battled and he was within three seconds of Leclerc as the Ferrari failed to beat the Red Bull to the line, ensuring Russell was classified second.
It could have been a better result for Williams as Nicholas Latifi was running strongly and fighting with Russell in the opening laps — the pair banging wheels — but contact with Giovinazzi saw Latifi veer off at Turn 5 and the Alfa Romeo driver retire. That promoted the Mercedes pair of Vandoorne and Esteban Gutierrez into fourth and fifth, and although they worked together in terms of slipstreaming they couldn’t catch Russell.
Lando Norris finally made the start of an F1 sim racing event after numerous issues and a controversial ending to his Indy 500 iRacing attempt on Saturday, albeit from 20th on the grid. He was without teammate Carlos Sainz, too, as the number of current drivers dropped to six, and duly picked up a drive-through penalty for jumping the start.
Despite then being penalized for speeding in the pit lane taking that drive-through, and a number of track limit penalties, Norris still ended up climbing to 10th place, being classified just behind Latifi, who was well adrift of Christian Lundgaard (Renault), Enzo Fittipaldi (Ferrari) and Louis Deletraz (Haas) in sixth, seventh and eighth respectively.
In terms of celebrity entries, England cricketer Ben Stokes returned for Red Bull and was much-improved compared to his outing in the Albert Park round, finishing 13th and comfortably winning a personal battle with England team-mate Stuart Broad who was 17th.