It's finally here. The new season of F1 Esports gets underway this week. 20 of the world's fastest virtual drivers will be competing across 12 races for an enormous $750,000 prize pot as well as the crown of F1 Esports champion.
We spoke with reigning champion Jarno Opmeer to get his thoughts ahead of the new season. Opmeer claimed a hard-fought Drivers' Championship in 2020 with Alfa Romeo, but missed out on the Teams' Championship, which is how most of the prize pot is divided.
Moving to Mercedes for 2021, he has a new team, new teammate, and a new game to get to grips with, all while trying to fend off the challenge of 19 other ultra-fast drivers.
The challenges of F1 2021
A lot has changed since Opmeer claimed the crown in December last year. F1 2021 has reacted to the changes in the real world and altered the handling from F1 2020, as well having updated tyre and physics models.
"It's tough of course," Said Opmeer, when asked about the new game.
"I went from last game, being the best, to the new game needing to adapt again. You really have to change your style and how you improve setups for example. That makes it very hard, especially as I feel like at this point I'm still worse than I was at the very end of the last game.
That makes sense, I think everyone is. But it makes a lot of drivers a little nervous going into qualifying on Wednesday."
Opmeer may be downplaying things, after all he wrapped up a PSGL title in the run-up to F1 Esports. However he went on to say that while he took that competition seriously he has no idea how seriously others did. Were they sandbagging? Did they do minimal practice? Those questions will only be answered when the lights go out on Wednesday.
New team, new teammates
Despite winning the Drivers' title with Alfa Romeo, Opmeer quickly stepped into the Mercedes seat that was left vacant when two-time champion Brendon Leigh decided to move to Maranello and join the FDA Esports Team.
For Opmeer it was a clear and obvious move, and didn't hold back when asked if he thought Brendon has errored in leaving Mercedes. "Yea I do think he has made a mistake. But of course, we'll see at the end of the year if he's better off or not. Personally, for him it might have been better, but for me this move was pretty logical."
Opmeer said this while sat at a simulator in the Mercedes factory, a place he says he has practically been living in since the switch of teams.
"I have a pretty good understanding of the game, compared to the engineers that have come in. So we can see both sides of what might work the best. [Mercedes] have their way of doing things, and I have my way. I think we've gelled them pretty well together. We manage to get the best out of both of us, that will definitely help us through the year."
Jarno will be driving from the Mercedes factory for all the races this year, as opposed to last year where he was just at home. "We have a lot more resources than I had last year, and that helps. It's hard to get used to all that input, you need to process it well and take your time but I think in the end it makes it easier for me."
They will have to be at their best to pry the Teams' Championship away from Red Bull Racing, who have claimed the top prize in both of the previous two seasons. Even with Opmeer taking the Drivers' crown last year, Alfa Romeo was still 36 points behind the Bulls.
That's why Mercedes has paired Opmeer with 2020's Rookie of the Year Dani Moreno, but it hasn't all been roses for the new duo. A late-race clash between the two in a PSGL race left Opmeer furious after his race was ruined.
"We've done a lot of practicing together, and in the offseason we did a lot. I feel like we both go our own way a little bit, which is interesting. It will be interesting to see which way will be better in the end."
Opmeer says that they are, as much as possible, focussing on both Drivers' and Teams' Championships, but how much is one going to be willing to sacrifice for the other? Part of Red Bull's success has come because each driver has been willing to play rear-gunner for the other when the team is in a strong position, rather than squabbling amongst themselves. Will Opmeer or Moreno be willing to hold station behind the other when the lights go out and the heat is on?
Rivals for the throne
There are plenty of drivers that could supplant Jarno at the top, but there is seemingly only one name that the Dutchman is focusing on: "I would say Frede Rasmussen again." He said when asked about who his competitors would be.
The Dane has finished runner-up in the Drivers' Championship the previous two seasons, and beat Jarno to the Formula E Accelerate title earlier this year.
While Rasmussen is at the front of Opmeer's mind, he's not the only driver that could take the title. Opmeer name-checked a "regular top 5, 6, 7" as ones he is worrying about too.
That list included 2019 champion David Tonizza, McLaren rookie Bari Broumand, Dani Moreno, Dani Bereznay, and both Red Bull drivers.
"It's going to be interesting to see how fast everyone is around Bahrain after the first qually." Said Opmeer. With the grid so tight on pace, one error in qualifying could easily be the difference between a podium finish and missing out on the points altogether. Consistency will be key in such a short season, but can Opmeer replicate his consistently superb pace and race craft from last year?
The first test
Event 1 will spread three races across two days, with the drivers taking to Bahrain and China on Wednesday, followed by Austria on Thursday.
"The aim is to win every race." Said Jarno, showing no fear in vocalising his desire to crush the competition. "Everyone is starting with zero points of course, so we need to try and get a head start." Opmeer's hot start, which included winning in Bahrain and China in the first even last year, was key to his eventual victory.
"Personally, we have no idea where we will are going to be standing after the first qually session in Bahrain. It's kind of the same with Winter Testing, no one really knows where they are until the first qualifying is done."
Event 1 of the F1 Esports Pro Championships kicks off on 13-14 October and is available to watch via official Formula 1 channels on Facebook, YouTube, and Twitch. For full information about the Pro Championship visit: https://www.f1esports.com/