It's race week in F1 Esports, and not just any race week but Grand Final week!
There is all to play for, with both the Drivers' and Teams' Championships still up for grabs. With three races over two days the pressure is on for defending champion Jarno Opmeer, who heads the standings with 140 points, and his rivals Lucas Blakeley (135 points) and Frede Rasmussen (132 points).
Meanwhile, Opmeer's Mercedes team holds a 23-point edge over Ramussen's Red Bull in the Teams Championship, which is where the $750,000 prize pool gets decided.
We had a chance to speak with Opmeer, Blakeley, and Rasmussen's teammate Marcel Kiefer about the upcoming races.
Preparation is everything
Formula 1 teams are limited to official practice sessions before races, but F1 Esports drivers can jump onto the game at any point and get their practice in. Which means long hours of grinding and a feeling that you could always do more.
"It's been a lot more smooth than previous events" Said Opmeer about his preparation, "I'm definitely feeling better than in previous rounds for qualifying." It's been the one-lap pace that has been Opmeer's Achilles heel this year. While he has picked up some front-row starts he's also found himself knocked out in Q2 far more often than he would like.
"It's been long, it's been a lot of work. I've put in a lot of hours [...] trying to leave as little unturned as possible." Said Blakeley, who is in his first title fight this season. Aston Martin's star Scotsman has been in scintillating form this season, winning two races and never finishing lower than 6th.
Avoiding burnout is the key for drivers, especially when there are three very different races to prepare for. But in the end it often comes down to who has put the hours in to be prepared for every eventual outcome.
"I feel really well prepared, especially after last event," Said Kiefer, who saw two podiums slip away after poor strategy calls last time out. "There has been a lot of work behind the scenes for this event and I feel pretty confident."
Three very different tracks
The final will be contested across three continents, with Imola, Mexico, and Interlagos hosting the races.
All three are a tricky prospect for the drivers, in particular Imola which only arrived on F1 2021 in October.
"Imola is great, I just don't like turn 1!" Said Kiefer, "The track is actually awesome. There's lots of traction, it's super-fast flowing. It reminds me a tiny bit of Silverstone."
"Imola is definitely going to be a qualifying circuit, "Said Opmeer, "In Mexico and Brazil you can still come back in the race but in Imola that's going to be very, very tough."
Brazil though, could be a blessing for both Blakeley and Opmeer as Rasmussen has consistently struggled with that track.
"That's just a Frede thing to overreact and think he's bad. He always does it before every event." Said Kiefer with a smile on his face, "Frede's Frede, he's an incredible driver and he knows what he's doing." Perhaps the Red Bull team has cracked Frede's pace there?
Meanwhile, Blakeley is taking nothing for granted and isn't focusing on any one race. "They've all got their own unique challenges but at the end of the day 26 points are dished out for all three." Said Blakeley, "They all have equal importance to turn up and perform [...] I'm going to have a few grey hairs by Thursday!"
So, prediction time. Who is going to come away as F1 Esports champion?
While Opmeer enters the event at the top of the standings, the gap is so small it doesn't allow for any margin. It would be easy to pick the Mercedes ace, who has three wins so far this season and looks utterly unbeatable at times. Decisive with overtaking moves and inventive when it comes to strategy, Opmeer's aura of invincibility from last year is gone thanks to his poor qualifying performances.
Likewise picking Frede, as former F1 Esports driver James Baldwin did, would also be understandable. The Red Bull man has been at the front of the F1 Esports field for years and is arguably the best sim racer in the world.
However, we are going for Blakeley. The talkative Aston Martin driver has always been full of confidence and positivity when it came to his own talents, but that hasn't always been matched by results on track. In 2021 it has. He's been ultra-fast in other series and was right on the pace immediately with F1 2021.
Be it an added level of maturity, comfort with the game, or a new way of preparing that he and Aston Martin has found it's worked wonders both in qualifying and races. His consistency and coolheadedness have pushed him to the front of the most competitive grid in all of sim racing. He's our pick to be champion come the chequered flag on Thursday.
F1 Esports Grand Final
The action starts at 3:30pm GMT on Wednesday, 15 December with qualifying from Imola & Mexico. The two races will then be run in the evening, starting at 7:30pm GMT.
Qualifying for the final race at Interlagos starts at 3:30pm GMT on Thursday, 16 December, with the race show starting at 7:30pm GMT.