London - Formula One will crown its first virtual world champion at the season-ending Abu Dhabi Grand Prix after announcing on Monday the launch of an eSports series to run from September to November.
The new eSports Series is a partnership with Formula One, game developer Codemasters and events and competitions specialists Gfinity. It will run in three stages, starting with qualification events until the end of September to determine the 40 quickest virtual drivers, and run on PlayStation4, Xbox One and Windows PC platforms.
Live semi-finals will be held at London's Gfinity Arena on 10 and 11 October, with the top 20 going on to the three-race finals at Abu Dhabi's Yas Marina circuit on 24 and 24 November.
The first eSports Series world champion will automatically qualify for the following year's semi-finals.
Formula One managing director Sean Bratches said the new series represented "an amazing opportunity for our business: strategically and in the way we engage fans".
US-based Liberty Media, which took over Formula One in January, has targeted gaming as a growth area to drive revenues and connect with younger audiences.
McLaren recruiting 'World's Fastest Gamer'
Some of Formula One's participants are already embracing the world of eSports, with McLaren executive director Zak Brown saying all teams could eventually have their own virtual counterpart.
McLaren, going through tough times but still the second most successful team in terms of race wins, launched in May a "World's Fastest Gamer" initiative to recruit a simulator driver from virtual racing. Several race drivers, including Red Bull's Dutch teenager Max Verstappen, are also active gamers.
The all-electric Formula E series has already staged a virtual race between all of its drivers and gamers. The winner in Las Vegas last January was Dutch virtual racer Bono Huis, who collected a $200 000 (R2.6 million) jackpot. And in New York in July, Formula E livestreamed over mobile phones a virtual race between gamers and race drivers for fans around the world to watch.