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Saturday January 18, 2014 MYT 12:17:02 AM
Saturday January 18, 2014 MYT 12:17:35 AM
by alan baldwin AND keith weir
LONDON (Reuters) - Formula One's plan to award double points for the last race of the season has grand prix purists steamed up but that is nothing compared to the shock the new electric Formula E series intends to deliver later this year.
Organisers of the global city championship starting in September can see a time when their final round becomes entirely virtual.
They would even go so far as pitting teenage gamers against the real racers in an online challenge with points and prize money at stake.
Social media would play its part as well through a 'fan boost' system giving a handful of drivers a brief surge of extra performance during a race, depending on the outcome of online voting.
The series, sanctioned by the International Automobile Federation and backed by the likes of tyre maker Michelin and car manufacturer Renault, debuts in Beijing but the 10 venues include Monaco, London, Miami and Los Angeles.
Some Formula One teams, such as McLaren and Williams, are involved on the technology side but whereas F1 has more than 60 years of history and tradition to respect, Formula E has a clean slate and plans to engage fans in a very different way.
"We have two plans. One is gaming and one is the push-to-pass via social media," Formula E CEO Alejandro Agag told Reuters at his West London headquarters on Friday.
The Spaniard, who sees his series as complementary to Formula One and not a rival, said a deal had been signed with a major video game maker with the initial phase focused on tablets and smartphones.
"You will be able to race through GPS positioning with the cars that are there in the real race," he said.
Recognising that the attention span of many may not extend beyond five or 10 minutes, the game is likely to be based on challenges.
Fans, who will have a slight performance advantage over the real drivers, will be able to start at any point and position during the race with the challenge being to overtake a given number of cars.
Server capacity may restrict participation initially to those within the host city but ultimately it could go global.
For the series' second year, the concept could be extended to games consoles with the possibility of races on bigger screens and in 3D. There would then also be a parallel championship and a further blurring of the boundaries.
"What we would like to have is a virtual race," said Agag. "So our real 20 drivers go onto the simulators with lets say the five best kids from the video game during the year. And they have the last race of the year on the video game.
"And that race gives real points, maybe less than a real race, for the Formula E championship. So we introduce a virtual race into the championship. It won't happen in year one, we need the console game for that, but we are looking for that idea."
When Formula One announced that this year's final race in Abu Dhabi would have double points in a bid to take the championship outcome down to the wire, fans were quick to condemn the step on social media while Red Bull's world champion Sebastian Vettel also voiced his disapproval.
Formula E can live with such a response.
"You should be in some of our FIA meetings," smiled Agag. "The purists in the FIA look at us and say 'are you completely mad' but we think it is very important. We need to be different."
Formula One has its 'pay drivers', those who bring money to teams to secure their race seats, but Agag said Formula E teams would have no need to resort to such measures with budgets capped at $2 million.
Instead, with sponsorship already looking healthy and increasing interest in the series, the team owners should be able to turn a profit and other factors - such as social media - come into play.
A driver with 200,000 followers on Twitter, or Weibo in the case of China where others are blocked, can turn that support into an advantage on the track with a 'fan boost' during races.
Agag explained that his idea was to hold a vote in the week before a race and then announce one minute before the start which five drivers would benefit from a short burst of extra power as a result of the poll.
To prevent manipulation, fans would have to register for a unique number before being able to vote. Or it could be done through an app.
"We need to do some testing to see exactly how much energy we want to leave in the car for fanboost... and then how it is going to work," he said.
The boost should be enough to make two extra defensive or attacking moves but not sufficient to win a race. Agag said the FIA could also rule out using the system in the closing laps.
"The key is to find the balance between the interaction of fans and the fairness of the result," he said.
"But the fan boost is an essential part of our racing concept because this again goes towards making things radically different so fans are attracted."
(Editing by Pritha Sarkar)
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