For car enthusiasts, there's nothing like the thrill of watching a live race. The smell of burnt rubber, the noise of high-performance engines, the dramatic overtakes, and crashes are all part and parcel of the action. Unfortunately, that's just not possible at the moment.

But just because there's no racing on track doesn't mean we can't get the same kind of fix. Racing still goes on... albeit in the virtual world.

Thanks to the rise of e-sports (sim racing, virtual racing, however you wish to call it), we can still get our racing action from the comfort and safety of our homes. From Formula 1 and even to NASCAR, more and more leagues are holding virtual races in place of the (actual) scheduled races that were canceled. With the pros now entering the virtual races, you know it's going to be a good run to watch.

From reality to virtual: How e-races reshaped motorsports image

Just take a look at the Formula 1 e-Sports Grand Prix and the caliber of drivers that it has at the moment. You've got drivers like Charles Leclerc, Alex Albon, George Russell, Lando Norris, Nicholas Latifi, and Antonio Giovinazzi; all top drivers and active racers. Leclerc even managed to win the last two races of the virtual series. Retired Formula 1 drivers have also joined such as Jenson Button and (a name you've probably not heard in a long time) Johnny Herbert. Even professional e-Racers and YouTubers like Jimmy Broadbent go head to head with F1 racers.

With the 2020 Formula 1 season calendar set to begin later this year, the virtual Grand Prix series has given fans an enjoyable way to wait for the season to begin. If you’re curious, you can visit the official Formula 1 website to see when the next virtual Grand Prix will take place.

From reality to virtual: How e-races reshaped motorsports image

But it's not just Formula one getting in on the action. The NASCAR iRacing Pro invitational Series event features the same scenario as F1’s Virtual Grand Prix series. The grid is composed of a mix of current NASCAR drivers from various series competing against each other. Dale Earnhardt Jr, one of the most popular drivers of the sport, even came out of real retirement to join the virtual series.

But NASCAR has even taken it to the next level. This virtual series is even being broadcast on television, aside from the usual online streaming channels. Going virtual also did favors for the sport as it brought in new, and more importantly, younger fans to the sport.

From reality to virtual: How e-races reshaped motorsports image

Even the Indy Car series has jumped in on the whole thing as well. The open-wheel series also has an online series in place of the actual races being canceled. It features a similar format to NASCAR and is set to be continuously held until the actual IndyCar season resumes in the future.

Interestingly, Formula E is also holding online races with the ABB Formula E Race at Home Challenge. It is a nine-week e-sports competition featuring all the teams and drivers from the ABB FIA Formula E Championship, as well as a selection of top gamers. What makes the Formula E online series different is that fans and gamers can be a part of the actual online races. Filipino-British Club 100 karter Steve Alvarez Brown (also known as Super GT in YouTube), also competes in this series.

From reality to virtual: How e-races reshaped motorsports image

It's a little bit easier getting into the Formula E Race at Home Challenge. That said, it still won't be a walk in the park. If you plan on joining, you will be going up against other virtual racers from around the world. To give you some motivation, the winning gamer will be given real-life track time on a Formula E circuit during a race weekend...once the pandemic has subsided, of course. 

But let's say you want racing online to be even more accessible. Gran Turismo Sport is currently holding various online races where you can race against drivers from around the world. The only thing you need in order to join is a PlayStation 4 and a copy of Gran Turismo Sport, and you’re good to go. You don’t even need the steering wheel and pedals.

From reality to virtual: How e-races reshaped motorsports image

Much closer to home, Alex Yoong’s Axle Motorsport launched the ERacing GP SEA last year and is searching for the next virtual to real professional racer. More recently, the platform has been expanded to the Philippines which held its first virtual race last April 24. What’s great about this is that it is completely free to play and free to join via the Race Room game. Been practicing and feel confident about your driving skills? Then why not try to join the race by qualifying in the Race Room Leaderboard for a spot on the grid. If not, you can also just sit back and watch local drivers battle it out on the track.

When one door closes, another one opens, and that's the case in motorsports at the moment. Sure, it's not live, but the excitement is still there. And because of eSports, racing has become accessible to nearly everyone around the world. What’s great about it is that you don’t even need to shell out a lot of money to start.

From reality to virtual: How e-races reshaped motorsports image

All you need is a decent computer or console, plus a stable internet connection, and you can already begin racing. Sometimes, all you need is a controller to race some of the biggest names in motorsport, and it's all done in the comfort and safety of your own home. Besides, it's not every day you get to say you went wheel to wheel with a pro racer. Once the current crisis has subsided, this might even be your ticket to racing in real life.

It’s quite ironic how the tables have turned due to the on-going pandemic. A few years back, most people did not even recognize e-sports as a real competition. But today, it is the only form of sport that is still active around the world. You can't exactly translate your controller skills on NBA 2K20 on an actual basketball court, but your skills on a driving sim using a steering wheel and pedals can be translated onto a racetrack... just so long as you recognize the reset button doesn't exist in the real world. 

Real to virtual: How sim racing is reshaping motorsport image

Interestingly, it is now the professional racers who have to become gamers. And from the looks of things, it is not an easy shift for the pros and a potentially risky career move. While young guns and retired drivers can actively race online, we have yet to see current racers with championships under their belts take part in a serious way. Can you imagine the headlines if world champions are handily beaten in the virtual racing world?

That's probably why we may not see Lewis Hamilton race online, even though he had been teasing that he could join e-sports. It could be risky for his reputation because he won't have the advantage of his Mercedes over the field. Sebastian Vettel has just started his online debut, but in a not-so-serious way with a Brabham in rFactor. As for Kimi, well, he couldn't care less.

Up until a vaccine is found, e-sports will likely be the trend for racing in the months to come. In fact, expect that the virtual motorsports scene will continue to grow in the future, even when real-world racing returns.