By Alan Baldwin
LONDON (Reuters) - Formula E, the world's first fully electric car racing series, is planning a virtual race in Las Vegas next January with a likely $1 million jackpot for the winner.
Series chief executive Alejandro Agag told Reuters on Tuesday that the event, pitting regular race drivers against a handful of fans on simulators, could even become a round of the regular championship in future.
"We think e-sports (electronic sports) is a huge opportunity and we want to be the first ones fully immersed in that," he said in an interview ahead of next week's London finale to Formula E's second season.
"This will be the first virtual race with 20 professional drivers of a racing championship on a big stage and with a very large prize fund."
The Spanish entrepreneur said the race would be part of the Jan 5-8 global Consumer Electronics Show (CES).
While insiders indicated $1 million as the likely prize, Agag said only that the amount would be "significantly plus of six figures".
"It will be a good jackpot for Vegas," added Agag, agreeing that "people want to win a million in Vegas."
To qualify, 'Race to Vegas' competitions will be launched three months in advance for gamers to sign up and compete online. Five are likely to secure slots.
"The fun thing would be for a gamer to win it against the professional drivers. I think it’s going to be very tough," said Agag of the race.
"We are only going to disclose and show the virtual track to all the players that morning. It’s going to be like the real Formula E. You come for the first time to a city and race in a city, you never practice before.
"Gamers...are normally better at games than drivers. On the other hand, drivers are better than gamers at quickly getting the feel of a racetrack. It’s going to be an interesting competition."
Many sports, including Formula One which raced in the past in Las Vegas and has been linked to a return to the famed strip, are experimenting with virtual reality (VR) technology to engage fans and attract new audiences.
Tech giants like Google, Facebook and Samsung are investing heavily in VR with some predicting the immersive technology will have the same effect on television as the internet on newspapers.
The concept of a virtual race, with gamers challenging drivers in an ePrix for points and prize money, was mooted by Agag even before the first Formula E season in 2014.
"I think this is probably an experiment," he said of the Vegas race. "Depending on how it goes I could envisage that some of these virtual races could give points for a championship in the future, but not now."
The Spaniard has talked also about fans one day being able to use VR to race against drivers competing on the physical racetrack but that day is still some way off.
"The problem of that, and we’ve been really looking into that a lot, is the lag between the real race and the virtual experience you can provide the gamers," he said.
"It’s very difficult, because of the technology and the speed of the broadband, to have drivers racing at the same time in the race which is what we would have dreamt of when we started Formula E.
"On the other hand, there are many other things that are now becoming possible -- like this e-race."
Formula E cars make little noise, are far slower than Formula One and cannot yet complete a race without drivers changing cars due to the limitations of battery technology.
However, major manufacturers such as Audi, Renault and Citroen are involved.
British entrepreneur Richard Branson predicted a year ago that electric racing would overtake Formula One in popularity within five years.
(Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Toby Davis)