By Alan Baldwin
LONDON (Reuters) – Debutants Ferrari were given first pick in the Pro Draft for the 2019 Formula One esports series on Wednesday and chose Italian gamer David Tonizza to race for them against the other nine teams.
Ferrari were the only absentees last year, with Formula One’s oldest, most successful and glamorous brand reserving judgement.
“It’s an amazing feeling,” said Tonizza. “Last year I was there (at the draft) and nobody wanted me. And this year, Ferrari picked me. I don’t even know what to say.”
Formula One chairman Chase Carey, who attended the event at London’s Gfinity Arena along with McLaren’s 19-year-old F1 driver Lando Norris, said having Ferrari on board was “tremendously important”.
“We’re thrilled to have all 10 teams, the sport’s been growing fabulously,” said the American. “There’s nothing better than having all 10 teams up there.
“The growth geographically, and countries that aren’t traditional franchises, has all been a part of what makes this so exciting for us.”
Wednesday was billed as the final straight for 42 gamers hoping to join the official F1 esports teams. Some 109,000 from 156 countries entered the qualifying competition, a 65 percent increase on 2018.
The 42, aged from 16 to 29 years old, included six who competed in the series last year but were not retained by their teams.
The 12 slowest were eliminated and 10 chosen from the remaining 30. There is no guarantee they will race, however, with each team having two slots with reserves.
Four live events will now be held, comprising a total of 12 races between September and December, to determine the F1 esports champion and winning team.
The prize fund has more than doubled from 2018 to a total of $500,000.
“I’m confident that all of the participants are in it for the sport of the game but the pot of the gold will be good motivation,” F1 managing director Sean Bratches told the audience.
Britain’s Brendon Leigh, who races for the Mercedes team and trains at the factory, has won the two previous editions and will be going for a hat-trick.
“It’s growing at such a pace that I just can’t predict where it is in five years. From season one to season three, the change is huge,” said the former kitchen porter who is now also racing in real cars.
Leigh will have a new team mate in Australian Daniel Shields, the champions having the last pick with the Formula One team’s chief strategist James Vowles announcing the selection.
(Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Toby Davis)