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Things we learned from the 2019 Race of Champions

From sim racers starring to a shock winner, and a fairytale Nations Cup result that so nearly came to pass, the 2019 Race Of Champions was certainly an unusual one

Here are four major storylines for which Mexico's first ROC will be remembered.

Sim racers are gaining on the 'real' racers

The 2019 ROC made further strides in bridging the gap between the virtual and real-life racing worlds. For the second year in a row - after the concept was introduced for the 2018 ROC in Saudi Arabia - Team Sim Racers joined the field for the Nations Cup.

Inaugural eROC champion and McLaren Esports driver Enzo Bonito had impressed in that role last year, and he was joined this time by his eROC successor James Baldwin - who had defeated 2018 F1 Esports champion Brendon Leigh on his way to the 'real' event.

Bonito sent shockwaves through the professional drivers when he beat 2016/17 Formula E champion Lucas di Grassi in one of the heats during Saturday's Nation's Cup behind the wheel of a Vuhl-05, once again proving sim racing's credentials for preparing racers for the real racetrack.

Despite Bonito's stunning win, and Baldwin taking a victory of his own against double Mexican NASCAR champion Ruben Garcia, Team Sim Racers failed to make it through to the semi-finals.

But with the sim racing element sure to remain an integral part of the ROC, and the chance for the likes of Bonito and Baldwin to get more practice and testing in 'real' cars over the coming years, the prospect of a sim racer threatening for overall ROC honours in the near future no longer seems unrealistic.

Young challengers impress

The ROC has often been won by experienced hands, but a pair of rising single-seater racers produced mighty performances in Mexico.

European Formula 3 champion Mick Schumacher was announced as a Ferrari Formula 1 junior during the ROC weekend, while Patricio O'Ward returned home to Mexico as Indy Lights champion and having secured a 2019 IndyCar drive.

Both are highly-rated, but few people expected that Schumacher would outperform his four-time F1 world champion compatriot - and Team Germany Nations Cup team-mate - Sebastian Vettel to reach the quarter-finals in the main event.

Vettel was knocked out in the initial qualifying rounds, along with 2018 ROC winner David Coulthard.

O'Ward managed to beat both eventual ROC champion Benito Guerra and Schumacher during his two heats on Saturday, then only lost out to reigning World Rallycross champion Johan Kristofferson by less than a tenth-of-a-second in the Swede's preferred Supercar Lites machine.

The IndyCar rookie then struck back the following day, this time knocking Kristofferson out of the main ROC in the behind the wheel of the Lites car, before narrowly missing out on the final when defeated by Loic Duval in the semis.

Despite neither making the final, O'Ward and Schumacher left a huge impression on the event and would be potential winners if they returned.

WRC experience proves valuable for home hero

Any disappointment the home crowd felt at O'Ward's narrow exit in the semi-finals was soon erased as it became clear Mexico was potentially about to get a new hero.

While both O'Ward and former Sauber and Haas F1 driver Esteban Gutierrez went out in the semis, WRC2 privateer Guerra carried the hopes and dreams of Mexico into the final against 2013 World Endurance LMP1 champion Duval.

The odds were stacked against the 33-year old, but he soaked up the pressure from his adoring fans to dominate fellow event newcomer Duval and win both final heats in the ROC buggy and the Mexican-built Vuhl-05 machine.

While Guerra's out-of-the-blue victory was a shock, a look at his World Rally Championship experience provides a hint of why he was able to star at an event such as the ROC.

The majority of the 35 WRC events Guerra has contested have included short and technical superspecial stages, with even the gravel rallies invariably holding such events as curtain-raisers now.

Those stages are similar in profile to this year's ROC circuit, with the close barriers and precision needed to excel playing into Guerra's hands perfectly.

A man accustomed to WRC superspecials would have been far more at ease chucking his car around the Mexican stadium's tight confines than racers used to F1-scale circuits.

More variety needed next year?

While the 2019 event was enjoyable, there was one aspect that could possibly inject slightly more jeopardy and risk into future events - the choice of vehicles used.

This year featured the return of the fan favourite ROC buggy, joined by several track-based cars such as the Ariel Atom, KTM X-Bow and Vuhl-05.

The issue was that the track cars were all too similar in characteristic to each other, and this twinned with the lack of jumps or any other source of unpredictability from the track layout meant the heats were less eventful and tense than in previous years.

The absence of the brutish Euro NASCAR decreased the spectacle to an extent, and while the Stadium Trucks did make a brief appearance on Saturday, the track-based cars simply were not interesting enough to watch compared to the wild machines used in previous years.

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