As the global sporting calendar ground to a halt in late March, so the motorsport world woke up to the fact that it had an entertainment alternative ready and waiting and one that had been in the development process for over 20 years – on-line racing.
Many series took the opportunity to quickly mobilise a sim-racing platform, initially with one-off invitational races and these were quickly followed by series.
Most professional drivers, whilst maybe not being familiar with the highly competitive world of on-line racing, were comfortable in the simulator, many having used one in the preparation for real-world races where taking a car to a circuit for practice or coaching was prohibitively expensive.
The process of adapting to the virtual racing came easily for some drivers, as many were already active in the sim-racing world, Aston Martin’s Nicki Thiim being a prime example. For others, however, the journey was difficult. NASCAR driver Kyle Larson was fired by his team for using racist language in his car-to-pit communications. Daniel Abt was sacked by Audi Sport for allowing a sim racer to substitute for him in an on-line Formula E race. Professional drivers quickly woke up to the fact that, although it may seem like a game, when you are representing a manufacturer, a team and sponsors, you have responsibilities.
The postponement of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, initially scheduled for the weekend of June 13 – 14 was initially greeted with dismay by teams and fans alike. The annual running of the Great Race is more than just another round of the FIA World Endurance Championship. For thousands of enthusiasts it is an pilgrimage that takes place to one of the world’s greatest racing circuits – le Circuit de la Sarthe – where racing has taken place, with only two breaks, since 1923.
The Automobile Club de L’Ouest, in conjunction with the FIA WEC, realising how significant the loss of the race would be from its traditional June slot, looked closely at on-line racing and, on May 15, announced that “24 Hours of le Mans Virtual” would be taking place on the weekend that the actual race would have been due to be run. rFactor 2 is the platform of choice, allowing driver changes and a transition from day to night.
50 cars will now be on the virtual grid, 30 in the LMP class and 20 in the GTE category,for the twice-round-the clock race which gets underway at 3.00pm local time on Saturday June 13.
Sporting regulations for the event ensure that each car must contain at least two professional drivers with a minimum drive time of four hours for each pilot. The simulation includes the use of fuel, tyres and damage, which can be repaired during a pit-stop.
The entry list, and drivers roster, shows how seriously the endurance racing world is taking this event.
In the LMP class, Toyota Gazoo Racing, winners at la Sarthe for the past two years, has entered three cars with most of their real-world driving crew on the grid. Two out of the three drivers of the winning #8 Toyota TS 050 will be on the grid on Saturday. Sébastien Buemi joins Brendon Hartley, Kenta Yamashita and sim racer Yuri Kasdorp in the #8 entry while Mike Conway and Kamui Kobayashi join José María Lopéz and sim racer Maxime Brient in the #7 entry.
Rebellion Racing has partnered with Williams Esports to enter four cars. Within its driver roster, FIA WEC drivers Gustavo Menezes and Bruno Senna are joined by FIA Formula 2 driver and current leader in the SRO Esports GT Challenge Louis Deletraz and 2018 Blancpain GT Series drivers champion Raffaele Marciello. Accompanying the real-world pilots will be the Williams Esports drivers, all of whom have many years’ experience at the highest level of on-line racing.
Further notable drivers on the LMP grid include 2009 Formula 1 world champion Jenson Button in the #23 team Rocket Zansho entry and Formula E’s Jean-Eric Vergne and F1’s Pierre Gasly in the #24 Veloce Esports 1 car.
Leading LMP2 team and Le Mans class winner in 2014 and 2017 Jota Sport has partnered with Redline to enter two cars. Will Stevens, Gabriel Aubry, Antonio Felix da Costa and Felix Rosenqvist, all highly competitive real-world drivers, are joined by a strong line-up of on-line racers and will surely be a team to watch as the 24 Hours of Le Mans Virtual unfolds.
Manufacturers in the GTE class are clearly taking the 24 Hours of Le Mans Virtual very seriously and [AL1] representatives [AL2] from Ferrari, Porsche, Corvette, and Aston martin will all be on the grid. Many factory drivers are taking part with the addition of a guest drive from Scuderia Ferrari Formula 1’s Charles Leclerc. The 22-year-old Monégasque pilot will be sharing the #32 AF Corse Ferrari[AL3] F488 GTE with Alfa Romeo Racing’s Antonio Giovinazzi and on-line drivers Enzo Bonito and David Tonizza.
Virtual racing in other championships has resulted in some surprising results with young, relatively unknown, real-world drivers and sim racers regularly being on the podium. It is likely that the 24 Hours of Le Mans Virtual will be no different and that some new stars will be standing on the top step of the on-line podium on Sunday afternoon.