The virtual revolution will soon face serious competition, as real-life racing slowly emerges from its enforced slumber. But there’s still one big showcase this weekend that should show why esports is here to stay, alongside physical racing.
The 2020 Le Mans 24 Hours has been delayed until September but, to fill its its place, the ACO has chosen to run a virtual version. And it could very well be better than the real thing.
Admittedly, streaming pixels on your laptop is not going to come close to standing trackside at 2am listening to the bracing wail of the GTs, but from a racing perspective it’s set to be more impressive than the real thing.
The Balance of Performance rules for the 2019/20 World Endurance Championship season have hardly made for compelling viewing. They may have prevented a ballast-laden Toyota sweep of the season as Rebellion took victory at Shanghai and Texas, but the competition has been hollow.
The same can be argued of the esports world. The best online racers always dominate the majority of the competitions and, outside of any major dramas, esports veterans will always come out on top over real-world drivers – and there’s no BoP here to even artificially mix it up.
But you throw both together, and you have a brand new unknown. Each team in the Virtual Le Mans 24 Hours is required to have at least two real-world drivers. You have unpredictability as top professionals acclimatise to an unfamiliar online environment and esports racers of varying skill levels that are used to the virtual racing but not on this scale.
Obviously, this is not meant as a direct replacement for the real Le Mans race and there’s no comparison when it comes to danger and bravery, but entertainment-wise it is absolutely possible the virtual offering will be better than the real life equivalent.
200 drivers will compete across two classes of LMP2 and GTE entries and what a grid it will be. The endurance racing world will mesh not only with the esports pros but single-seater drivers from a number of series’.
Current F1 drivers Charles Leclerc, Max Verstappen and Lando Norris are all involved, the latter pair on the same team. Indy 500 winners Simon Pagenaud and Juan Pablo Montoya will compete for Team Penske while Formula E champion Jean-Eric Vergne and current series leader Antonio Felix da Costa are racing also.
Fernando Alonso and Rubens Barrichello are teaming up in their own LMP2 team, W Series champion Jamie Chadwick is also racing.
Toyota will be represented by its endurance racing team as Sébastien Buemi, Kamui Kobayashi, Mike Conway, Jose Maria Lopez and Brendon Hartley are all competing. Porsche’s four entries show how serious the manufacturer is about retaining its Le Mans crown even in the virtual sphere.
The list goes on and on. This ensemble of real world talent means the majority of the 200 participants will be active drivers going head-to-head over 24 hours in identical machinery and is utterly filled to the brim with talent.
It’s getting serious
Throughout lockdown, many racing drivers have taken delivery of full sim racing set-ups. Some have made good use of them too and, after hours of online racing, have picked up their pace and proven competitive.
Alonso showed off his setup at home on Instagram two weeks out from race day as he began putting in hours of practice. His virtual exploits have been a good sign, picking up multiple All-Star series wins.
Jenson Button took the overall championship in that same series, but has also proven the speed from the real life track can apply to the online version.
Stoffel Vandoorne was one of the first drivers to transfer over from real to online racing during lockdown and recently won the Formula E Race at Home Challenge championship.
If you’re expecting the pros to be blown out of the water by the experienced sim racers, you might be in for a bit of a surprise.
The real-life drivers that might be less competitive in the virtual world won’t be left to flounder by themselves throughout the race. Pro esports drivers are eligible to compete and a two-driver limit on esports competitors for a single entry ensures that real-life drivers will still be crucial to any success.
There have been many online racing series’ that have mixed real and online world into one since lockdown began, but not on the same scale as this.
While real world drivers might not have the experience in the sim racing world, their team-mates can more than make up for any deficit that might emerge, and theoretically should keep the field on a fairly even playing field from a competitive stand point.
Anything can happen
The racing will take place online in the rFactor 2 sim, one of the best on the market at delivering an experience as true to life as possible in what is effectively just a game.
True-to-life handling characteristics for each car are programmed into the game, weather models are varied and we could see some rain at any point in the 24-hour period, just as in real life.
Track conditions will evolve throughout the race just as in reality, and those that are quick in the opening hours might fall away into the night and others emerge at dawn the challengers.
While cars can still suffer damage, the odds of engine failure are minuscule but that doesn’t prevent any team from experiencing technical gremlins that could alter the race. Think of unstable internet an equivalent to gearbox troubles, or loss of vital frame rate on a computer screen the beginnings of a drop in power.
It won’t be as straightforward as you might expect, and the race has all the ingredients for a brilliant showcase of online racing and more importantly, a decent 24-hour race at Le Mans right up to the chequered flag.