24 Hours of Le Mans Virtual
Never has a Le Mans line-up been quite so tightly packed with top racing talent as the 2020 virtual running of the iconic 24-hour race. Legends of sports car, Formula E, and Formula One racing filled the grid for the first officially sanctioned esports race of its kind.
Pro drivers—many with rooms full of trophies, accolades, and racing mementoes to their name—teamed up with experienced and accomplished sim racers for this one of a kind event. With anticipation and excitement for a return to racing at an all-time high—the Virtual Le Mans was set to challenge teams and drivers to their very limits. For drivers, conventional rules were thrown out the window as professional racers sat down to learn a thing or two from their sim racing colleagues.
Mike Wainwright‘s Gulf Racing’s Wolverhampton F.C entry paired Ben Barker and Andrew Watson with sim racing champions Adam Maguire and Eros Masciulli to contest the event.
A Class Apart
As the field set-off into the first lap of its kind, the racing pedigree and sheer talent in each of the field’s 50 cars was clearly on display. There was no first corner pile up familiar to the amateur world of sim racing. This was a world apart. The first penalty of the event, a stop and go, fell to the number 4 ByKolles Burst Esport team for a jump start out of position on the rolling grid. ByKolles, a strong contender for the win, lost 40 seconds and key track position but there was a lot of race still to go.
Throughout the field, every battle for position was a close-fought race. Gone was the dominance of the Toyota hybrid platform we’ve become used to at the front. For this day in June we raced in a new kind of series altogether.
In GTE, the Wolverhampton Gulf car started strong from 12th. The team battled up to 9th in the opening 30 minutes and made up another two places over the next hour. Both drivers and fans were settling into the racing they’ve missed for so long.
A significant part of esport racing is trading one set of real-world problems and issues for another. Sudden mechanical failures were out for this virtual Le Mans. Only a connection failure or a broken rig could cause unexpected calamity today. Cars damaged by impact and crash could always be repaired in the pit-lane provided they could make it back. The only terminal sin—to run out of fuel before making it home.
It was perhaps surprising then that it was two-time F1 champion and Le Mans winner Fernando Alonso who fell foul of the one all-important rule first. A software error forced the number 14 car out of the pits without taking on fuel during the first round of stops. Lacking enough to circle the track, it seemed the car was out of contention before action had begun to heat up.
Le Mans has always been a contest of attrition and perseverance—as is the virtual event too. Hardware and connection issues tested drivers to their limits just as much as the on-track action. A speedy swap saw French driver Simon Pagenaud change out his entire rig for a nearby spare he’d prepared earlier. The luck of Le Mans striking here as just as hard and just as often.
Just shy of 5 hours into the event the first virtual red-flag brought the race to a temporary halt. It was technical problems rather than physical danger which brought drivers to a standstill now.
The news was positive for one car at least. The number 14 was brought back into contention by organisers, awarding the team the laps of the last-placed LMP contender. Their race continued on.
When racing set-off again with 18 hours still to go the action was as close as ever again. The 86 Gulf had recovered to 7th after an early spin and gathered pace to fight for position with the nearby Aston Martins.
The Real Luck Of Virtual Le Mans
Young sim racer Adam Maguire continued a strong stint for the team, promoting Gulf up into 6th before technical issues stopped the car out on track. Returning slowly to the garage to address problems and damage, the race was looking set to get a whole lot tougher ahead.
As night fell on the virtual track and the race continued on, it was becoming harder and harder to separate the excitement, commitment, or talent of the virtual event from the physical race. Just one minute separated the top 4 LMP cars at the front. Barely two split the GTE contenders.
Even the spirit of Le Mans couldn’t be hampered by the physical distance of its competitors. When the number 42 Cool Racing of Nicolas Lapierre ran out of fuel in the pit lane, the team’s race could have easily been over. It was, until the number 36 Signatech-Alpine Elf of André Negrão followed them in to push his former teammate into the pit box. Both cars ran on track once again.
For the number 86 Gulf car, more issues struck as virtual night was turning into morning. After a lengthy stop to repair the car and patch technical issues the team were out once more fighting through the field. Unfortunately, much like the physical event, when racing bites; it often bites hard. The Gulf car was collected twice by LMP contenders to turn a tough event into an almost impossible challenge.
In the midday sun, the second of the two red flags was dropped. Server issues brought the race to a temporary halt and the field together once again.
The Final Sprint
With three and a half hours left to race, the field was released from the safety car for the last time. More than twenty hours in, there was no shortage of contests to keep track of.
At the front of the field the number one and thirteen Rebellions led, battling with number 4 ByKolles for podium positions. In the GTE contest Porsche, Aston, and Corvette were in a mirror-image fight to take their own crown.
The first running of the virtual Le Mans will be noted for many good reasons. Overcoming technical challenges and teething troubles to hold a first of its kind event to resounding success being just one. Achieving one of the closest and most exciting race finishes in Le Mans history being, perhaps, the more major achievement.
The number 4 ByKolles raced ahead of the 13 Rebellion for second position and began rapidly closing in on the number 1 car in the final minutes of racing. Times were tumbling down, the two cars coming closer and closer together on track. The leading Rebellion entry fought off the competition to secure the win with 371 laps completed and just 18 seconds to spare. A little less than half the opening penalty awarded to the number 4 car.
In the GTE battle, Porsche Esports took the crown, completing 339 laps ahead of Aston Martin. F1’s Romain Grosjean managed his R8G esports team to a remarkable 3rd place finish.
Through technical troubles and extreme challenges the Wolverhampton sponsored Gulf 86 car battled hard to finish the race and cross the line of the first virtual running of the worlds toughest race. Classified with 324 laps completed.
The remarkable event was a unique and exhilarating competition for everyone involved. Despite being born of extraordinary circumstances and built through exceptional technical challenges; the racing quality, spirit, and talent on show were every bit as present at the virtual Le Mans as the physical running too.
The reception from fans, pundits, and critics has been overwhelmingly positive since. They are, after all, racers at heart too. More wheel-to-wheel virtual action would be welcome again soon. It is, if nothing else, a spectacular warm-up session for the season to come.