24 Hours of Le Mans Virtual: The biggest sim race ever?

Josh Suttill

With 200 drivers, including Formula 1 champions and Le Mans winners, competing remotely from 37 different countries many considered the 24 Hours of Le Mans Virtual to be the biggest sim racing event not only since the postponement of real-world motorsport due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but since racing began in the virtual world.

#52 Ferrari - AF Corse Ferrari 488 GTE: Charles Leclerc, Antonio Giovinazzi, Enzo Bonito, David Tonizza

#52 Ferrari - AF Corse Ferrari 488 GTE: Charles Leclerc, Antonio Giovinazzi, Enzo Bonito, David Tonizza Xynamic

Xynamic

#7 Toyota Gazoo Racing Oreca 07 LMP2: Mike Conway, Kamui Kobayashi, Jose Maria Lopez, Maxime Brient

#7 Toyota Gazoo Racing Oreca 07 LMP2: Mike Conway, Kamui Kobayashi, Jose Maria Lopez, Maxime Brient Xynamic

Xynamic

When two-time defending Le Mans winner Toyota announced three-factory backed cars, which featured five of its real-world LMP1 line-up as well as inaugural Formula E champion Nelson Piquet Jr, most fans barely noticed such was the volume of high-profile announcements.

It came as little surprise that many considered the entry list for the 24 Hours of Le Mans Virtual to be superior to its real-world counterpart. Stars of the real and virtual world from every corner of the globe and every discipline of motorsport came together in a 50-car field of identical LMP2 prototypes and GTE machinery equalised by a Balance of Performance.

But could a race with such high expectations justify the pre-race excitement and investment of so many drivers, teams, engineers, organisers, and partners while also going some way to filling the gap left by the postponement of the real-life 24 Hours of Le Mans?

#14 FA/RB Allinsports Oreca 07 LMP2: Fernando Alonso, Rubens Barrichello, Olli Pahkala, Jarl Teien

#14 FA/RB Allinsports Oreca 07 LMP2: Fernando Alonso, Rubens Barrichello, Olli Pahkala, Jarl Teien Xynamic

Xynamic

#20 Team Redline Oreca 07 LMP2: Max Verstappen, Lando Norris, Atze Kerkhof, Greger Huttu

#20 Team Redline Oreca 07 LMP2: Max Verstappen, Lando Norris, Atze Kerkhof, Greger Huttu Xynamic

Xynamic

With the car already six laps down in a 30-car LMP field, there was little hope for the quartet earning any significant result. Sure enough, Alonso/Barrichello car would go on to finish only 17th, some eight laps down on the winners.

As with the re-instating of Verstappen and Norris' Redline entry for the final hours of the race, following the Dutchman's technical issues while leading in the 10th hour, it did nothing to detract from the race and only ensured there would be more eyes on the event, where fans of those drivers might otherwise have switched off.

It is one of the advantages of the virtual world that simply would not be possible in the real-world equivalent. And arguments of favouritism are null and void too, as all the cars that dropped out of the race were invited to return under the second red flag, meaning there was no special treatment for its top entries.

Many of those top motorsport stars, including Leclerc, immediately expressed an interest in racing in the real-life 24 Hours, and an event like this highlights the potential of what the real-world race could achieve without schedule conflicts.

#6 Team Penske Oreca 07 LMP2: Juan Pablo Montoya, Simon Pagenaud, Dane Cameron, Ricky Taylor

#6 Team Penske Oreca 07 LMP2: Juan Pablo Montoya, Simon Pagenaud, Dane Cameron, Ricky Taylor Xynamic

Xynamic

#4 ByKolles - Burst Esport Oreca 07 LMP2: Tom Dillmann, Esteban Guerrieri, Jernej Simon?i?, Jesper Pedersen

#4 ByKolles - Burst Esport Oreca 07 LMP2: Tom Dillmann, Esteban Guerrieri, Jernej Simon?i?, Jesper Pedersen Xynamic

Xynamic

Pagenaud wasn't the only one to triumph against adversity, with ByKolles sim driver Jesper Pedersen having to drive two laps with a steering wheel in 'zero-mode'.

"He had to steer right to go left, and vice versa," explained teammate Tom Dillmann.

"We had to connect another driver to replace him but it took two laps until I could connect to the server and take over from him, so he had to drive two laps turning right to go left. It was incredible that he managed to do that and only lose around 20 seconds a lap and bring the car back in one piece."

Injured IndyCar racer Robert Wickens, a late addition to the race in the #67 Mahle Racing Team Aston Martin, was another to hit trouble when his adapted simulator became stuck on 100% force feedback. The car still managed to make it to the end in 17th place, one place ahead of the #52 Ferrari Leclerc shared with fellow F1 racer Antonio Giovinazzi, which crashed with 20 minutes of the race remaining while Leclerc was behind the wheel.

Such stories of drivers heroically overcoming adversity is exactly in keeping with the spirit of the real-life race and, while it was a shame to see some of the event's top names face technical issues, unreliability is omnipresent in Le Mans whether that be mechanical failures in the real-world or server-related woes in the virtual editions.

Read Also:

Leclerc "definitely" wants to race in real-world Le Mans

The postponement of all real-world motorsport has left a hole in the lives of everyone involved in the industry. Almost every championship has attempted to fill that gap with their own sim racing events, with varying degrees of success.

The Virtual Le Mans managed to encapsulate that once-a-year feeling of the real-life event with this virtual race and, although not without problems, it felt like a fitting climax to over three months of intense sim racing action as real-world motorsport begins its gradual return in Europe, with 15 cars starting the 24 Hours of Portimao at the Algarve Circuit last weekend.

Nothing can replace or imitate the prestige and history of the real-life Le Mans. However, the inaugural 24 Hours of Le Mans Virtual was its own thrilling standalone historic motorsport event that has only heightened the excitement for the real-life Le Mans return in September.