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Is virtual racing the motorsport fan’s panacea in a pandemic?

The Esports racing world has exploded as the coronavirus pandemic has forced real motorsport to shut down. But from the fan perspective, is it even a halfway satisfying alternative to the real thing?

Is virtual racing the motorsport fan’s panacea in a pandemic?

About three decades ago, I spent almost a whole day on a flight simulation game on a friend’s home computer that was equipped with one of those flimsy little plastic joysticks that plugged into the keyboard. I forget the name of the game and the system – come to think of it, he was computer-geeky enough to have programed or at least customized it himself – but I remember the player’s basic task. Set in World War II, the idea was to fly your North American P-51D Mustang from a UK base and escort Boeing B-17 Flying Fortresses on a mission to drop bombs on Germany.

To my screaming irritation, I just couldn’t get it at all, no matter how many attempts I made, so I was no better at the end of the day than at the start. The moment my Packard Merlin engine churned its propeller into the sky so all I could see was big blue nothing, I was completely disoriented. Time after time I would discover too late that I had pulled back on the joystick too far and/or for too long, and my ‘plane’ would stall. I’d just have time to let out an, ‘Oh ****, not again!’ before plummeting to earth like a virtual Icarus and crashing into a field, village or, on one particularly embarrassing occasion, the control tower.

In the few instances I fluked into level flight, I would meander aimlessly around Cambridgeshire airspace for several minutes while searching in vain for signs of life before moping off to Destination Anywhere to carry out Operation Futile. In some parallel virtual universe, my brave fellow squadron members were fending off the Luftwaffe’s Messerschmitts and Focke-Wulfs, so that B-17s could raze the Ruhr Valley’s industrial areas and pound the Nazis into submission. Meanwhile my own witless war effort would be triggering international incidents elsewhere. All that endless circling at the start of my flight would catch up with me so that finally I’d run out of fuel and crash-land in Dublin, Reykjavik or Gothenburg, presumably dragging hitherto neutral countries into the conflict.

Some 15 years later, I tried a flight simulator in the Wright Brothers National Museum in Dayton, OH, where I sat in a replica of one of the ‘Flyers’ devised by Wilbur and Orville, staring through the strings and struts of the biplane at a large monitor screen in order to get the ‘real-life’ view. No one was more surprised than I that takeoff, flight and landing went absolutely without a hitch on my very first attempt, my competence even prompting one onlooker to ask if I was either a qualified pilot or a regular ‘gamer’. I was and remain neither.

I make this comparison not as a humble brag about improving skills, but to illustrate how very different circumstances – in terms of setup, controls and quality of graphics – can generate very different outcomes when it comes to computer games. That is the only explanation for my progress, because in the intervening decade-and-a-half I never tried a flight sim.

I was reminded of my two vastly disparate encounters with effectively the same type of game when I heard of the laughably varied apparatus used by participants in the Esports championships that have sprung up across the motorsport world, as we entertain ourselves during the coronavirus pandemic. Some drivers have rigs for racing online that appear elaborate enough to send UCAV drones on sorties to end hostility between warring nations, while a few of their rivals give the impression they’re equipped with contraptions barely more sophisticated than a monitor and a static soapbox steered by a loop of twine.

Sage Karam has scored a win and two pole positions in the opening rounds of IndyCar's iRacing Challenge.

Sage Karam has scored a win and two pole positions in the opening rounds of IndyCar's iRacing Challenge.

Photo by: Dreyer & Reinbold Racing

“Yeah, it’s funny,” agreed one long-retired driver. “All these series spend time and manpower making real racecars as equal as possible – you know, spec cars in open-wheel and Balance of Performance in sportscars – and setting very restrictive rules that drive the engineers crazy and make ’em feel redundant.

"But then when it comes to computer games… Oh, suddenly the drivers get free rein to do what they want, and they go nuts! The whole concept of equalizing goes straight out the window.”

Well, I countered, to be fair, iRacing has forced everyone to run the same setup as each other on the IndyCar Challenge.

“Sure, so the drivers have found a different way to get an edge which is to build these expensive rigs,” he chuckled. “That’s just the competitive nature of racers. Some of them have basically done exactly what you’d expect their team owners to do – spend whatever they can to get an unfair advantage. Maybe virtual racing needs to do the cost-capping that F1 keeps talking about…”

If the gear is wildly varied, so too is the experience level. In IndyCar’s iRacing Challenge, for example, there are habitual gamers including some who swear by the platform (opening round winner Sage Karam, for example), others such as reigning (real!) NTT IndyCar Series champion Josef Newgarden who are well used to game sims but prefer Forza Motorsport, and still more who barely touch such devices. This latter group have too much going on in their lives to spend the hours necessary to become a true sim game ace.

Four-time Champ Car title winner Sebastien Bourdais, who this season will run a part-time schedule for A.J. Foyt Racing and a full schedule for Action Express Racing in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, said he had never practiced on home sims “because we had the kids and life is busy enough without me saying, 'Hey I'm just going to play games.'”

Five-time IndyCar champ Scott Dixon had clearly taken a similar familial view. He skipped the opening round at virtual Watkins Glen, then raced virtual Barber Motorsports Park last Saturday, but as he told beforehand, sim racing is never going to play a major part in his life.

“Man, this stuff’s hard,” he commented. “[Wife] Emma is already over it, so I’ll have a nice sim for sale in a couple of weeks!”

On the subject of whether he would – after six second places and two thirds at the ‘real’ Barber – finally nail his first win there in computer form, said: “Ha! I highly doubt it. These guys are really good. We need to just have fun with it.”

That seems a healthy attitude to take, and let’s face it, not sim racing over the past 20 years has hardly held him back in real life: five championships, 46 wins, remember… Not surprisingly, he looked pretty accomplished for a newbie at Barber, qualifying mid grid and racing in the top six until late trouble.

The new driver’s view

James Hinchcliffe's virtual Andretti Autosport Honda leads NASCAR legend Jimmie Johnson at virtual Barber Motorsports Park.

James Hinchcliffe's virtual Andretti Autosport Honda leads NASCAR legend Jimmie Johnson at virtual Barber Motorsports Park.

Photo by: IndyCar/Getty Images

James Hinchcliffe, like Dixon, missed the opening race at Watkins Glen, but in Hinch’s case, due to connection difficulties. This was resolved in time for last week’s race by “a kind patron from Indianapolis who witnessed my plight,” he explained to 

"This guy and his son had just opened a kinda car-guys’ hangout in downtown Indy and equipped it with two very sophisticated sim rigs. Unfortunately, having opened on March 1, they’d been forced to shut down on March 15 because of the coronavirus pandemic. So they got in touch and said, ‘Hey, we’ve got this place that was only open for two weeks, it’s got great equipment and we’ll just leave it for you to come and go whenever you want.’ So I started putting in my hours.”

James was speaking before the televised Barber race, but after a chaotic, carnage-filled mock event on the Friday. He admitted he had a lot of catching up to do.

“I was not even a little bit of a sim racing guy beforehand,” he said, “so I’m definitely on the tail-end of things when it comes to this stuff. Today I was late to practice – I got two laps! – and so I qualified pretty dreadfully, raced my way up to sixth or seventh and then picked up a bit of damage and fell back to tenth at the end.

“Not bad, but honestly, it’s just survival! The carnage out there was comical. I texted Graham [Rahal] to apologize after the race because at one point I was crying with laughter so much at what was going on around us, I dived up the inside ridiculously late and pushed him out wide at the final turn and put him off the road.”

Hinchcliffe was honest, too, about his feelings for virtual racing: having once been a skeptic, he now saw greater value in it, and will be further investigating and investing in the non-real life.

“I will definitely be investing in some setup for my house, moving forward,” he said. “I had always lamented the fact that our sport is unique in the sense that we don’t get to practice whenever we want: you can’t just out-practice the other guys. We all get the same amount, more or less.

"A basketball player can go to any court in the country and practice and shoot hoops. For us to get on track takes a team of people – your team personnel, plus engineers from your engine manufacturer and your tire manufacturer, and then the marshals. And of course that takes a lot of money.

“Now I’m not saying the driving dynamics in a game sim are perfect – I mean, not even the massively expensive sims we use professionally at Honda and Chevy facilities are perfect – so a sim is not going to find you the tenth of a second that gets you into the Firestone Fast Six in real life. But what virtual racing is good for is the mental workout it provides.

“You still have the pressure of only getting two laps for qualifying, so you have to put all your best sector times together in the one lap. You have to manage your tires in the race. Without six engineers on the timing stand, you’ve got to figure out your own strategy, like working out fuel mileage on the fly. That’s why some of these guys are actually getting shop-based support – for virtual races! – crunching numbers to work these things out.

"I’m… not. I’m in a basement in my own world. But the point is, sim racing is still absorbing. I could feel my heart rate go up when I passed a guy. I pulled away and the rate went down, but then when someone started catching me, it went back up again.

"So yeah, it’s good training from the mental point of view, building your concentration, refining your lines, trying to chip tenths of a second away from your lap times…”

The driving dynamics and the lack of ‘feel’ are what counts against newcomers to sim racing, as Hinchcliffe confirms.

“I think one of the big challenges for sim creators is trying to represent oversteer accurately,” he observes, “and so you can’t catch oversteer moments in the same way. It forces you to drive a little more conservatively than you would in real life because in real life when you push too hard you can generally feel when it’s about to break away or is starting to break away, and so you catch it and keep going. Nine times out of ten, if you get loose or have a moment in a sim, you’re suddenly going backwards.

“So in practice just now, there were cars off everywhere because drivers are trying to find the limit, they can’t do it until they go over the limit, and by then they’re so far over the limit they can’t catch it. That’s a frustrating part of the challenge. But like I say, there are enough benefits to sim racing that they outweigh the issues.”

As a spectator ‘sport’

Power battles with Rosenqvist.

Power battles with Rosenqvist.

Photo by: IndyCar/Getty Images

“My career has come to this,” I muttered miserably to my better half a couple of weeks ago, on the eve of the opening round of the IndyCar iRacing Challenge from the Glen. “I’m typing out an entry list for a computer game…”

A swift reminder that at least I have a job in these dark times partly renewed my sense of perspective, but cynical thoughts still returned – that during this period, ‘motorsport’ is in what some might regard as a Utopian world of 100 percent safety. I’m put in mind of the great Stirling Moss’s warning, as told to my peerless colleague Nigel Roebuck, about racing becoming too safe.

“If you make racing safe, you obviously lessen the challenge,” he said. “If you watch high-wire artists, you don’t get the same feeling if they’ve got a safety net, do you? I mean, I’d try to walk on a wire two feet from the ground, but I sure as hell wouldn’t across the Grand Canyon! Now, the skill required is exactly the same, but the challenge is not…”

As someone whose heartbeat rate climbs by approximately 30bpm before the start of an IndyCar race, I can assure you that watching my heroes race without fear of consequence is emphatically not the same thing. I’m addicted to watching drivers dance their cars on the edge of adhesion, right on the precipice of the canyon.

But you know what? I’ve enjoyed IndyCar's opening Esports races. The pre-race anthem (yes, even in the privacy of my own office, I stood with hand on heart) and the invocation from IndyCar Ministry chaplain Jason Holt – the virtuous blessing the virtual – added a touch of realism, and Leigh Diffey, Townsend Bell and Paul Tracy provided entertaining commentary, as usual.

Now and again, there was a hint that they had forgotten that it’s just a game, but eventually they tethered any over-enthusiasm and provided some genuine insights into how different sim racing is from the real thing.

Come the race, no one could fail to have been impressed by Sage Karam’s race-winning pace, Felix Rosenqvist’s relentless chase, the battle between Will Power and Scott Speed, and Scott McLaughlin’s comeback from a clash with Oliver Askew. But it certainly wasn’t a gripping event because of the disparity in skill level.

“See, these things are realistic!” said one cynic. “It’s just like proper racing: eventually the best guys get to the front and get strung out.”

Last week’s Barber event, televised live on NBCSN, was more fun, partly because NBA legend Charles Barkley gave the “Drivers, start your engines” order, partly because of the silly clash between Karam and Rosenqvist, and partly because these races, while short enough not to bore, are long enough to see alternative tactics employed. McLaughlin’s two-stop strategy was key in his victory over Team Penske-Chevrolet teammate Power.

Best of all, though, was the participation of – and Top-10 finish for – Robert Wickens, who is using hand controls for throttle and brake, and basically getting his eye in for one day (we pray) competing in real life again.


The only dubious part of the event, to my mind, was a ‘competition full-course yellow’ to bunch the field at one-third distance, which doubtless caused some eye-rolling among other purists, too. It was understandable, perhaps, because there remains such a gap between the fastest drivers and the slowest, and these races are, after all, trying to hook potential new IndyCar fans by being broadcast on TV.

So maybe artificially recompressing the competitors was a smart move. Maybe it pepped up the drivers who’d gotten lost in that no-man’s land of running five seconds behind the car in front and five seconds in front of the car behind. Maybe I’m disproportionately annoyed by it, and it’s now me who’s forgetting that this isn’t real racing and I should stop caring so much.

Yes. That’s probably it. It’s important to keep remembering that sim racing is entertainment, not sport. But it is fairly entertaining in the absence of real racing. And so I’ll be tuning in to NBCSN at 2.30pm tomorrow, ready to watch almost all the IndyCar regulars (Takuma Sato and Charlie Kimball are still absent, but Ryan Hunter-Reay and Marco Andretti are joining this weekend) along with Dale Earnhardt Jr. take on virtual Michigan International Speedway in the first of the Challenge’s oval races.

As an alternative to watching actual motorsport, virtual racing won’t get your pulse racing. Forgive the pun, but it’s never going to go viral as a spectator sport. Think of it more as computer-generated club motorsport – designed to thrill the competitor rather than the onlooker.

Yet as a 90-minute alternative to sanitizing your hands every 10 minutes, watching old races and classic movies, reading books, or blowing your tax rebate and stimulus check on internet shopping, it’s well worth a try. You could be pleasantly surprised.

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Series IndyCar , Esports
Author David Malsher-Lopez
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