Okay, okay. It’s not quite the world famous Le Mans 24 hour race we all know and love but its virtual equivalent – all racing having come to a standstill as a result of the dastardly COVID pandemic. A great achievement nonetheless and some much needed good news for the up-for-sale Williams Formula 1 Team.
F1 cars and their drivers’ last ‘proper’ outing was at Yas Marina for the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix in December of last year, and with racing forecast not to resume until the beginning of July – a gap of some seven months – teams, drivers and fans alike have looked for other ways to fill the void left be the absence of on-track action.
And so, while I’m not the world’s biggest fan of video games as a spectator sport, the forced hiatus has seen motor racing’s digital counterpart come into its own.
A number of much-higher-profile-than-usual eRacing events have been held in the prolonged off-season with some of the sport’s biggest names getting involved, from current stars such as Max Verstappen, Charles Leclerc and George Russell to F1 legends like Mario Andretti, Fernando Alonso and Jenson Button, and racing starved fans (especially the younger crowd) have lapped it up.
The pinnacle of this year’s eRacing season was undoubtedly yesterday’s Le Mans 24 Hours Virtual which assumed the date of the cancelled real life #LM24, giving WEC fans at least something to occupy themselves on a weekend they’d most likely kept free since the chequered flag dropped on last year’s race.
A field containing current/ex-F1 stars Charles Leclerc, Fernando Alonso, Max Verstappen and Lando Norris, Indycar Champion Simon Pagenaud, and former Williams F1 drivers Jenson Button, Juan Pablo Montoya, Rubens Barrichello & Felipe Massa took the start at 3pm.
Sadly for the organisers and some big name drivers, the scale of the event – unprecedented in eRacing terms – tested the capability of the technology required, forcing a spate of retirements as a result of glitches. Charles Leclerc, Max Verstappen/Lando Norris and Fernando Alonso/Rubens Barrichello all falling foul of failures in software/hardware.
But we shouldn’t let that get in the way of what was an fantastic event. The production values of the broadcast were excellent and shared much in common with the actual #LM24, with interviews by and with ex-winners punctuating the on-track action.
And there was a cherry on the cake for Williams fans too, as through the carnage came the #1 Rebellion Williams eSport car of racing drivers Louis Delétraz, Raffaele Marciello & eRacing drivers Nikodem Wisniewski & Kuba Brzezinski to take the win, with Williams reserve driver Jack Aitken and three other dudes finishing in third.
Though it’s unlikely to be repeated on such a scale, and though it’s always (in my view) going to play second fiddle to actual racing, when under the spotlight eSports has proven itself not as a rival to motor racing but as something that can act as a great way of getting people interested in the sport and of allowing the character of drivers to shine through in a way it otherwise couldn’t.
After all, eRacing depends on what exists ‘IRL’ (to use an online term), and if that stops then a large part of the appeal of its virtual equivalent stops with it.