Few – if any – simulation events are bigger or more famous than last weekend’s 24 Hours of Le Mans.
With 43 entries and 172 drivers including some of the most famous names in SimRacing and real world motorsport – Romain Grosjean, Jeffrey Rietveld, Felix Rosenqvist, Jimmy Broadbent – the event received an exciting broadcast presentation with veteran Martin Haven on commentary, Alex Brendel providing analysis and live links. Hayley Edmonds interviews drivers just like the real thing.
If there are any doubts about how serious this event is and how seriously the team takes it, the €2,000 entry fee to participate and the $250,000 prize fund should speak for itself. And if the event needed any more legitimacy, it could do no better than the participation of two-time Formula 1 World Champion Max Verstappen.
But aside from the race-ruining server problems and random interruptions that led to last weekend’s incident, Verstappen rationalized how their chances of victory were largely taken away from them through no fault of their own. Le Mans is simply the symbol – this simulation is becoming very special.
Anyone who has ever tried to participate in any motorsport, be it local or club level, knows how expensive competition can be, no matter what you drive. While Formula 1 fans scoff at some of the ‘talented’ wealthy drivers who have made it to the sport over the decades, it’s true that, as a driver, your financial backing can determine your chances at whatever level you’re at.
This should not have been the case with SimRaising and Shipping.
Yes, it’s not cheap to buy a PC that has enough power to run the simulator at a good frame rate, have maximum control over the wheels and rig, and maybe even some extra monitors to improve your peripheral vision. Paying for a subscription to iRacing or downloading new cars and tracks is another expense. But once you swallow the initial costs, the reality is that SimRacing is much cheaper than real-world motorsport.
In Assetto Corsa Competizione you don’t need to pay for fuel every time you go to the track. You don’t have to pay for registration or annual license renewals in Gran Turismo. And if you crash your car in a Dirt Rally tree, repairs will only cost you with in-game currency, which you can easily get back without losing a dime from your bank account.
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It’s no surprise that online racing leagues and professional esports have proliferated, offering simracing a more viable option for many motorsports enthusiasts to participate in their favorite sport while on a budget, studying or as a parent with a full-time job. More simulation platforms are emerging. Even consoles got in on the action. Around the world, millions began to seriously compete with other players from around the world.
Naturally, some major races have been developed for those who want to take simrating seriously, such as the Bullrun 1000, which started with Papyrus NASCAR Racing 4 and continued into the early 2010s. But like the Monaco Grand Prix, the Indianapolis 500 and the 24 Hours of Le Mans, these events are conceived, organized and run by fans for the love of racing.
When the widely used simulation platform iRacing took off in popularity, it acquired licenses for famous circuits such as Indianapolis, Sector de la Sarthe, Nürburgring, Sebring and more. IndyCar, NASCAR, and other major series also came on board and, suddenly, players could compete in the Daytona 500, Indy 500, or Le Mans 24 Hours against other players with identical cars in their real-world counterparts.
The seeding system used by iRacing allows hundreds of races to compete in a single event based on their ranking. For marquee special events like the Daytona 500, only 40 or so cars can compete at a time. Therefore, all drivers are separated into different types of competition according to their skill level. Not only does this allow drivers at the top of their game to compete against the best, it also provides meaningful competition for every driver regardless of their skill level and level of commitment.
And while iRacing has given hardcore sims the chance to compete in virtual versions of their favorite motorsports events, their licensing deals haven’t taken away from alternative, casual games like NASCAR’s Heat Series. Over the years, simulation enthusiasts have found many motorsports titles offering the best of both worlds and more accessible racing action in multiple simulation platforms to mimic real-world racing.
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Amazingly, real-world teams and manufacturers quickly realized how popular SimRazing was. NASCAR sanctioned its own iRacing series several years before Formula 1 followed suit with its own exclusive franchise by Codemasters. But while Formula E adopted simrating in the early seasons using enhanced rFactor2 content in virtual races before each Prix, it was years before that content was made available to general players.
Then, during the Covid-19 pandemic, it allowed major leaguers a critical way to accommodate events that Simras had been unable to do. F1, NASCAR, Formula E, IndyCar – all have turned to the virtual world to host racing events. Even the ACO, which runs the Le Mans 24 Hours, took part in the first virtual Le Mans 24 Hours, held during the traditional race of the real event, when it was locked in June.
But it seems that real-world motorsport is beginning to realize the incredible power of simulation to allow racing to take place remotely between people around the world, making simulation more unique and advanced than ever before.
Motorsports Network signed up franchises and studios at an impressive pace in 2018 to launch motorsports games. Originally, rFactor 2 developers acquired Studio 397 and 704 games before purchasing the platform and licensed the NASCAR game. It was licensed for IndyCar and the British Touring Car Championship, and then announced deals with the ACO and the World Endurance Championship.
With the game rights to two of the world’s biggest motorsport competitions tied up under one publisher, that means the likes of iRacing and other titles will inevitably lose the ability to represent those series on their platforms. iRacing has confirmed that the platform will no longer be able to host official special events of the Indy 500 or Le Mans 24 Hours. And while players can still race the existing IndyCar models and Indianapolis Motor Speedway to drive on stage, privately run leagues are barred from streaming races using IndyCars.
Exclusivity has been a bane for emulators and general racing fans for decades, but taking away the ability to race from existing players using licensed content from the games they own or the platforms they subscribe to is a new and bitter pill for gamers to swallow. Moving platforms also have the same level of accessibility, making it easier for anyone to compete. But instead, the Virtual Le Mans event was limited to professional racing drivers and select esports teams like Redline and Coanda.
The Formula 1 Export Championship is famous for its many success stories, and a driver has been signed up to represent them with real F1 teams from their couches. But even the pros are separated from the rest of the gaming crowd, with each F1 game’s unique ‘sport build’ slightly altered physics and functionality unavailable to all players. This has upset private racing leagues such as the PSGL, which canceled one of its recent PC seasons in F1 2022 after experts such as Jarno Opmeer and Lucas Blakeley pulled out to advance the esports build-up time for the official F1 championship.
If pretending continues to go the way it appears to be going, then much of what you did well to begin with may begin to disappear. Real-life motorsport, once a thriving platform for all racing fans to compete alongside the best drivers in the world, is in danger of becoming just another discipline. You already have a real racing chance. While it’s fun to see the likes of Max Verstappen and Felipe Dragovic racing in the virtual world in real-world equivalent cars, this shouldn’t be at the expense of the rest of us who simply want a chance to compete.
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