Round-the-clock races in the virtual realm are nothing new but they can’t be as tough as a real race, right?

"Racing is life," said Steve McQueen’s character Michael Delaney in the 1971 movie Le Mans. "Everything before or after is just waiting."

So what do you do when you can no longer go out and race? You keep on racing, virtually, from the comfort of your home, of course. That’s what most pro drivers did during the lockdown period but how does a real race compare to one you do in a simulator?

Nothing can beat the real-life experience

Rebellion wins the first ever virtual 24 Hours of Le Mans!

🏆Rebellion Williams Esport #01 wins the first ever VIRTUAL 24 Hours of Le Mans! 🏆Rebellion Williams Esport remporte les premières 24 Heures du Mans VIRTUELLES de l'histoire ! 🥈Seconde place for ByKolles #04 🥉Third place for Rebellion Williams Esport #13 Congratulations to all for this unique event !

Posted by 24 Heures du Mans on Sunday, June 14, 2020

Since about March, the racing family has left the paddocks or service areas around the world and instead has been cuddling up back at home for some much-needed (although some will never admit it!) respite. However, as a racer, you need to always keep yourself on the edge and while training and staying in shape proved tricky for most, continuing to race wasn’t as hard. That’s because all the major series promptly put together digitalized versions of their championships to keep the fans engaged and the sponsors happy.

The end result of all of that were some very unlikely results - such as Williams’ George Russell winning three virtual F1 GPs on the trot - some very unlikely exchanges of words between folks that would have otherwise not raced against one another, like when McLaren’s Lando Norris called Penske’s Simon Pagenaud salty, and, last but most definitely not least, some really awesome racing between some legendary drivers. Arguably the best example of the latter was the Le Mans 24 Hours Virtual, the first-ever 24 Hours of Le Mans race to be organized in a sim that received the blessing of the ACO and the FIA.

That event reunited some of the sport's finest drivers as well as the world's best sim racers in what's widely been regarded as a unique event that will for sure never be repeated due to the inevitable calendar clashes that are the norm when racing isn't put on an indefinite hiatus due to a global pandemic.
24 Heures du Mans VIRTUAL - FULL RCAE HIGHLIGHTS

🎞 Les 24 Heures du Mans virtuelles, une première mondiale qui a dépassé toutes nos espérances ! Découvrez les meilleurs moments de cet événement unique qui s'est déroulé ce weekend. 🎞 The first ever #LeMans24Virtual exceeded expectations. Watch the highlights of this weekend's unique event.

Posted by 24 Heures du Mans on Monday, June 15, 2020

We saw Alonso race at Le Mans for real and then we saw him do it in the Le Mans 24 Hours Virtual but we also got to witness, in the virtual world, battles between drivers that have never raced at Le Mans such as Charles Leclerc or Felipe Massa. It was absolutely amazing from that standpoint alone and not even the litany of server crashes can take away the aura of an event that gathered over 22.8 million views across linear TV and online digital channels.

So, this gave us the impetus to try and answer the one big, burning question that everyone’s been trying to answer these past two months: just how does a real racing weekend compare to racing in a digitalized simulation? The digital benchmark for our comparison will be last weekend’s iRacing 24 Hours of Le Mans which, unlike the Le Mans 24 Hours Virtual which was run in rFactor 2, gathered over 5,200 gamers that raced in a number of splits, each with 54 cars on the grid. Basically, you had dozens of races going on at (roughly) the same time and the deciding factor when it came to which split you and your team-mates would end up competing in was the iRating of the guy that entered the team. If the iRating was higher (meaning the guy entering the team had a history of really good results in iRacing), you’d end up in one of the better splits. If not, you’d end up with the crashers and the dive-bombers.

1. How you get into the race

24-hour Racing - Is It As Incredible In Sim Racing As It Is In The Real World?
- image 909742

That right there is the first differentiation between the real-world and the virtual world. In the real world, there are 55 grid slots on the grid of the 24 Hours of Le Mans race. If, by any chance, more than 55 cars have been entered, a ’Reserve List’ is made for the hopefuls, and if one or more of the cars that made the cut step out, the hopefuls are promoted onto the main entry list in an orderly fashion.

Back in the day, you'd have a couple of pre-qualifying sessions in April (what is today known as the 'Le Mans Test Day') that decided who made the cut and who didn't based on each of the cars' fastest lap.

2. How much time you’ve got to practice

Porsche, GTE winner #LeMans24Virtual

🏆 Porsche wins the GTE class of #LeMans24Virtual fifty years to the day after the marque's first triumph at the 24 Hours of Le Mans! 🏆 50 ans (jour pour jour) après sa première victoire aux 24 Heures du Mans, Porsche remporte la première édition de l'histoire des #LeMans24Virtual en catégorie GTE! #LeMans24

Posted by 24 Heures du Mans on Sunday, June 14, 2020

Since we’ve brought the Le Mans Test Day into the discussion, it’s worth mentioning yet another difference. The full 8.46-mile-long Circuit de la Sarthe comprises public roads and, because of that, it’s only opened to the racers twice every year: during the Le Mans Test Day and, again, in June during the race week.

What that means is that you don’t get too much practice time to iron out a setup and get your drivers accustomed to the track, the conditions, and the car.

In the sim, however, you can turn as many laps as your heart desires on the circuit prior to the race itself and the only differences that you should take into account are related to track temperature and weather since you may face a slightly warmer/cooler track when you get on the server to race but, beyond that, you can just run and run given that you have the free time to do so.

🚨 #LeMans24Virtual Live | Part 4

🚨 #LeMans24Virtual Live | Part 4

Posted by 24 Heures du Mans on Sunday, June 14, 2020
In short, the real race favors those with past experience at the track while the virtual race is a bit more approachable since you can just drive thousands of laps in the week prior to the event and get to grips with the layout and everything even if you've started out as someone who didn't even know what Le Mans is.

This also applies to the setup because you can spend literally hours fine-tuning every possible thing from suspension travel, to dampers, and the brake biases and then go out and test and then test some more. While you still have to reach a ’happy medium’ that’s (more or less) to the liking of each of the drivers in the team, you’ve got more time to do it. And, moreover, you can change the car any time you want which, of course, you wouldn’t do in real life. Say, for instance, you’ve entered the real race with a Ferrari and you suddenly find yourself miles off pace at the Test Day. You can’t just go out and spend another $1 million on a Porsche and hope the BoP is better for that car than the Ferrari but you can do that in the sim.

3. The atmosphere

Posted by 24 Heures du Mans on Saturday, June 13, 2020
The atmosphere leading up to the 24 Hours of Le Mans is unique with the whole city of Le Mans wrapped in this party atmosphere although you won't feel it if you're down on pit lane or in the paddock where things are always very intense and you can almost cut the tension with a knife, as the saying goes.

Sure, there’s a lot of tension and anticipation before the start of a virtual race too, especially one as big as the iRacing 24 Hours of Le Mans, but it doesn’t compare to the feelings you get standing on the grid before the real race. There are many reasons for that and one of the biggest ones is that, simply, doing Le Mans for real could well be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity while the virtual race run in iRacing is an yearly event and you can compete in it no matter what, even if you do so in a lesser split.

Talking about atmosphere, one thing that does look really good virtually is the transition from day to night and then back to day again. You do get blinded by the sun during the early hours of the morning and the late hours of the afternoon (all sim racers drive using the cockpit view, of course) and, also, the changing conditions are replicated nicely too with the track taking some time to get properly wet if it begins to pelt it down with rain. When the rain finally ceases, a dry line appears on the track.

4. The costs

Posted by 24 Heures du Mans on Saturday, June 13, 2020

Part of what makes Le Mans a once-in-a-lifetime thing for many of the competitors is simply that’s so darn expensive to get in and be part of the show as a driver. If you want to buy your want into the race, you’re looking at an expense of about $600,000 and that is if you’re gonna do it in a GT car.

For a ride in an LMP2 machine, you gotta dish out even more cash.

Meanwhile, to race in the iRacing 24 Hours of Le Mans you have to have a system that can run the game, a rig, and to have paid for the game. All that can get you to about $3,000-$6,000 depending on how professional you want your rig and system to be.

5. The sensations

🎮 ONBOARD LAP with Antonio Giovinazzi at the wheel of #Ferrari #52 on #LeMans24 circuit ! Enjoy 😍 . #LeMans24Virtual Antonio Giovinazzi - Official FanClub

Posted by 24 Heures du Mans on Saturday, June 13, 2020

This might be one of the biggest differentiators right here. Nobody can deny the fact that, in the past 10 to 15 years, game developers have worked overtime to make sims as realistic as possible and thus come forth and offer sim racers an amazingly engaging experience that is as true-to-life as possible but it’s still not the real thing.

Yes, driving in a sim can make you a better driver in the real world but it doesn't give you the thrills you get from man-handling a real race car.

You don’t hear nor feel each and every vibration, you don’t feel the wind blowing past you (in an open-top car), nor do you feel the Gs through the high-speed corners that are sure to make your neck, back, and arms feel really sore after a long stint behind the wheel.

6. The team

24-hour Racing - Is It As Incredible In Sim Racing As It Is In The Real World?
- image 909731
Any form of motorsport is about the team, even F1, a sport bent on creating heroes out of the drivers. Even those heroes wouldn't make it without an army of engineers, mechanics, and strategists.

This is also partially true in sim racing. Lately, as real-life teams have developed their online branches, the engineers on the real side of things have began to work on the setup used in-game to make it better and it has paid off. For instance, Bruno Spengler, the inaugural virtual IMSA champion driving for BMW, was aided on his way to the title by BMW Team Rahal-Letterman Lanigan Racing’s engineers who set up his and Nicky Catsburg’s BMW M8s in iRacing.

Similarly, you’d get spotters to tell you where other cars are located on the track which is really important especially in oval racing and long-distance endurance racing where traffic management is paramount. There’s also a team boss that calls the strategy (stuff like organizing driving stints and deciding when to pit and whether or not to double/triple-stint the tires).

But you don’t have mechanics as you would in the real world. There are built-in repair times in each sim depending on what you want to repair and the car basically repairs itself and it always takes the same amount of time for a certain operation, there’s never a stuck wheel nut or a freak failure happening.

7. The realism

Race start

✅And the #LeMans24Virtual is ON ! Have a good race !

Posted by 24 Heures du Mans on Saturday, June 13, 2020

Our previous point is linked to how realistic the game is. While you can’t expect the feeling of wind on your body to be replicated in a game, you do expect to receive some sort of information through the steering as you drive along.

In the real world, as you already know, racers handle the cars at the limit by the seat of their pants, 'feeling' their way through the corners through a combination of gut instinct, skill, and experience.

Most of the information comes through the wheel and the bum. The wheel tells you what the front tires are doing, where the wheels are pointing, how the suspension’s feeling and so on, and so forth. The bum tells you everything else about car positioning, the feeling of mass, and other key things.

If you don’t get all that information, you can’t really drive a car on the limit because you’re clueless to where the limit really is - the limit of adhesion that is. Because what happens is that you begin to push harder and harder, brake later and later and apply the gas that teeny tiny little bit earlier, and then, when the car snaps, you can’t correct it because there was no (or very little) information coming through the gear about how the car’s doing on the limit or if it’s actually beyond the limit.

🚨 #LeMans24Virtual Live | Part 1

Posted by 24 Heures du Mans on Saturday, June 13, 2020

Chip Ganassi Racing’s Scott Dixon is one of the best Indycar drivers out there but he found it quite hard to get to grips with iRacing. "The tricky part is you’re learning to drive something that you can only manipulate," Dixon said, quoted by NBCSN. "You can’t really make changes to your style or anything like that. You really just have to learn the style the car is, which I’ve found quite tough in a lot of ways."

"To be racing at the front, I wouldn’t say the emotions are on par, because it’s a very different feeling," Dixon added. "When you go into different portions of the virtual weekend, from practice to qualifying, it’s tough. In qualifying you get a little tense; the heart rate goes up to nail the lap. For a lot of us, everybody’s competitive nature, everybody wants to try to do well. That’s how you can get sucked into it so much. I think it has similarities in a lot of ways. The emotions, as we see through the race from lap to lap, people competing, it can be pretty calm. Then it gets escalated pretty quickly which is very realistic, too."

In the end, Dixon admitted that sim racing is "very time consuming," and a potential "slippery slope," which he’d rather avoid as "I’m not sure I want to spend hours on end downstairs." What’s certain is that, once you get the hang of how one platform behaves - because tire models, track surfaces, and car behavior differ from one sim to the other - it’s very catchy. You want to get better, you want to race faster, you want to beat the good guys and then the really good guys and for that, you must put in the work, you must put in those sleepless nights. Just like in real racing, you can’t cut corners if you want to reach the pinnacle of sim racing*.

*If and when you do cut corners in the sim, you will get penalized, just as you would in a real sanctioned race!

Michael Fira
Associate Editor and Motorsport Expert - fira@topspeed.com
Mihai Fira started out writing about long-distance racing like the famous 24 Hours of Le Mans. As the years went by, his area of interest grew wider and wider and he ever branched beyond the usual confines of an automotive writer. However, his heart is still close to anything car-related and he's most at home retelling the story of some long-since-forgotten moment from the history of auto racing. He'll also take time to explain why the cars of the '60s and '70s are more fascinating than anything on the road today.  Read More
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