The Upcoming Virtual 24 Hours of Le Mans Will Have a Star-Studded Lineup
Fernando Alonso, Jenson Button, Juan Pablo Montoya among the heavyweights bound to raceby Michael Fira, on
Each year for the past nine decades, a laid-back town in the south of France becomes the world capital of speed and endurance. It all happens over the length of one weekend in June but, due to the ongoing pandemic, 2020 will see a different sort of race take place around Circuit de la Sarthe. While the real 24 Hours of Le Mans is bound to take place come autumn, a virtual twice-around-the-clock event will fill the gap on June 14-15 and basically everyone that matters in modern sports car racing is readying to take part.
The world’s best sim racers are also in for the fun
Motorsport is slowly, sheepishly getting back on track following the better part of three months of forced hiatus due to what’s become known as COVID-19. NASCAR’s back on its ovals and IndyCar, IMSA, and F1 will soon follow suit but things are a long way from being back to how they used to be. While real racing laid dormant, the industry of sim racing blossomed and it shows no signs of slowing down amid the slow start of proceedings in the real world.
With many key events postponed to the autumn months or altogether canceled for this year, there’s still tons of interest in virtual racing and one of the biggest races to be organized in a simulator this year is the upcoming 24 Hours of Le Mans Virtual that will take place on the original date in June when the real race was scheduled to run.
Billed as a "world premiere" by the ACO, this isn’t the first virtual race around Circuit de la Sarthe to run for 24 hours straight but it is the first to receive the blessing of the organizers of the real race.
"As in real life, [the 24 Hours of Le Mans Virtual] will bring together the crème de la crème of automotive manufacturers, racing teams and drivers plus the world’s best sim racers competing alongside these global names," said Gerard Neveu, the CEO of the FIA WEC. The 50-strong entry list released last week shows just how strong the lineups will be, maybe even stronger than in the real race!
How realistic is it?
The 50 cars taking part in the first-ever 24 Hours of Le Mans Virtual will be split into two classes that will run together in rFactor 2. The Prototype class will, effectively, be a one-make category as every entrant will run the ORECA 07 LMP2 but things are a bit more interesting in the GTE class where Ferrari, Porsche, and Aston Martin will do battle just like in real life.
The ACO outlined the rules back in May and it’s clear that there’s an emphasis on all-out realism. While other virtual racing series or standalone events play it safe by not allowing competitors to play around with the setup or by disabling damage, those competing in the 24 Hours of Le Mans Virtual cannot cut any corners.
The teams will come up with their own setup for race day and a strategy that must take into account the fact that rFactor 2 can simulate real-time changes in weather conditions as well as the transition from day to night.
On top of that, tires will wear down just like they do in the real world and the same goes for fuel consumption and the way the track rubbers up and the way debris will gather off line.
The cars that get involved in shunts can then be repaired in the pits unless the damage is terminal, in which case the car is retired. Each team was allowed to come forth with a driver lineup consisting of four drivers of which at least two are professional drivers in the real world and no more than two are sim racers. You don’t have to have any sim racer in your squad and some teams opted to simply enter a roster featuring driving talent they also use away from the computer while others played it safe and enlisted the help of some of the world’s leading sim racers.
Who’s racing where?
So, let’s start from the top of the pile and work our way down. As mentioned, the top class that will most likely end up giving us the outright race winner is the Prototype class which is all-ORECA. No less than 30 of the 50 cars are LMP2-spec machines built by the virtual branch of Hugues de Chaunac’s operation.
Some of the best-well-known teams within the FIA WEC paddock and beyond will race in the Prototype class including Rebellion Williams E-Sport, Toyota Gazoo Racing, Team Penske, and United Autosports.
Rebellion Williams E-Sport is the juggernaut of the field entering four ORECAs, all handed to mixed lineups consisting of some of Rebellion’s best drivers and top sim racers you’ve probably seen racing in the virtual F1 championship and the many championships organized by The Race. The No. 1 car will be shared by messers Louis Deletraz and Raffaele Marciello from the real world and the Polish duo of Nikodem Wisniewski and Kuba Brzezinski. Another Pole, Dawid Mroczek, will race in the No. 2 car alongside Petar Brljak, Bruno Senna, and Gustavo Menezes.
Team Penske, on the other hand, brings to the table four of its IMSA drivers in Juan Pablo Montoya, Ricky Taylor, Simon Pagenaud, and Dane Cameron. Montoya and Pagenaud are well versed in the virtual racing world with the former actually winning a sim racing showdown against top-flight sim racers not too long ago while Pagenaud will look to wipe his reputation clean after being accused by one Lando Norris of ramming him on purpose during the final stages of the virtual Indycar round at Indianapolis in early May.
Toyota Gazoo Racing will take a break from developing its ground-breaking new hypercar-spec Le Mans prototype that’s slated for a 2021 debut and will enter a trifecta of ORECAs in the race. Mike Conway, Kamui Kobayashi, and Jose Maria Lopez will drive the #7 car alongside French sim racer Maxime Brient while the #8 will be in the hands of Sébastien Buemi, Brendon Hartley, Kenta Yamashita, and Dutch sim racer Yuri Kasdorp. Nelson Piquet Jr., is headlining the third Toyota Gazoo Racing entry. Dries Vanthoor and Kelvin van der Linde are the real racers that will drive the WRT e-Team entry while the United Autosports car is the other prototype in the field to be driven by four real racers in Filipe Albuquerque, Alex Brundle, Job van Uitert, and Tom Gamble.
There are many other well-known teams in the Prototype class with Panis Racing Triple A, IDEC Sport, TDS E Racing Motul, Signatech Alpine Elf, and Jota Sport Redline all familiar to sportscar racing fans. Ex F1 race winner and current Panis Racing team owner Olivier Panis will be back in the driver’s seat in one of his team’s ORECAs while Jota Sport brings Will Stevens, IndyCar’s Felix Rosenqvist, and Antonio Felix da Costa to the grid. Jenson Button too will race in the Team Rocket Zansho ORECA he co-owns. Good friend Alex Buncombe is part of the lineup too.
Button’s former McLaren teammate, Fernando Alonso, won’t race for Toyota but he’s on the grid in the FA/RB Allinsports car that the Spaniard will share with Rubens Barrichello (yes, that Rubens Barrichello) and sim racers Olli Pahkala and Jarl Teien. Lando Norris, meanwhile, may have a good old fender-bender with Pagenaud again as he’s entered in Team Redline’s car alongside Red Bull Racing’s Max Verstappen. Finally, there’s another American team entered in the Prototype class, namely the MPI-Zansho team that will see Max Papis and Tony Kanaan race together again. That lineup is completed by Pietro Fittipaldi and sim racer Siedo Weijer from the Netherlands.
Moving down to the GTE ranks, there's plenty of talking points here too with AF Corse, Corvette Racing, Aston Martin Racing, and Porsche Motorsport all represented as well as a host of teams you'd usually see in the GTE-Am class in real life.
Since rFactor 2 is yet to release the C8.R, Corvette Racing will take the fan-favorite C7.R for one final tango - a bittersweet affair as the new car won’t be seen at the real 24 Hours of Le Mans this year either after the team officially pulled out of the event.
Jordan Taylor, Nicky Catsburg, Alex Voss, and Laurin Heinrich will drive the #63 Corvette while the #64 will be handled by Tommy Milner, sort-of-Corvette-works-driver Jan Magnussen, ex-sim racer Dennis Lind, and Alen Terzic who’s still properly into sim racing and is really good at it too.
While Porsche announced that the two CORE-backed 911 RSRs will also skip this year’s real 24 Hours of Le Mans, the virtual running of the race will see four works-entered 911s take the green flag. Patrick Pilet, Nick Tandy, Andre Lotterer, Neel Jani, and Matt Campbell will all race and Simona de Silvestro will also make its Porsche debut in the No. 94. Talking about female participation, Richard Mille will back an all-female lineup in the top class for Katherine Legge, Tatiana Calderon, Sophia Floersch, and sim racer Emily Jones.
Going back to the Porsche contingent, there will be four other 911s on the grid courtesy of GTE-Am champions Team Project 1, Gulf Racing UK, and Proton Competition. Felipe Fraga will drive one of the Project 1 cars next to Matteo Cairoli but, unfortunately, his WEC teammates (Jeroen Bleekemolen and Ben Keating) won’t be taking part in the race.
AF Corse will enter three 488 GTEs and the stars of the show will most definitely be Charles Leclerc and Antonio Giovinazzi who’ll drive the No. 52 car. Miguel Molina and David Perel (who’s basically as good both in the sim and in the real world) will share the No. 71 car with Italian e-sports stars David Tonizza and Enzo Bonito. Giancarlo Fisichella and Felipe Massa, meanwhile, will drive a Ferrari too, but one entered by the Strong Together outfit.
Of interest for the American fans is the frustrating lack of a Risi Competizione entry. While Giuseppe Risi’s team did send a request to take part, the ACO saw fit to throw the Le Mans regulars down on the reserve list while other teams that have a much smaller footprint in the racing world as a whole (virtual or not) have made the cut.
Aston Martin Racing, like AF Corse, will enter three Vantages and there’ll also be a fourth example on the grid entered by Mahle for Ferdinand Habsburg, Jamie Chadwick, famous Youtuber/e-racer Jimmy Broadbent, and Kevin Rotting. The works cars will feature a mix of exuberance, youth, and experience as keen e-racer/super fast real racer Nicki Thiim will be in the No. 95 half-dane-train Vantage that he’ll share with Richard Westbrook, Lasse Sorensen, and Manuel Biancolilla. Darren Turner, Alex Lynn, Harry Tincknell, and Jonny Adam will be spread across the other two cars.
More information on where you can watch the race - that will start at 3 PM local French time on June 13th - will be published in due course on the FIA’s, the FIA WEC’s, and the ACO’s social media channels so be sure to follow them to stay in the loop and... let’s hope someone drops out so that Risi gets to race!