THIS WEEKEND was due to host arguably the biggest motor sport event of the year: the Le Mans 24 Hours. However, with the coronavirus pandemic ongoing, the 88th running of the historic endurance race has been postponed until September 19-20.
Dry your eyes, though: motor sport’s governing body the FIA, race organiser Automobile Club de l’Ouest (ACO) and Motorsport Games have come together to organise a virtual race using the RFactor2 gaming platform — the same one Formula E uses for its Race at Home Challenge — to take place when the event was originally scheduled.
It’s set to include 50 cars and 200 drivers, including some serious track stars. F1 drivers Charles Leclerc, Max Verstappen, Lando Norris, Pierre Gasly and Antonio Giovinazzi will be taking part, as will former F1 pilots Fernando Alonso, Jenson Button, Rubens Barrichello, Juan Pablo Montoya and Felipe Massa.
Alonso should be especially well placed to win the race, having taken victory in the real-life event as part of Toyota Gazoo Racing in both 2018 and 2019.
There will also be a raft of racers from other disciplines taking part, including from the World Endurance Championship (WEC) and Formula E. Richard Mille Racing is using an all-female team made up of racing driver Katherine Legge, Alfa Romeo F1 Test Driver Tatiana Calderon, Formula 3 Driver Sophia Flörsch and sim racer Emily Jones.
All teams have to comprise at least two professional drivers holding an FIA license or equivalent — the other two can be either professional drivers or sim racers. Each driver must complete at least four hours of the race but none can get behind the virtual wheel for more than seven hours in total.
Driver behaviour will be monitored by a clerk of the course, and penalties for misbehaviour include reprimands, drive-through penalties, “stop-and-go” penalties in the pits, time penalties (post-race) and, for severe infractions, disqualification.
Driver changes will occur in the pits, and the drivers must come into the pits and bring the car to a complete stop to instigate the change-over, according to the ACO. Control of the vehicle is then transferred to the next driver. Drivers will also have to pit for fuel and tyres.
Of course, a major part of endurance racing is dealing with damage sustained on track, and the organisers say damage will play a part in the virtual race. Cars will still be driveable but performance will be affected, meaning pit stops will also be required to get the cars back up to full speed.
There will be an exciting range of cars on track, including the Aston Martin Vantage GTE, Porsche 911 RSR GTE, Corvette C7.R GTE and Ferrari 488 GTE. In the LMP (Le Mans Prototype) class, made up of 30 of the 50 cars, the Oreca LMP2 will be used. All the teams can choose their own livery, with the designs set to be revealed in the coming days.
As in the real event, the light conditions will change as the race goes on, with drivers battling it out through the afternoon, dusk, night and dawn before completing the race in daylight again.
Organisers have confirmed that the all-new “hyperpole” qualifying system, which is designed to prioritise “sheer speed”, will not make its debut virtually — fans will have to wait until the real race in September to see its maiden voyage.
When does the Virtual Le Mans 24 Hours take place?
From 2pm on Saturday until 2pm on Sunday (24 hours later, funnily enough).
Where to watch
The entire race will be broadcast on Motorsport.tv and Motorsport.com online, but if you want to watch on the big screen, Eurosport will be broadcasting the first two and a half hours, a further two and a half hours later into the race, as well as the final five hours. TV channels across Europe will broadcast the race, including France TV, Viaplay in Scandinavia, RTL7 in the Netherlands and RTBF in Belgium.
In America you can watch 12 hours of the race on ESPN 2, and the full race on ESPN’s digital platforms.
In the Asia Pacific region and Australia, fans can watch on Eurosport. In Japan, J Sports will broadcast the first and last 3.5 hours. In New Zealand the race will be shown on Sky, and in India the race will be shown on Sony Entertainment TV. In Africa, the entire race will be shown on Super Sport.
Wave goodbye to virtual F1
This weekend also marks the final outing of F1’s virtual series, with the focus moving to Canada’s Circuit Gilles Villeneuve before the real racing gets started in Austria next month.
The farewell will be especially poignant for Williams driver George Russell. Used to starting (and finishing) somewhere near the back in the real races, the 22-year old has won the last three virtual events in a row, including crossing the line a staggering 40 seconds ahead of anyone else in the virtual Monaco Grand Prix. He’ll no doubt be thinking of those halcyon days as he climbs into his back-of-the-grid Williams in Austria.