It was shaping up to be a storybook ending for the 24 Hours of Le Mans Virtual – until disaster struck its most high-profile competitor.
Reigning two-time Formula One champion Max Verstappen held a sizable lead with about six hours remaining in the race, which took place the weekend of January 14 to 15, when he was suddenly disconnected from the server. The technical mishap sent his team tumbling down to 15th place, two laps behind the new leader, and he promptly retired from the competition.
“They call it amazingly bad luck, well this is just incompetence,” a frustrated Verstappen said on his Twitch stream shortly afterward. “They can’t even, like, control their own game.”
Up to that point, the race had been hampered by a handful of technical issues, including two early stoppages due to distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks. A number of teams suffered random disconnects throughout.
“It’s also the last time I’m ever participating in this race,” continued Verstappen, who has competed in the virtual Le Mans every year since its creation in 2020. He went on to call the event a “clown show,” noting that he and his team-mates had spent months preparing for it.
In some ways, Verstappen’s outburst overshadowed the race itself and drew added mainstream attention to virtual Le Mans, a prestigious sim-racing version of the French endurance race that brings together teams of real-life race car drivers and sim racers alike.
But while the technical issues may have surprised new viewers, longtime sim-racing insiders say these types of mishaps are fairly common throughout the industry – and stand as one of the few remaining hurdles for an esport that has otherwise gained enormous credibility within the wider world of auto racing.
“This happens all the time,” said Steven English, director of esports at Williams Racing, a Formula One team that also competes across a variety of sim-racing series. “There’s more light shined on it [this past] weekend, simply because there’s more light shined on that event in general, but this isn’t something new. If you speak to any esports team or driver, they’ll tell you a story about how their performance at an event was impacted by a technical issue.”
While most of the public backlash has been directed toward rFactor 2, the racing game that hosted virtual Le Mans, English notes that every sim-racing platform experiences these types of issues. For example: In June, a prominent 24-hour sim race in “Assetto Corsa Competizione” had to be postponed and rescheduled due to a DDoS attack. A major race last year on iRacing, another prominent sim-racing platform, suffered from a glitch in which cars traveled faster when driving on grass.
“We as teams and manufacturers are paying to compete, so you have high standards and expectations that the infrastructure will deliver what it says,” English continued. “But that doesn’t come without sympathy and understanding that we don’t live in a perfect world, and this isn’t an exact science.”
According to Florian Haasper, the CEO of German esports team BS+Competition, the attention surrounding this year’s race can serve as a learning opportunity for the entire sim-racing community. In addition to fielding sim-racing teams, Haasper is also the founder of VCO Esports, an online esports event organizer, which he says gives him perspective on how challenging it is to host such a large-scale, online event.
“I know that anything like this can happen all the time, so it always feels like a ride on the razor blade,” he said. “To me, though, the magic of virtual Le Mans was still there this past weekend – but these problems and challenges need to try and be solved for the future.”
Exciting moments nonetheless
When technical difficulties weren’t getting in the way, virtual Le Mans did provide a number of exciting moments, particularly when Verstappen, racing for Team Redline, dueled accomplished sim racer James Baldwin of AMG Petronas Esports for the early lead.
Initially founded as a pandemic stopgap to replace the postponed, real-life 24 Hours of Le Mans, the virtual Le Mans has served as a premier showcase for the sim-racing community. Over the past few years, sim racing has grown to become a legitimate pipeline for aspiring real-world racecar drivers. In a recent interview with The Washington Post, Verstappen himself called simulators “90 percent accurate” to driving a real racecar.
“There are clearly transferrable skills, which makes sim racing a unique esport,” said English. “You don’t hear about professional ‘Call of Duty’ players getting called up by the Navy Seals.”
According to Cam Royal, the head of esports and gaming at Veloce – a team that competes in both real-life and virtual racing – motorsports scouts are often watching sim races, particularly the virtual Le Mans, to try to identify up-and-coming talent that could translate to either real-world or esports success.
“We look at driving habits and consistency,” said Royal, who previously served as Veloce’s chief talent scout. “In virtual Le Mans, they don’t have to be on a team that finishes top five or even top 10 – but if you look at their data and time stamps, and they give their teams a chance to progress, you want to do some digging on those people.”
Stories of sim drivers making the leap to real-life racing abound. Baldwin, for example, competed in the British GT Championship in 2020. Rudy van Buren, a Dutch sim racer, landed a role as a development driver for the real-life Formula One team Red Bull Racing and competed in the Porsche Supercup last year.
And then there’s Jimmy Broadbent, a UK-based YouTuber who gained notoriety by outperforming real-life drivers in a variety of sim races early on in the pandemic, including the inaugural virtual Le Mans. Those performances attracted the attention of Praga, a car manufacturer and race team based in the Czech Republic, which enlisted Broadbent to compete in the 2021 Britcar Endurance Championship.
“When I got the call, it felt like someone was pulling a prank on me,” Broadbent said. “It was a pretty mad moment, and next thing I knew, I was testing a real car in Wales.”
Despite having no real-world racing experience, the streamer finished fifth in 2021 and, last year, claimed the Praga Cup championship. He competed in this year’s virtual Le Mans, this time listed as one of the real-life professional drivers.
“It’s a very nice feeling to see ‘pro’ listed next to my name,” he said. “And to have a Formula One world champion in the field with us reinforces just how serious this all is now.”
Would a LAN-connected race solve the problem?
With sim racing’s profile rapidly rising within the greater motorsports landscape, technical issues like what happened to Verstappen are all the more frustrating. There are seemingly no easy answers, and English notes that some of the most common suggestions – like hosting major esports races in a central location using a LAN connection – could open up other problems.
“People would then compete on equipment that isn’t their own,” he said. “Every team and driver would complain that their wheels or pedals aren’t working right, or it’s simply not what they’re used to. You’d solve one issue but gain new ones.”
He suggests that perhaps tech issues can never truly be prevented with total certainty, and likens them to the same type of random issues that can impact real-life sports – like a blown engine for a racecar driver or a popped hamstring for a soccer player – which can happen due to no fault of the athlete.
Haasper, meanwhile, suggests that sim-racing organisers should think outside the box when creating future events, leaning into sim racing’s unique ability to support creative formats. As an example, he points to an endurance race he hosted on iRacing last year that consisted of 24 one-hour races – with new drivers and tracks each hour – instead of one massive 24-hour race.
“Why don’t we exploit more what sim racing and the virtual world can do, and what you cannot do in the real world?” he said. “I find this equally as exciting as seeing real-world events replicated virtually, and both aspects have potential.”
The Washington Post