Billed as “The Ultimate Esports Endurance Race”, the Virtual Le Mans 24 Hours was always going to attract attention. From the hardcore endurance fans and aficionados wanting to commemorate the traditional Le Mans weekend, to more cynical observers armed with their ‘it’s not like the real thing’ barbs. There was always going to be criticism.
So, let’s deal with the cynics first. Was it exactly like the real thing? No, of course it wasn’t, nor could it be. Did it capture the same atmosphere as the iconic event? Not really, but it was a darned realistic effort. Were there problems? Naturally, anyone who expected a trouble-free 24 hours of racing has most likely never watched a Le Mans weekend in its entirety. Was it as exciting as the real racing? Well, here’s the thing, yes at times it actually was. And, at a time when we are all in the need for a good dose of motorsport action, the Virtual Le Mans 24 Hours was just the tonic.
We are never going to see anything like it again. 200 competitors from around the world, competing in 170 different simulators, for 24 hours. From the endurance elite to F1 stars past and present, to young sim racers and a host of motorsport talent, it was a field of dreams. The likes of Max Verstappen and Lando Norris ensured new eyes would witness Le Mans in the virtual world, while regulars like Toyota Gazoo Racing would add credibility from a manufacturer’s standpoint.
It was genuinely a milestone event, filled with the values of professionalism, competitiveness and respect that makes the Le Mans 24 Hours such a world-renowned event. A classic. And this one will go down in the annals in much the same way.
The FIA World Endurance Championship, the Automobile Club de l’Ouest and Motorsport Games put these values at the heart of the event: from a top-notch broadcast from Studio Gabriel in Paris to impeccable race direction from Eduardo Freitas, the whole event oozed class. This wasn’t a botch job just to fill a gap, this was a legitimate representation of all that Le Mans stands for.
From the top down, the professionalism shone through, and this – in turn – meant that the competitors treated it seriously. Everyone wanted to win. There were no ‘rogue racer’ moments… well not quite. Even when the servers gave up the ghost, they were dealt with as if any other technical error, with calm, collected and methodical procedures.
Sponsors, too, were given ample opportunity for branding. The event had its own title partner, while the BWT branded safety car was also given its own moment in the spotlight. The appearance of FIA President Jean Todt, touching interviews with Le Mans legends, and a few lighter moments along the way, made for engaging viewing.
The sight of Charles Leclerc eating a yoghurt down the Mulsanne Straight would hardly be likely in the real thing, but that only added to the unique nature of this event.
Sure, it wasn’t Le Mans 24 Hours as we know and love, and there were things that did not go quite right. We missed a few familiar voices, and would have tweaked the studio dynamic a bit, but on the whole, it set a strong standard for esports in the motorsport world. There were certainly plenty of those cynics whose opinions had changed by the time the chequered flag fell.
The Le Mans 24 Hours Virtual was never meant to be a replacement, just a fitting stop gap while we wait impatiently for the real thing in September. When that happens, the event will have garnered a whole new online fanbase, and by 2021 perhaps the grid will have gained a few new drivers too.