LeMans24Virtual: Richard Mille Racing completes first ever virtual Le Mans
The fully-female team finished in the top-20 a uber-competitive virtual edition of the Le Mans classic, as Simona De Silvestro was forced out of the race early in the GTE Porsche.
Just as the month of May is inevitably associated with the Monaco Grand Prix and the Indianapolis 500, June can only mean the most famous 24 hours race on the iconic Circuit de la Sarthe to a motorsport enthusiast.
That's how the ACO, promoter of the French classic race – clearly unable to host an event that every year attracts some +250,000 spectators – came up with the idea of a virtual stand-in for its original date, capitalizing on the incredible growth of simracing during the global stoppage of real-life motorsport.
FIA WEC, together with Motorsport Games, put together the biggest event in simracing's history, attracting an entry list of international stars – both real drivers and professional esport gamers, as well as major teams and manufacturers, all eager to challenge themselves on the popular rFactor2 simulative software. As some of the drivers revealed, teams employed engineers and professional simracing facilities to practice and refine setups, as well as for fuel calculations and strategies. It might be only virtual, but everyone involved took the competition very seriously.
Divided in two classes rather than the usual four, the drivers competed in the LMP and GTE grids, with both classes featuring female racing drivers. The FIA Women in Motorsport supported the all-female team Richard Mille Racing – which will take the start of the European Le Mans Series later this year with the same lineup, as well as the real edition of the endurance race in September. Katherine Legge, Tatiana Calderon and Sophia Floersch entered their first race as teammates. The all-star team was also joined by Australian simracer Emily Jones in the beautiful red Oreca LMP2 car.
Taking the start for the official Porsche Esport Team, Swiss works driver Simona De Silvestro joined Patrick Pilet and simracers Martin Kronke and David Williams in one of the four 911 RSR that dominated the GTE class qualifying.
With over 200 drivers connected from 37 different countries, the French flag waved at 15:00 CET on Saturday to signal the start of the most famous endurance race in the world. Calderon, starting in the #50 LMP car from 23rd place, held her position in an extremely competitive field, while De Silvestro lost a couple of places from her 6th qualifying performance. Ahead, the ByKolles car driven by Tom Dillmann which was starting from pole, was immediately penalized for a jump start that elevated Kelvin van der Linde in the #30 WRT e-team into the lead.
Unfortunately, the first big blow to De Silvestro's chances came just into the first hour of racing: Fernando Alonso in his FA/RB Allinsports LMP car pushed the Porsche driven by the Swiss racer straight into the barrier. The contact resulted in heavy damage for Alonso's car, which limped back to the pits, received a penalty for the incident but then had to retire after only 30 minutes.
De Silvestro continued, pitted to repair the damages but dropped to P47 in the overall standings, P19 in GTE class. After ninety minutes, she left the #94 Porsche to her teammate David Williams. "Just finished my first stint, it was pretty eventful I'd say, with Alonso kinda pushing us off track, but you know that happens.” - she commented. “A shame that happened in the first half-an-hour, but it's a long race. Definitely a bit frustrating but that's racing and we'll keep going and see where we end up in 24 hours".
After a double-stint, Calderon also passed the wheel to Emily Jones, who had qualified the #50 car. They rejoined in P24, but the Australian simracer managed to gain some positions on track, before handing over to Floersch in 21st place, despite revealing her inexperience of the rFactor2 software. The German driver, who trained during the past months on both the iRacing and rFactor platforms, also showed good pace and continued to advance up until P19, before leaving the Richard Mille entry to Katherine Legge approximately four hours into the race. Legge, one of the most accomplished female racing drivers of the last decade, said that it was her very first race at the simulator.
Six hours into the Virtual 24 Hours of Le Mans, the 2Seas Motorsport team driven by Formula E racer Oliver Rowland led the overall classify during the hectic pitstop phases, which preceded the first of two red flag halts for server issues. The race direction instructed all the drivers to line up on the starting grid, freezing the order, as the server was restarted and the race resumed behind the Safety Car. Following the stoppage, the FA Racing team with Fernando Alonso and Rubens Barrichello was allowed back into the race and its 69-laps gap was reduced to 6 laps.
Soon after the restart, Katherine Legge made a first mistake under braking at the second chicane and spun. While the #50 car did not immediately sustain damages, the British racer rejoined the track right in front of a group of incoming cars and was collected by the #80 R8G Corvette driven by Daniel Juncadella. The heavy impact forced both teams to unscheduled pit stops and a one-second penalty was handed to the Richard Mille Racing crew.
Legge apologized for her mistake in a live interview, where she said that she could only see the first car approaching and not the ones behind. Her single monitor setup might have indeed contributed to her mistake, as simulators provide a very different spatial awareness compared to real-life in-car visibility. Calderon went out again after the stop, three laps down the leading LMP car.
In these stages emerged the Rebellion Williams Esports team crews that, together with the #20 RedLine team with F1 superstars Max Verstappen and Lando Norris, would battle for the leading positions into the night.
In the GTE class, the #93 Porsche always held the top of the standings after starting from pole position, thanks to a commanding drive by Ayhancan Guven, Nick Tandy, Joshua Rogers and Tommy Østgaard.
The much anticipated Ferrari squad – which for the first time allowed its 488 GTE challenger on the rFactor platform – never really proved competitive and server connection issues compromised the #52 entry's race: after a spin by F1 ace Charles Leclerc, both the Monegasque and his teammates suffered several off-tracks and crashes throughout the race.
Eight hours into the race, De Silvestro started her second stint in 18th class position and handed over to David Williams in P17.
Katherine Legge had another spin around midnight during her second driving shift, but rejoined unscathed.
Another team to see its race hindered by a series of misfortunes was Penske's Acura driven by four real-life motorsport stars: Simon Pagenaud firstly had to switch to a spare sim rig, in a remarkable “pit-stop”. Then, Ricky Taylor encountered a “slowdown” and was rear-ended by Dries Vanthoor in the WRT car. Heavily damaged and with a visibly bent suspension, the #6 Penske made its way back to the pits for repair, losing several laps.
More drama unfolded in the early night hours, when Max Verstappen also encountered server issues and his #20 RedLine, steadily into the overall lead, started glitching and caused an accident at Mulsanne. Now undrivable, the RedLine car tried to get back out with Kerkhof at the wheel, but stopped soon after and retired amidst the drivers' disappointment.
Raffaele Marciello inherited the lead in the #01 Rebellion after 9 and a half hours of racing.
The night at Le Mans is both the fastest and the most challenging section, with visibility, fatigue and reliability historically kicking-in. Robert Wickens was forced out of the race when his steering wheel got stuck on a 100% force feedback setting and the Canadian driver – who is braking with a lever – could not continue, leaving his teammates with some extra work.
De Silvestro's race went from bad to worse, as she also had a disconnection and lost several minutes before rejoining the server. The #86 Gulf Racing Porsche had a similar fate.
But the night at Le Mans has also something magical, even when the competition is only virtual and the amazing rFactor2 graphics – together with the outstanding broadcast and even a night concert – could really recreate the atmosphere of the French classic.
With Patrick Pilet in the driving seat, the #94 Porsche suffered terminal damage just after the mid-race mark. Pilet went off and into the barriers at the Dunlop chicane and was unable to move the Porsche 911 RSR, stuck into the gravel trap. The car was reset into the garage, but retired.
“It was a very fun event to be part of, I really enjoyed it actually” - said Simona. “I was pretty nervous getting in the car every time I had to get in. The race didn't start like we wanted: thirty minutes in we were taken out by Fernando [Alonso] and we got a lot of damage on the car so we lost about a minute and a half. Then in the middle of the night, as my stint came up, there was a storm outside and I think that made an issue with my internet and I lost connection. It took me almost five minutes to get back into the server, I guess that happens in virtual racing.”
“I went to bed at around 1am to prepare for my stint at around 5am, so I put my alarm clock at 04:00 and I saw that Patrick [Pilet] had a bit of an issue, being stuck in the gravel. Unfortunately there was no virtual tow-truck to come and pick us up, so we had to escape the game at that point and retire the car.”
“It's a big shame, but to be honest I really enjoyed it and I really want to thank everyone from the Coanda team [the simracing facility that cooperated with Porsche], everyone from Porsche Motorsport that made this event happen. It was way different from any other racing but now I can say that I started my first 24 Hours of Le Mans with Porsche!” - concluded De Silvestro.
A few moments later, more bad luck struck the racing girls: Fabrizio Gobbi in the Toyota Argentina entry spun out of control and took out Katherine Legge into the runoff area at Mulsanne. The Italian simracer retired, while the Richard Mille Racing team made it back to the pits with limited damages. Sophia Floersch took over at 03:40am for a triple stint and moved up two places before handing over to Emily Jones in P23.
The Australian completed another triple stint, the fastest of the night, mistake-free.
There was more drama in the leading positions when the #02 Rebellion Williams spun at the Ford chicanes and was collected by one of its teammates, losing a wheel in the process.
As the sun started to rise again after 18 hours, the #01 and the #13 Rebellion led comfortably the overall standings from the ByKolles squad, while the #93 Porsche continued its dominant showcase, ahead of the #80 R8G Corvette of the team owned by Romain Grosjean.
At 10:26 am, a second red flag stopped the action to allow the race direction to reset the server and restore positions. This second restart gave the race promoters the opportunity to grant a second re-entry and the #20 RedLine by Verstappen-Norris-Kerkhof-Huttu made its way back on track, reducing their lap deficit from 146 to 17.
Emily Jones took care once again of the restart flawlessly, as the fully-female team sat in 20th place after the Multimatic-Zansho recurring troubles. The Rebellion Williams Esports powerhouse held the lead, but the race neutralization annihilated their gap on the third-placed #4 ByKolles: Simoncic slowly but steadily closed in on Gassner and, with 19 minutes left on the clock, completed a stunning move at the Porsche Curves to claim second place.
The Ferrari drivers endured more adversities in the final stages, as Amos Laurito was handed a penalty for a very avoidable blocking manoeuvre on the #57 Porsche that sent the second-placed #80 works Chevrolet against the barriers.
After 24 widely entertaining hours, the #01 Rebellion Williams Esport crossed the line and handed Raffaele Marciello, Louis Deletraz, Nikodem Wisniewski and Kuba Brzezinski the first ever Le Mans 24 Virtual title. GTE class victory went to the Tandy-Guven-Rogers-Østgaard crew in the works Porsche entry.
Richard Mille Racing completed its first ever race in 18th position, with Sophia Floersch taking the chequered flag. “24 Hours of Le Mans Virtual is over, it's been quite a lot of work during the past few weeks, but a lot of fun. I did my first 24 hours race so I'm really happy with that.” - said Floersch.“We actually made a few places in the last couple of hours, we finished P18 in the end. Big thanks goes to our engineer Paul, who spent so many hours in the sim in the last few weeks, the complete Signatech Group [which runs the Richard Mille operation], my three teammates Tatiana [Calderon], Katherine [Legge] and also Emily [Jones], who all did a great job. I'm very happy with our performance”.“We are not an eSport team and we try to make the best out of it”.
“We finished our first Virtual 24 Hours Le Mans. It was my first time working with the Richard Mille Racing Team." - said Colombian Tatiana Calderon. "I think the team did a great job during the two weeks we have been preparing this event. Great job by my teammates Katherine Legge, Sophia Floersch and Emily Jones, to recover from 25th position, going back to 18th, adjusting the strategy every time, trying to go one lap longer than the others, saving fuel and playing a little with the tyres as well,”- she said at the end of the 24 hours.
The help of a simracer like Jones proved particularly important, despite her lack of experience on rFactor. “Extremely proud of the girls for the effort they put in over the last few weeks.” - she said, praising her teammates. “Getting out of your comfort zone and running laps on a sim is difficult to get your head around, but they threw themselves at it 100%”
“It's also honestly one of the best races I've ever driven. Really happy with my pace, and I really didn't make any mistakes over the whole distance. Pushing hard and just sending the car through every chicane was so freaking cool. I loved every second.”
“This has been the best simrace ever, I'm so privileged to have been a part of it.”
The success of the event was also highlighted by Charles Leclerc that claimed: “Now I just want to do the real Le Mans”. Among the several simracing events of the motorsport lockdown era, the Le Mans 24 Virtual has set the bar very high and, hopefully, will be an incentive for new fans to visit the real edition of the race on 19th September.
Three fully-female teams will be on the starting grid, supported by the FIA Women in Motorsport Commission: Richard Mille Racing will be back in the LMP2 class, while the GTE-Am category will see the return of Iron Lynx Team (Manuela Gostner, Rahel Frey, Michelle Gatting, who finished the legendary race in ninth place in 2019), as well as the new entry of GEAR Racing.
In Tatiana's words:
"The first of many with Katherine Legge and Sophia Floersch. Real racing can't come quick enough"