Why the 24 Hours of Le Mans Virtual was a success

One of the largest esports races took place last weekend as 200 participants tackled a virtual 24 hour race at the Circuit de la Sarthe on the rFactor 2 platform.

The Automobile de l’Ouest (ACO), FIA World Endurance Championship (WEC) and Motorsport Games organised the 24 Hours of Le Mans Virtual race, which took place on June 13-14 (the original date of the Le Mans 24H).

The COVID-19 pandemic had a variety of series’ and motorsport disciplines resort to the virtual world of sim-racing.

The virtual seasons, featuring grids of sim/esports and real-life drivers, that were run include Formula 1’s ‘Virtual GP’ series, Formula E’s ‘Race At Home Challenge’, and a bunch more from other series’.

At first, the WEC hadn’t responded to joining a regular running in the virtual world, but a ‘6 Hours of Nurburgring’ rewind on Youtube kept everyone occupied as well as a variety of video messages from WEC’s global members expressing their feelings in response to coronavirus.

However, details of a virtual 24 Hours of Le Mans were released and excitement built up as the FIA WEC would take their turn into the virtual world of e-motorsport racing.

In this eagerly anticipated and extensive piece, I evaluate and demonstrate why the 24 Hours of Le Mans Virtual event was successful from a range of different aspects.

TV Broadcast Production

At Last Lap, we hosted a 24 hour Live-Text session on the race which provided live commentary in addition to the publishment of frequent race reports; alongside official live-timing, we relied much on the official broadcast for the visual action.

For WEC fans, it was familiar to see the same graphics used in the FIA WEC’s Season 8 races.

From HUDs (Heads-Up-Displays) when onboard a car, to the transitions between live and replays, to the colours/graphics to stake the track conditions (Green Flag, FCY etc.), the visuals were a familiar sight and made the virtual broadcast feel official and authentic.

Throughout the race, the traditional WEC commentators and reporters made their usual appearances throughout such as the two (traditionally) leading commentators Allan McNish and Martin Haven.

Again, this is another taste of familiarity for WEC fans (and myself at least) as there were a mix of traditional and e-sports specialists too throughout the race.

Combined, the crew embraced the world of endurance sim-racing as they openly talked about the abilities and achievements of the sim-drivers and real-life drivers as implied by the jargon used.

Image Credit: Chris McCarthy via Twitter

As promised in the early announcement of the LM 24H Virtual, the broadcast would feature a variety of guest appearances such as Mario Andretti, Rubens Barrichello, Tom Christensen, and many more.

Here, they showcase that the Le Mans 24H does not just base itself around the race itself but the iconic faces in motorsport that surround the race’s history.

It is also worth mentioning that the TV Director appeared to capture the action as best as it could have been, considering that there were 50 cars on-track between two categories.

At the real 24 Hours of Le Mans, there is a vast array of entertainment for the fans so the broadcast featured artists and DJs. The main music DJ/producer was known as ‘The Avener’, who played at each of the 2015 WEC rounds. He became the WEC Music Ambassador and has made appearances at Le Mans to entertain the fans.

French house/electro-music DJ and producer Tristan Casara AKA ‘The Avener’ – Image Credit: © Bobby Allin

He appeared at 10pm and performed live (virtually) for up to 45 minutes.

Whilst I enjoyed his appearance and the music itself, I applauded the effort of the organisers to arrange such a thing to happen.

However, the concert of other DJs that followed for the next few hours meant that fans missed the broadcast where Max Verstappen of the Team Redline LMP fought and took the lead (and much more).

The only way one could tell would be from any live timing data.

Personally, the ideal solution would be to implement the entertainment/concert in another stream; the stream can be linked separately so those who want to tune into the concert can do so at their desire.

However, the production and planning of the event payed off as Le Mans 24H Virtual accumulated more than 63 million hits via TV and digital audiences.

In comparison, the total viewership of Formula 1’s entire Virtual GP series cumulated 30 million (TV and Digital) which is less than half of the 24 Hours of Le Mans Virtual.

Some outstanding figures and stats include:

  • 131.5 million impressions of #LeMans24Virtual generated.
  • 14.2 million TV/OTT audience (source: YouGov Sport).
  • 48,919,403+ social media impressions (across FIA WEC, ACO, MSG) for race week alone.
  • 8,669,683+ video views (across FIA WEC, ACO and MSG – Source: Hookit).
  • 1,451k mentions online between 9-16 June 2020 (source: Meltwater) with 3.37 billion estimated potential reach worldwide.
  • 200 drivers from 37 different nations.
  • 170 simulators in 30 different countries.
  • 2 servers (1 main/1 backup) operated by teams in 3 countries for rFactor 2.
  • 13 million connections on the official Alkamel timing system.
  • 34 VVIP interviews during the (official) show including 3 F1 World Champions, 3 Indycar Champions, 10 WEC and Le Mans Champions, 3 Princes and 1 Princess.
  • Organisation team of 130 people including production, sporting, marketing, media and digital, TV, logistics etc for LM 24H Virtual.

Pierre Fillon, President of the ACO said: “This first edition of the 24 Hours of Le Mans Virtual was indeed worthy of the Le Mans name, and it perfectly captured all the excitement, tension and magic that is seen in real life at the Circuit de la Sarthe every June.

“Our congratulations to all the competitors and all the teams who made this incredible event possible.”

Gérard Neveu, CEO of the FIA World Endurance Championship and Le Mans Esports Series gave his view: “Such an event would not have been possible without the enthusiasm and belief of all our partners, starting with the ACO and Motorsport Games and our competitors plus our commercial partners who allowed us to capitalise on this event and share it on a global basis.

“A huge thank you to everyone involved, especially the fans and the organisation team.”

Dmitry Kozko, CEO of Motorsport Games said: “The 24 Hours of Le Mans Virtual illustrated just what is possible when the worlds of motorsport and esports meet in perfect synergy.

“The co-operation, dedication and partnership of everyone involved in the project enabled us to take racing esports to the next level.

“The biggest teams and drivers in racing and in esports were quick to see the potential of the event and that is reflected in these stunning results.”

The Sessions

Before I delve into the race itself, I needed to cover the race week itself from a practical perspective as Le Mans 24H Virtual was not just all about the 24 hour-long race.

Throughout the approaching days until the main event, there were a trio of test races held to test how the platform would handle the great number of participants, in addition towards giving the drivers some extra practice.

One mention would be the congestion within qualifying, where over 30 LMPs and 20 GTEs (separately) aimed to set one flying lap to determine where they’d start on the grid.

In my opinion, the sessions could have been made slightly longer so that not only would there be much more room to set a fast lap, but drivers are given an extra chance to improve on the 8.467 mile (13.626km) track.

24 Hours of Le Mans Virtual – Schedule British Summer Time / GMT +1
Date Time (BST) Event
May 24 12:00 Test Race – 3 Hours
May 29 12:00 Test Race – 3 Hours
June 7 09:00 Test Race – 6 Hours
June 10 09:00 – 21:00 Free Practice 1
June 11 09:00 – 21:00 Free Practice 2
June 12 09:00 – 16:00 Free Practice 3
June 12 17:15 – 17:30 Qualifying for GTE
June 12 17:40 – 17:55 Qualifying for LMP2
June 13 14:00 Race Start
June 14 14:00 Race Finish

The rFactor 2 game is one of the most iconic racing simulator games with a highly-favoured tyre and handling model.

However, I feared that the game itself would crash or not be able to handle so many participants from the 200 drivers, a plethora of teams/engineers, to the safety car drivers and others.

The rFactor 2 platform had a reputation for not technically being able to handle itself at times so a large event like this theoretically presented a disaster.

Whilst was certainly not a disaster, there were a number of technical issues that did occur.

Fernando Alonso, behind the wheel of the #14 FA/RB Allinsports LMP, fish-tailed the #94 Porsche Esports (GTE) of Simona De Silvestro and both sought contact.

Race control were on hand to give the #14 a Drive-Through-Penalty. However, the penalty was implemented metres before the pit entry and the #14 was about to perform a normal pit-stop (fuel, tyres and repairing any outstanding damage).

Alonso was not given the opportunity (time) to adjust the pit-stop parameters and the game made him automatically serve the drive-through separately to a full pitstop.

This meant that he left the pitlane with only 1.3 Litres of fuel thus stopped half-way through the lap due to a lack of fuel.

The organisers acknowledged that it was a technical glitch through no direct fault of Alonso himself.

The team joined back into the race soon after when later, a red flag was declared as the server needed to be reset – the #14 joined on the same lap as the final LMP.

Marcel Offermans, Director of Studio 397 (who develop rFactor 2) described it as an “unforeseen set of circumstances” that could have been prevented if not avoided.

He described it to Motorsport.com: “When race control called the penalty, we issued it right away right before Alonso came in. He barely had the time to change his pitstop settings and make a normal stop first. That was our mistake.

“Afterwards we made sure only to apply penalties when the car involved had either just passed the finish line or made a pitstop, so they had plenty of time to react to that.”

Another technical issue was of the #20 Team Redline in the hands of Max Verstappen who also fell victim to a glitch related to a connection issue.

He crashed out due to the glitches he was experiencing whilst leading the race.

#20 Team Redline – Image Credit: © FIA WEC

Offermans said to Motorsport.com: “Max had problems with his connection or his computer, which meant his frame-rate was low.

“Before the race we helped him optimise his new computer, but maybe it wasn’t quite right yet. In theory there could have been another bug in our system, but we’ll have to investigate.”

In a 24-hour sim-race, the equipment involved is tested throughout with a strain on the internet connections, rigs, and computers used.

The car was of the running around the halfway point but asserted its pace at the front of the field against the Rebellion Williams cars; the Redline Team were allowed to join back later on 17 laps down behind the leader.

Race Control

One of the main reasons this event ran relatively smooth and organised (overall) was because of a clear implementation of technical/sporting regulations.

The event featured the WEC Race Director Eduardo Freitas and a handful of stewards who would implement the necessary penalties for incidents throughout.

Freitas (pictured) at Le Mans 24H in 2016 – Image Credit: © FIA

Since the sporting regulations were emphasised and asserted far before the race week itself, the race featured close battles and serious racing.

Freitas and the stewards also kept their eye on the drivers through the Zoom broadcasts and the fact that the drivers needed to specify their locations and I.P addresses to ensure that the correct drivers are in the car.

The classic stereotype of e-sports racing (especially with so many participants) would be that everyone would find themselves colliding with one another but such a scenario never really happened.

Irregardless of the technical issue with Alonso which was not in the fault of the stewards, the general running of the race was handled quite well.

They intervened with any penalties in respect to incidents or dangerous driving when needed and let the drivers battle it out fairly and professionally.

My Favourite Moments from the Race

Aside from the frameworks that made this race work, much of the racing was fantastic as we saw everything from teammate clashes, fuel strategies and even sportsmanship.

One of the memorable moments had to be when Simon Pagenaud of the #6 Team Penske had performed a rig change live on the broadcast. This was due to facing wheel-issues which had him stop after Arnage.

Another included when the #36 Signatech Alpine Elf of Andre Negaro was pushed to his pit-box after running out of fuel (in the middle of the pit-lane) by the #42 Cool Racing.

This not only put a smile on my face but represented the respect between the competitors in the form of sportsmanship.

Another worth mentioning was the rigorous battle for the lead between pole-sitter #4 ByKolles Burst Esports and the surrounding Rebellion Williams Esports.

After facing a drive-through penalty for jumping the start and we on the back-foot since then.

A comeback up the field found themselves nearer to the front after just seven hours of running.

Next thing lead to another when ByKolles were battling the #1 Williams Esports for the lead!

Other climbs included the Corvettes to claim P4 and P6 in GTE, as well as the strong efforts from the R8G Esports (Grosjean) car to fight at the front (in-class).

Painful moments include the rookie mistake on the #94 Porsche Esports GTE which crashed after skidding over a gravel trap.

They lost a wheel and entered the pits as the driver in-hand had performed the maximum time for a stint but there were no other drivers ready to take over. Having at least a second driver available is a must and they consequently retired the car.

Their sister and GTE pole-sitter #93 Porsche Esports took back a dominant win.

To be truthful, there were many battles for position just like in all the real-life WEC races, but it was great to see it all happening and putting us as spectators on the edge of our seats!

I also enjoyed the ambiguity of predicting how the teams would act in the final hour as the fuel strategies came under stress.

My Verdict

As I’m sure you may have picked up, I was quite fond of this event and I would argue that it exceeded my initial expectations and has been one of the biggest sim-endurance events in recent months.

The FIA WEC, ACO, and Motorsport Games organised such a grand event as their experience with the Le Mans Esports Series provided.

They managed to involve many famous names from the esports world and real-life.

From Formula 1, to Indycar, to former Le Mans winners and much more, I was impressed to see such a tasteful lineup. And that does not even delve into the teams involved with names like Rebellion, Toyota GAZOO Racing, Penske and more.

It was a great sight to see esports teams/organisations team up with the real names. A couple of examples include JOTA Team Redline, Rebellion Williams Esports, and of course the array of real-life manufacturers and esports teams (like Veloce Esports).

As a fan of sim-racing, endurance racing, and Le Mans, it was wholesome to see the different communities of drivers (from over 60 different nationalities and different [e-]motorsport disciplines) come together at such an event.

I would also like to thank Adam, Freddie, and Rob of the other Last Lap writers as we all worked to write out the live text commentary/race reports on this event.

It was a great pleasure to cover the 24 Hours of Le Mans Virtual and I look forward to seeing the WEC back at Spa in August.