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Aston Martin takes on virtual Le Mans 24 Hour race.

Gary Parravani/Handout

A strange thing happened to motorsport during the pandemic. While the National Basketball Association and the National Hockey League were forced to cancel games, motor racing continued more or less on schedule. Professional drivers simply traded real race cars for virtual ones.

Tens of millions of people tuned in to watch video-game versions of Formula 1, NASCAR and IndyCar races. The races were streamed live on Twitch and YouTube and broadcast on major television networks, complete with play-by-play commentary.

Virtual races can last a few minutes to a full 24 hours, as is the case with the Nurburgring and Le Mans endurance races.

Gary Parravani/Handout

Celebrities, fans and professional gamers lined up on virtual starting grids to test their skills against the world’s top racers. Famous drivers raced from their living rooms and chatted with fans before and even during the races. It granted unprecedented access to a sport in which the superstars are usually hidden inside their helmets.

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For a few months, the world of motor racing – probably the most elite and exclusive sport in the world – was cracked wide open.

“I play Mario Kart [Nintendo’s racing game] as well, but this is a very different thing,” said Bruno Spengler, a Canadian BMW factory team driver who competes in several real-world European racing series. “Before the start of a sim[ulation] race, I’m as nervous as for a real race,” he said. “It’s a fine line between saying it’s a game and it’s real; I think it’s much closer to something real.”

Canadian BMW factory team driver Bruno Spengler is seen racing using a simulator at home.

Sam Cobb/Handout

Racing simulators, called racing sims, run on video game consoles or high-powered computers. Popular games include Gran Turismo, Forza Motorsport, and iRacing. You can race with a controller, a $250 steering wheel and pedal set, or with a $100,000 motion simulator that recreates the pitching and sliding of a real car.

“You’re sweating and everything,” Spengler said. The steering wheel in his at-home simulator takes as much force to turn as the real thing, and the brake pedal requires up to 100 kilograms of pressure, just as it does in his BMW race car.

Spengler says simulation racing is much closer to something real.

Handout

Virtual races can last a few minutes or a full 24 hours, as is the case with the Nurburgring and Le Mans endurance races, both of which were run virtually this year when the real events were cancelled.

Dedicated sim racers refer to the outdoor sport not as “real racing” but as “traditional racing,” Evan Thorogood explained. For years, he was among the top sim racers in Canada, competing as Raceboy77. It was never a full-time job, but he estimates he won about $40,000 in prize money over the years. Now, Thorogood works as an e-sports specialist for Microsoft, helping to organize virtual races.

During the pandemic, he has seen sim racing’s popularity skyrocket. “It’s exploded for sure, and it’s really exciting to see that,” Thorogood said from his home near Calgary. “A lot of it has to do with some of the bigger names taking part, and having it broadcast on TV.”

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In March, one of NASCAR’s virtual races was the most talked-about television programs of the day on Twitter, according to viewership ratings agency Nielsen. It helped boost the audience for the sport, too. Of the more than 900,000 viewers who watched the event, Nielsen found that nearly one-third hadn’t seen any other NASCAR race in 2020.

The first five virtual Formula 1 races during the pandemic drew a combined 20 million viewers. Among the drivers was Lando Norris, a 20-year old real-world F1 driver for McLaren, who amassed nearly 500,000 followers on the video-game streaming platform Twitch alone. His YouTube clip of the virtual Australian Grand Prix has nearly 900,000 views.

The stakes are lower – lives aren’t on the line – but that means drivers seem to have a bit more fun in virtual races. There’s much more crashing and mayhem. Drivers are often laughing in the cars, chirping each other, checking their social media and chatting live with fans, none of which happens during a real race, or, if it does, viewers don’t get to see it.

Toronto-based professional real-world racer Daniel Morad has been using the boom in virtual racing to broaden his fan base.

Daniel Morad

What happens in a sim race doesn’t stay there, however. NASCAR driver Kyle Larson was suspended from the series indefinitely after using a racial slur during a virtual race. And a real-life Audi driver was fired from his simulated racing team when it was discovered he’d secretly hired a ringer – an expert sim racer – to compete in a virtual race for him.

With the newfound popularity of sim racing, car companies have also been getting in on the action. Aston Martin, BMW, Lamborghini and Porsche have all increased their presence in sim racing during the pandemic.

Pfaff Automotive Partners, a Canadian dealership group, has long supported sim racing. “The average demographic of ‘hardcore gamers’ is actually very attractive to organizations like ours: relatively young; six-figure household income; they’re intensely loyal (like real race fans) to brands they love,” Laurance Yap, Pfaff’s creative director, said in an e-mail. Racing games also help to create a new generation of car enthusiasts, he added.

Daniel Morad, a Toronto-based professional real-world racer who usually competes in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, has been using the boom in virtual racing to broaden his fan base and promote awareness of his lifestyle clothing brand, Moradness.

“On Twitch, I just started three months ago, and have had 85,000 unique viewers on my videos,” said Morad, who streams virtual races four or five times a week. “I’d say they aren’t normally race fans, but they came across my Twitch page, and they say they’re totally going to watch real races,” he added. He says sales for his clothing brand have recently gone up by about 50 per cent, which he attributes to the sim racing boom.

Both Spengler and Morad said they’ll continue sim racing once real racing starts again. It’s not only good practice for the real world, it also wins new fans.

With “traditional” racing series gradually beginning to restart – albeit with half-empty grandstands in many cases – it remains to be seen whether sim racing can retain its new fans. NASCAR and Formula 1 will be looking to turn gamers who discovered the sport during the pandemic into fans of the real thing.

Ross Brawn, Formula 1′s managing director of motorsports, said in a recent news conference that the sport must learn from sim racing. By giving people a sense of who the drivers are, how they live and their personalities, sim racing during the pandemic attracted new fans, he explained. As a result, Brawn said he expects to see more investment in sim racing in the future.

Sim racing and real racing have a kind of symbiotic relationship, each feeding off the other. But sim racing has done more than just fill the entertainment void during motorsport’s pandemic-enforced hiatus.

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Racing is an expensive sport to break into. Too often it’s the young drivers with the wealthiest parents who get a chance to make it to the big leagues. At least in the virtual world, anybody with a computer and an internet connection can take on the world’s best drivers.

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