To say 2020 brought its share of challenges to the motorsports community is the height of understatement: events canceled outright, traditional dates and venues shifted, drivers and entire teams quarantined, spectator attendance limited – at best.
If racing had an overall winner in that star-crossed season, it was online motorsports, better known as “sim racing.” NASCAR, Formula One, IndyCar, IMSA ... virtually every sanctioning body embraced the leading sim racing platforms to stage virtual events featuring their drivers, teams, manufacturers and commercial partners during the pandemic. Talk about a win-win: The virtual racing not only exposed existing fans to the brave new world of sim racing, it introduced millions of “gamers” to the stars and cars of “real-world” racing.
Given its decade-long relationship with iRacing.com, IMSA was well positioned to ramp up its sim racing profile. Scores of participants from across the spectrum of IMSA-sanctioned series embraced the IMSA iRacing Pro Series that featured fields of three dozen or more GT Le Mans (GTLM) class cars and saw Bruno Spengler best Nicky Catsburg and Shinya Michimi for the virtual series’ title.
Small wonder that IMSA and iRacing have joined forces again to present the IMSA iRacing Pro Series Preseason Invitational this Sunday, at 2 p.m. ET. The event, which will stream live on iRacing’s Facebook, Twitch and YouTube channels, features one of iRacing’s newest virtual cars – the Dallara Le Mans Prototype 2 (LMP2) – in a one-hour race on Daytona International Speedway’s 3.56-mile road course.
The event has attracted some of IMSA’s top stars including, 2020 Rolex 24 At Daytona GTLM class winner John Edwards (the actual race, not a virtual one), defending IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge Touring Car (TCR) champion Gabby Chaves, two-time IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship GTLM runner-up Richard Westbrook and Kenton Koch, a two-time winner in the 2018 Pilot Challenge season.
Koch scored something of an upset in Round 5 of the 2020 IMSA iRacing Pro Series when he qualified on pole and steered his shocking pink Ford GT to victory at the virtual VIRginia International Raceway. He thus became the first so-called privateer to break the stranglehold enjoyed by BMW and Porsche thanks, in part, to what amounted to factory support by the German manufacturers.
“It was kind of cool to win one for the privateers,” says Koch. “It was a bit of work to get the car to the point where it could win. To be honest, it was just as satisfying as winning in real racing.”
Some of Koch’s satisfaction came from the payoff for a considerable effort devoted to maximizing his digital Ford GT’s chassis setup, a process nearly as complex as fine-tuning its real-world counterpart. In contrast, Sunday’s IMSA iRacing Pro Series Preseason Invitational will be a “fixed setup” race, one where each competitor uses identical chassis settings. The normal myriad of adjustments available in iRacing’s “open setup” events will not be available.
“It’s nice that it’s going to be a fixed setup race because all you have to worry about is going racing versus trying to make the best setup,” Koch says. “It makes it more fair for the little guy. Now you can just go out and enjoy your time driving.”
While Koch and his fellow competitors enjoy their sim racing, they also take it seriously ... to a point.
“I’ve been sim racing since the days when the throttle was the ‘A’ on your computer keyboard and the brake was the ‘B’ key,” says Filipe Albuquerque, the veteran WeatherTech Championship driver with five career IMSA wins and the 2017 IMSA Michelin Endurance Cup title to his credit. “Now with the nice steering wheels and pedals, I enjoy it even more.
“But I don’t take it as seriously as the proper sim racers who do 1,000 or 2,000 laps before a race,” says Albuquerque, who will pilot the No. 10 Konica Minolta Acura DPi for Wayne Taylor Racing in the real-world 2021 WeatherTech Championship. “That would require me to play a lot and not spend as much time with my daughters and doing all the things that a good dad does.”
While he readily concedes he can’t match the ultimate pace of the top sim racers – be it in a routine iRacing event or against some of his real-world competitors in the IMSA iRacing Pro Series Preseason Invitational – Albuquerque derives real-world benefits from his sim racing efforts.
“I like to drive with the reference of real life and I try to be spontaneous,” he says. “I talk with my engineers at the Konica Minolta Acura and put the same gears in my car, even if those gears are not the best for the game. I still become familiar with the downshifts, the upshifts, when I’m hitting the rev limiter. I like that routine. I play one hour once in a while, and that’s it.
“I like to drive with guys that I know, so I love the IMSA races on iRacing. I’m always around the same guys, guys like Daniel Morad, Robert Wickens. Somehow, we are always around a second off the top guys – I don’t know what they’re doing there.
“It’s kind of annoying,” Albuquerque adds with a laugh, “but I can still have fun racing against the guys I know.”
Koch says the flip side of sim racing with your buddies is the opportunity IMSA iRacing events afford to compete with a different cast of characters from IMSA and other forms of motorsport.
“It’s cool to be able to race with guys you don’t normally compete against, and build relationships with them,” he says. “There’s a lot of respect to be gained on the sim. On the other hand, you can hurt yourself if you aren’t respectful in the eyes of the people you are driving against. Sure, the crash damage doesn’t cost anything and nobody gets hurt, but you don’t want to come across as ‘Oh, it’s just a game,’ because people put time into this.”
Ultimately, the IMSA iRacing Pro Series Preseason Invitational will be enjoyable and serious for all the competitors, not unlike the upcoming 2021 Rolex 24 At Daytona or any other event in the WeatherTech Championship. But for racing fans who can follow along on the live stream, it figures to be 100 percent fun.