This weekend, 62 teams will take part in one of the most challenging experiences in motorsport – a 24-hour endurance race. Round 4 of the 2017 Blancpain GT Series Endurance Cup will be run along the famous Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps in Belgium.
For 24 hours, teams will battle each other on the winding piece of tarmac inside the Ardennes Forest, home to many of the greatest stories in motorsport history. The Championship is run between numerous GT3 cars, and last year’s winners, Philipp Eng, Maxime Martin and Alexander Sims will be back to defend their title in the #99 Rowe Racing BMW M6.
What many people do not know is that before the 62 teams will hit the track on Saturday, another, even bigger race, was held at Spa last weekend. Well… Sort of.
No less than 445 teams (with 2-16 drivers per team) took part in the iRacing 24 Hours of Spa, a virtual competition in the ever-growing world of simracing. How would 445 cars fit on the same circuit at the same time, you ask? Well, they don’t. The principle on which iRacing works is that of splitting the field into numerous simultaneous races, called… splits. In championships, points are handed out based on your finishing position and the average strength of the ones you race against in each split.
Somewhere in Finland, Juha-Pekka Lammi started his Saturday knowing that he would have his hands full during the weekend. Known to his followers as JP, he is a streamer of games on the extremely popular Twitch service, where anybody can show themselves playing video games and even make money out of it if they are good. It’s a prime example of modern-day entertainment.
JP started streaming as a hobby in 2012. “I first started by recording and editing videos for YouTube, but that started to take more and more time when the races got longer, and I was trying to find a shortcut for uploading videos to my channel,” he explains.
“After I noticed that my streams actually picked up some viewers, I started working a bit more on the streams.” Slowly but surely, he upgraded his hardware and software in order to make better quality videos available for his followers. Their numbers grew, so that at the time of the 24 Hours of Spa race, his channel was one of the most watched in the iRacing category.
While iRacing and simracing in general are still a very small niche when it comes to video games and streaming and thus can’t compare to the booming numbers that games like League of Legends, Counter-Strike Global Offensive or Hearthstone can come up with, the community that surrounds these kind of games is cosy and very fun. People tend to know each other because of the close circles formed around certain streamers and the chat is a natural and friendly place for discussion instead of a never-ending flow of memes and messages that you don’t have time to read.
When JP opened his stream before the race last Saturday, friends and followers, as well as curious new people, came to see him and his team race. Lammi drives for Vendaval Simracing, a team that entered two cars in the 24 Hours of Spa. In its #141 “Black” BMW Z4 GT3, he teamed-up with Tatsuro Hashimoto, Nils Sentkowski and Adrian Hettich and qualified 42nd out of the 56 cars in the top split – the best 56 teams based on their skill level, or “iRating”.
“I’ve been with Vendaval for a bit more than half a year now, and it’s great,” he says. “We have a very good spirit in the team and, even outside it, with other teams. We have a lot of highly talented racers, and some of them are actually driving in iRacing’s Blancpain GT Championship.”
The Blancpain GT Championship is just one of many series that one can race in with iRacing. It is considered the pinnacle of the fascinating well-oiled multiplayer system iRacing offers its users. The heart of the service is clean, fun and competitive racing, with users all-around the world taking part in the numerous series with different types of cars (road, oval and dirt, with rallycross coming soon). There are plenty of races for anyone anytime, and lots of other things to do like practice, be active in the community or design liveries.
While the 24 Hours of Spa was going on, the Blancpain GT Championship held its Spa race – a 6 hour endurance race with a final lap so intense that it could challenge any final lap in real racing. Frederik Rasmussen of CoRe SimRacing Orange managed to catch leader Mitchell deJong and pass the VRS Coanda Simsport #8 car at the end of the Kemmel Straight, into Les Combes. It highlighted the intensity that racing – even virtual racing – can bring on track perfectly. The Vendaval Simracing team finished 6th and is currently 11th in the championship, a highly respectable position.
iRacing is not just a game. With laser-scanned tracks and one of the most realistic simulation models out there, it advertises itself as a “service” and runs on a monthly subscription plan. It is not a cheap thrill, but the system works and lots of people enjoy the racing daily.
Among them are real life racing drivers – one of the names that was brought to my attention in the 24 Hours of Spa was that of Jose Maria Lopez (triple WTCC champion), while WEC champion Nicki Thiim (also part of Vendaval Simracing) makes YouTube videos often and is highly entertaining and insightful to watch. Some of them are practicing for actual races, while some are there just for the fun of it.
As for JP, he’s taking it easy and waiting for a call. “The only real life racing I’ve done so far is karting a couple of times. It would be interesting to go out on track to test out how the simracing actually translates into real life racing, but only if such an opportunity ever comes up. Normally I’m very careful in normal traffic.”
“What I gathered so far from the professional real life racers is that simracing can prepare them when it comes to racecraft and situational awareness. Possibly not so much when it comes to how the car handles, as we simracers are missing the sense of gravity of the real cars.”
He follows this with a very good point: “Also, in simracing you can practice a specific track as much as you want, while in real life you might just have a handful of hours to prepare for the big race. However, I can’t say if it’s a must for today’s real life drivers to prepare virtually for their races.”
Meanwhile, JP and his teammates had a lot of ups and downs in the 24 Hours of Spa race, as often is the case in endurance racing. Although they kept racing clean for the most part, a crash made a dent in their ambitions as they moved up the field, and unfortunate connection problems made it even worse.
By the time the race was over the next day, 24 laps down on the eventual winners – who won by a mere 5 seconds, it must be said – the team didn’t manage to see the chequered flag because of a late hardware issue, but still finished 29th. Some good laps ahead of them, the sister “Blue” car of Vendaval Simracing crossed the line in 5th place, just one lap behind the winners.
When the car driven by JP’s teammates lost control in the final five minutes of the race because of a hardware issue on Tatsuro’s computer, JP didn’t look too worried on stream. This was a surprise for me. After all, the team raced almost 24 hours and now can’t say they crossed the line. I know I would have been gutted in his place. “When I race for the team, I first and foremost do it so that I have fun,” he explains.
“Other things come after that. I don’t want it to start to feel like a part-time job. Of course, I am always testing my abilities when participating in professional simracing, but I have to keep my work, family and other free time in mind.” JP also streams with fun as his main target. „Even though I partnered with Twitch in December 2015, I still keep doing it as a hobby and don’t worry about the viewer count or anything else. I just want to have fun with the viewers.”
So where does he feel simracing is heading to? “I think virtual racing is going to be something much bigger in the future,” JP says, pointing out that Formula E had a one million dollar event in Las Vegas held back in January. “One day I hope to see simracing as popular as the other esport genres out there, as I think simracing as a genre would be much easier to understand and enjoy as a viewer. We shall see what the future brings.”
While still growing and evolving, simracing is definitely very interesting and catchy for the average petrolhead. It has its positives – try splashing out the money for racing weekly in real life – as well as downsides, but plug in a racing wheel, some pedals and a new Virtual Reality (VR) Headset and you’re as close to the real thing as possible at the moment. All within the comfort of your home.
Just be sure to take breaks and follow what’s happening in real life too. There’s a 24 hour race this weekend after all.