What makes Virtual Le Mans special?

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We had a chat with reigning Le Mans 24 Virtual winner Raffaele Marciello about what makes the Le Mans Virtual Series so special.
Image credit: Williams Esports

In early 2020 when the motor racing world, along with the rest of the world, came to a grinding halt, the virtual racing scene provided us solace. We had the F1 Virtual Grand Prix races, the IndyCar iRacing Challenge, and the All-Star Series among others. But, perhaps the peak of it all was the Le Mans 24 Virtual.

Approaching the end of the motorsport hiatus, 200 drivers from both the real and virtual worlds of racing got together online during the day that the real 24 hours of Le Mans was originally meant to take place. It was truly the equivalent of a Band-Aid gathering but for racing, a greatest hits of motorsport.



The huge success of the event naturally led to a fully fledged championship forming, the Le Mans Virtual Series. The championship features a $250,000 prize pool of which half is designated for the final championship standings and the other for the finishing order of the grand finale.

The series began in September at Monza and has since raced at Spa-Francorchamps, Sebring and even the Nordschleife! Yes, in LMP2 and GTE cars. The season will end this weekend 15-16 January with the second edition of the Le Mans 24 Virtual, in which two real world racers and two esports racers will partner up to form a team.



Setting it apart



Ever since a lot of real world professionals have been getting more and more into sim racing, one thing has been very clear. Just because you're fast in the real world doesn't automatically make you fast on a sim, and more often than not they're outclassed on the simulator by their gamer counterparts.

In the Le Mans Virtual Series, every entry is mandated to field one driver (two for the finale) who has a real world racing licence. We've seen a lot of real world drivers taking to sims, especially over the past two years with some adapting better to racing virtually than others. But in the Le Mans Virtual Series, they play a much more major role.



The LMVS' driver categorisation flips the concept of Pro and Am drivers in real world endurance racing, since in series like the World Endurance Championship and other sportscar and GT championships all around the world, many categories must have a designated 'amateur' driver who doesn't race as a profession. A lot of these people are what is known as Gentlemen Drivers, basically rich folk who take their immense wealth and play about in a racecar alongside actual professionals.

In the real world, all these professional racers who are paired up with these amateur drivers have to assist them with getting quicker because more often than not, a Pro-Am team are only ever going to be as good as their amateur driver since the gaps between the pro racers will generally be negligible. That's the genius of the LMVS; the drivers who would serve the role of a pro in the real world are made essentially the amateur in the virtual world.

With the real world pros being designated in the LMVS as Racers, their two esports teammates are the ones having to help them get better. It's a real flipping of the dynamic, and makes the series very interesting.



First hand experience



To talk about the brilliance of the Le Mans Virtual Series, we got to talk to one of the four drivers who won the first running of the Le Mans 24 Virtual. That driver being Raffaele Marciello.

The Italian-Swiss racer, along with current European Le Mans Series LMP2 champion Louis Delétraz and Polish Williams Esports racers Nikodem Wisniewski and Jakub Brzezinski, took overall victory in the inaugural event back in June 2020. The four are registered to compete in the #1 Rebellion-Williams, and Marciello competed in the rather short-lived Nordschleife 8 hours event.



Marciello burst onto everyone's radar in the motorsport scene when he dominated the FIA F3 European Championship in 2013 (the series where F1 world champion Max Verstappen spent his solitary season in junior formulae the following year). He was also part of the Ferrari Driver Academy and spent three years in GP2, picking up one win in his first season and finishing fourth overall in his last.

He never got the opportunity to move up to Formula One and switched over to GT racing, and in his second year he got very close to achieving a remarkable treble. He won the Blancpain GT Series Sprint Cup, and was perilously close to winning both the Endurance Cup and the Intercontinental GT Challenge as well. As far as esports goes, 'Lello' does compete in them occasionally, having most recently raced in the VCO ProSIM Series.

Ever the gentlemen, Marciello was kind enough to answer some questions we had about the Le Mans Virtual Series.

OverTake: Before early 2020, what was your involvement with sim racing?

Raffaele Marciello:

I've always been a nerd, playing the original Gran Turismo when I was 4 or 5, and I like technology, I was always the guy to build his own computer. With my friends, we would typically play the likes of FIFA, Call of Duty, Gran Turismo and Forza on my PlayStation.

So when I heard that sim racing was becoming big, it was nothing new since I always played these driving games. I played iRacing back in 2009, the first rFactor as well without mods. I know the world and was quite into it, problem now is I don't have so much time to train, you see all these esports drivers who are able to practice all hours of the day and are fully committed to getting to a high level.

Because I don't have much time, I don't like to be in the professional stuff because then I'm not competitive - and when I'm not quick, I'm not confident - but when I had the chance to team up with Louis Delétraz to do Le Mans I immediately said yes and they gave me time to train. I spent two weeks preparing, eight hours everyday in the simulator at home.


OverTake: When you competed in and won the first Le Mans 24 Virtual, did you expect it to be the precursor to the Le Mans Virtual Series?

Raffaele Marciello:

I knew something big was coming because it was almost like the World Endurance Championship when it came to the drivers on the entry list. When they asked me if I wanted to do the Le Mans 24 hours, they did ask us if we would want to turn it into a fully fledged championship.




OverTake: The relationship between real driver’s real racing efforts and virtual racing commitments has become more apparent in the last year, how do you go about balancing it?

Raffaele Marciello:

I am lucky to spend a lot of days on a real track, 28 race weekends per year, so I'm always at a racetrack, always driving. But let's say you take a Formula 2 driver, they only do seven race weekends (in 2021), so they have to focus a lot on simulators or maybe physical preperation unless they can't drive the real car.

In a simulator it's for sure easier, because a sim driver can just boot up their computer and drive just as many hours. You can see in the results in a qualifying session, everyone is really really close because they always spend so much time. In real racing, when closed tests are forbidden, the talented drivers or the ones who can adapt quickly, that's the difference.


OverTake: What do you make of the concept of real-world pros being mandated for every entry and playing the same sort of role that Am drivers serve in the real racing?

Raffaele Marciello:

For me, it can be fair but what is not fair to me is that now in many of these championships like LMVS and VCO ProSIM, you see many sim drivers labelled as real drivers. This for me is not fair, because there are drivers that are more known for their sim racing, maybe do one or two real races per year, so they categorise them as a real driver.

There are many drivers out there more known for sim racing but have that undeniable advantage over the proper real world racers and as a result, they're in front. They do need to draw up a much more strict set of rules as to what constitutes a real world driver because we can never keep up. We don't have so much time to train and drive on a simulator compared to them, so when a real world professional driver goes back into a simulator, they're disadvantaged.


OverTake: How much do you believe you have benefitted from working with professional esports drivers like Kuba and Nikodem?

Raffaele Marciello:

For sure during preparation for Le Mans, it was quite helpful. They know some tricks with the software, even the feeling within the pedal, the right settings and setups for the car. They're able to provide me a reference, to know what the car within the software can do, then you just copy what they're doing and you're there.




The second rendition of the Le Mans 24 Virtual takes place this weekend 15-16 January, initially set to take place on-site at the Autosport International show but with that being delayed, it will revert to being an online event like all four of the previous rounds.

Marciello may be unable to attempt a defence of his overall win as the Dubai 24 hours is happening on the same weekend. Nevertheless, there will be plenty of pro drivers entering from the over 50 entries and it's most certainly worth tuning in for. You can watch the stream here which begins at 1:30pm CET on Saturday.



What makes the 24 hours of Le Mans Virtual special to you? Tell us on Twitter at @OverTake_gg or in the comments down below!
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