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‘It felt like real life': Exploring the surreal sides of simulated Sebring

IMSA Sebring online

In these bizarre, disorienting and unsettling times, winning Saturday at Sebring International Raceway wasn’t much different for Bruno Spengler.

He was as nervous as he often gets prerace. He began sweating profusely during qualifying and throughout the race. And he had goosebumps and was screaming on the radio as he took the checkered flag.

“I was very happy,” Spengler said after winning “SuperSaturday” at Sebring. “It felt like real life.”

Except it wasn’t.

The presence of his wife, Julie, and his French bulldog, Nala, inside the simulator training room at their house in France confirmed that fact.

“I had my dog and my wife sitting next to me watching the whole race,” he said. “So that was very different. Normally they’re watching from home far away! So yeah, what a great day.”

It was especially good for BMW Motorsports, which was at the vanguard of a new (but hopefully temporary in some ways) era for auto racing.

The German automaker earned a sweep of the podium in the 90-minute race at Sebring, one of many online races with real-world driving stars since the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic effectively shut down auto racing 10 days ago.

NASCAR will hold its own iRacing showcase at 1:30 p.m. ET today, pitting several Cup stars (Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott and late addition Jimmie Johnson) in a 100-lap race at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

That event will feature fixed setups, meaning drivers can’t adjust their cars. The IMSA race allowed open setups and a choice between four cars.

The 50-car field hastily was organized last week by IMSA in partnership with iRacing, and aside from a few last-minute driver changes and connection problems (Colton Herta had been expected to race here and in other series but didn’t make any event Saturday), it went off without a hitch.

Nicky Catsburg, whose No. 26 BMW M8 GTE finished second to Spengler’s No. 25, received a message from Jens Marquardt, the director of BMW Motorsports.

“He was also watching, Catsburg said. “It shows the importance of this event. Sim racing is obviously something that’s helping us get through these tough times.

“Hopefully, some of the fans who would have gone to the race have now watched us race, and I hope they enjoy it as much as I did.”

The hope is that IMSA will return to Sebring in the real world at the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring, which was rescheduled to a Nov. 11-14, 2020 season finale.

But in the meantime, virtual racing is what the sports car series has, and BMW drivers might have an edge because the manufacturer has spent so much money and time on getting its drivers into simulators the past few years.

DTM Hockenheimring - Qualifying & Race

NUREMBERG, GERMANY - JULY 05: Bruno Spengler (BMW Team RMG / BMW M4 DTM, #7) celebrates during the DTM Hockenheimring - Qualifying & Race at Norisring on July 6, 2019 in Nuremberg, Germany. (Photo by TF-Images/Getty Images)

Getty Images

Spengler, Catsburg and third-place finisher Jesse Krohn had practiced and worked with BMW engineers and full-time simulation drivers to prepare for Sebring the past two days.

“It has been a topic for quite a while, more than a year at least,” Catsburg said of online racing. “I remember having a meeting about it them asking us and encouraging us to do more sim racing. We really have upped our game. And I think it’s only going to get more and more.

“We also need the practice. There are some pros in the sim racing world that are so unbelievably quick that we definitely need a lot of practice, and we need to have a serious approach. Because if you look at what they do, it’s almost like what we do in reality in terms of creating a setup, analyzing data, trying to see what the competitors are doing, looking at fuel usage. It’s really professional.”

Though Spengler (France), Catsburg (Belgium) and Krohn (Finland) all hail from Europe (and all raced from home Saturday in their native countries), the preferred platform for online racing is the U.S.-based iRacing.

“I have to say definitely iRacing is the one you want to be in because It’s very close to reality,” said Spengler, a former DTM champion who was entering his first full GTLM season in IMSA with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. “It’s a lot of fun to drive. It’s very difficult to drive consistent. So I think that’s the platform that helps you the most as a racing driver.

“What’s nice in sim racing is that it’s one of the only places you can drive and test as much as you want. In real life testing is getting more and more limited. Here you can test and work on the car, which is fun.”

Said Krohn, who is in his third full IMSA season: ”Everyone can go have as much (simulation) as they want. They can really fine-tune the driving and get the best out of themselves and the car. iRacing is really the platform that I like to use that I find the most realistic; as they laser-scan the tracks, and they really do a great job with the cars as well. The M8 is pretty much the same thing as what we have in real life.”

Catsburg was able to improve his lap times in practice by using real-world techniques, including a system called Motec.

“We do the same data overlays in reality, and I’m seeing where (Spengler is) faster than me,” Catsburg said. “Where I have to try to improve, which is exactly the same as in reality. We know that sim racers, they spend so much time working on setups. We have to do that.”

Saturday’s IMSA field featured only real-world drivers and no professional gamers, who likely would have dominated if in the race. In “The Race All-Star Battle Round 2,” which matched Formula One, IndyCar and Formula E drivers against sim drivers, the highest-finishing real-world driver Saturday was Felix Rosenqvist in fifth.

“We didn’t have any of the usual suspects that mostly win the races on simulators,” Catsburg said with a chuckle. “If we had them there, Bruno and me wouldn’t have been P1 and P2, and Jesse wouldn’t be P3.”

2016 FIA WTCC Race of Russia

MOSCOW REGION, RUSSIA - JUNE 12, 2016: The Winner Lada Sport Rosneft driver Nick Catsburg celebrates at the podium ceremony for Race 2 (Main Race) of the 2016 FIA WTCC Rosneft Race of Russia at Moscow Raceway. Mikhail Japaridze/TASS (Photo by Mikhail JaparidzeTASS via Getty Images)

TASS via Getty Images

But that still didn’t diminish the joy of feeling somewhat connected to racing a car again.

Using a full-immersion virtual reality setup with wraparound goggles, Krohn, 29, said it “really feels like I’m sitting in the car. Some people say it’s a disadvantage because of the refresh rate of the screen. But I feel it’s more beneficial that I can look around the corner, and feel more like I’m in the car, and this helps me concentrate. This way it feels more real than it would I just had three screens and I could see my living room around me and other distractions.”

Said Catsburg, 32: “I would have obviously loved to do the real event, and nothing beats the real thing. But in terms of realism, a big thing you miss is the feel and there’s a little bit of fear obviously always in reality as well, which you don’t have (in simulation). But all those other things, it’s so unbelievably close to reality.”

There is one thing that Spengler, 36, missed,

“The contact with the people and the atmosphere of a race weekend,” he said. “I miss the people just being there, cheering. They are doing the show; the people who come to watch us at the race, come on the starting grid, be in the paddock, the whole atmosphere. This is what I miss a lot.

“This is what we don’t have in sim racing. Although we had a lot of people watching us, which is great.”