This afternoon Lando Norris will strap himself in for one of the toughest races of his life. The McLaren Formula One driver has tackled the streets of Monaco, sped through the night on the banks of Daytona and mastered some of the most complex tracks in Europe. He is also not unfamiliar with the concept of a 24 hour race – but not one like this.
The 20-year-old has experience of racing through the night both on the track and off it. At the start of 2018, before he’d stepped into the world of F1, Norris partnered McLaren’s then-senior driver Fernando Alonso and World Endurance Championship regular Peter Hanson in the Daytona 24 Hours, battling their way to a disappointing 38th-place finish after a series of problems.
His second chance came alongside Max Verstappen, his F1 Red Bull opponent, in the Spa 24 Hours in July last year, where the result was a significant improvement as they joined a Team Redline and Pure Racing Team collaboration with Max Benecke and Max Wenig to take first place.
The second of those was a virtual event completed from the comfort of their own houses, which is exactly what Norris and Verstappen will be doing this weekend as they take on the 24 Hours of Le Mans Virtual. It will be Norris’s first competitive race at the famous French track – real or simulation – but this time around it will be a race like no other.
For starters, the Automobile Club de l’Ouest (ACO), organisers of arguably the most famous race in the world, have organised the event alongside the WEC and Motorsport Games. This has triggered unprecedented interest in the race, with Toyota, Aston Martin, Ferrari, Porsche and Corvette all committing factory-run teams, while other familiar names includes Rebellion, Jota Sport and Team Penske.
That in turn has produced an all-star line-up, with dozens of Le Mans regulars reinforced by the biggest names in the business: the F1 drivers in Norris and Verstappen, as well as Charles Leclerc, Antonio Giovinazzi and Pierre Gasly. Former world champions Alonso and Jenson Button, as well as Felipe Massa, Rubens Barrichello and Stoffel Vandoorne, will also compete in teams of four that are complemented by two pro simulator drivers.
“Team Redline always ask if I want to be involved in the races and obviously it’s a big race, it’s a good opportunity for me and for them as well to do well,” says Norris, from the comfort of the race chair in his home that has been watched by millions during this coronavirus-enforced shutdown of sport.
“It got announced that it was going to happen and that it was a big one, and they’ve done it over the last few years with Redline, and Max did it last year with the team. But this year it’s been a lot more professional in terms of being sanctioned by the ACO, and the teams that properly take part in Le Mans are getting involved.
“This is the first year that it’s been done on a much more professional and higher level. I just got asked if I wanted to do it with them and do it with Max, as me and Max have done a few races before like the Spa 24 Hours.”
Sim racing has been the shining light in dark times for motorsport fans, and Norris and Verstappen have been among those who have been champions of the virtual world, helping to give petrol heads their fix at a time when motorsport’s hiatus is stretching into its fourth month.
“I kind of knew Max from karting and there’s the infamous picture of us shaking hands back in 2013, I think it was,” Norris says of his virtual teammate. “So, I kind of knew him from back then and we’ve spoken every now and then. He obviously took the step up to Formula One pretty quickly.
“But as soon as I joined Team Redline, a team he was part of a bit before me, we’re in WhatsApp groups, Facebook groups, we speak all the time. So I guess that’s really a bigger benefit – you’re having laughs, making jokes in these group chats, and that really allows you to be closer in terms of knowing each other and having a laugh.
“I think over the years it’s definitely improved our relationship in terms of being good mates and having good times together. Obviously without it, if I never joined Redline and never did sim racing we definitely would not be as good mates as we are right now.”
Norris has been part of the F1 Virtual Grand Prix Series that has attracted nearly 30 million viewers since the sport was put on hold in March, and while Verstappen has stayed away from the series, his presence on similar platforms using rFactor and iRacing has had a similar impact.
The final Virtual GP event takes place this Sunday, ending what has been a creative triumph for the sport. However, the big question is how does the eSports market capitalise on this unprecedented interest when sport resumes?
Norris ponders the question. “I don’t know, it seems difficult to say now, but I don’t think it will die back down completely.
“I think it’s going to be big and there’s going to be big competitions coming up in the future. It’s been the best time for it, and eSports has benefited a lot from the period over the last few months, but it is also going to get killed in a little bit of a way over the next two or three months because of everyone starting to race again and calendars being compressed into half a year or so.”
The exposure of races like this weekend’s Le Mans will do wonders for the simulation pros. World class eSports drivers Atze Kerkoff and Greger Huttu will receive a following like never before thanks to fans wanting to know how Norris and Verstappen are getting on, while F1 took the decision to place their annual pro-exhibition race as a main support for the Virtual GP series. With moves like this, it’s hoped, the interest will remain long after the star names have moved on.
“It’s much bigger now than what it was,” adds Norris. “I think it would have taken a long period of time, maybe a year or two, if we didn’t have what has gone on over the past few months, because everything’s been very focused on sim racing and very condensed to sim racing. If we continued down an F1 calendar this year and everything was normal, it would have taken a couple of years to get anything near the publicity it’s getting now and the audience it’s getting now.
“It’s been a massively beneficial time and they’ve taken advantage of the current situation we’re in, so it’s how they continue that and maintain that which is key.”