Racing Roundup: Simulators harder to drive than real race cars, Norris kicks IndyCar butt

Montoya ‘races’ sprint cars and Penske financial empire threatened, and more...

By Norris McDonald Wheels.ca

Apr 27, 2020 10 min. read

Article was updated 3 years ago

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This weekend, Formula E became the latest racing series to go virtual when it held the first of its eight-round Race at Home Challenge in support of UNICEF.

BMW Andretti Motorsport’s Maximilian Guenther won the race Saturday in “Hong Kong,” with Envision Virgin Racing's Nick Cassidy second and Pascal Werhlein of Mahindra Racing third.

Now, gaming technology, which lends itself to auto racing better than any other sport, allows everyone involved in Formula Electric – teams, manufacturers, sponsors, drivers and fans – to take part in the live online races while raising funds for UNICEF, which will keep children around the world safe, healthy and attending school online during the coronavirus crisis.

And that technology has also allowed the electric racing series to introduce a Pro-Am element to the promotion. Each race will have two separate grids, one made up of professional race drivers from the Formula E Championship and the other one filled by some of the fastest gamers in the world. The carrot-on-the-stick for the gamer champion will be a drive on a race weekend in a real Formula E car, once racing gets going again.

To keep this series as even as possible, drivers and gamers are competing using rFactor 2 software. The pro drivers all got simulators provided by Playseat, steering wheels and pedals from Fanatec and the latest gaming PCs, monitors, headphones and other peripherals by Asus.

The usual race points system is in play but additional points are being awarded for pole position and fastest lap. Double points will also be on offer at the final race on June 13.

Now leading the championship, as the result of his win on Saturday, Guenther punched the air as he got the checkered flag. "It wasn't an easy race," said the German driver moments after the event. "Even though it's not the real world, we're all competitive and we want to be at the front."

Joshua Rogers, an Australian who earned $43,000 U.S. in 2019 competing in six gaming tournaments, won the Challenge Grid race.

You can watch the Race at Home Challenge every Saturday morning at 10:30 a.m. EDT on www.FIAFormulaE.com. Play-by-play announcer Jack Nicholls will call the action, Nicki Shields will be in the pits and Dario Franchitti will do the colour and provide some analysis.

Now, as luck would have it, I did an interview last Thursday morning with Nissan drivers Sebastien Buemi and Oliver Rowland. Nissan is in the series to promote its Leaf electric car and its Nissan Intelligent Mobility, which is integrated technology designed to increase safety, comfort and control while driving.

And I say “as luck would have it” because I really didn’t know all that much about virtual racing, or this particular series, and those two drivers were only too happy to fill me – and a few other reporters – in.

Buemi, of course, is a name most race fans would recognize. He is a former Formula One driver (Scuderia Toro Rosso – and he once did a commercial for the sponsoring energy drink Red Bull by driving his F1 car across a frozen lake in northern Quebec) who won the Formula E championship in 2015-16 (Formula Electric starts its season in the late fall and finishes in the spring) and holds most of the records in that series – poles, fastest laps and so-on. He was driving when Nissan won its first race in the series, last year in New York. Rowland was Rookie-of-the-Year last season.

One of the surprising things they both said was that it’s harder to drive a simulator than a real race car. For instance, Rowland said that he’s new to this and, “Instead of cues, like what you can feel and what you can see, all you’ve got is a screen. You have a feeling that you’re driving a very good lap and then you find that you’re not. Some of the more experienced guys (driving simulators) have a bit of a head start.”

Added Buemi, “You don’t get the same feedback; it’s not the same. Simulators have improved massively over the years but they are still not the same as the real car.”

Buemi said he’s tried to make the best out of being quarantined. “I exercise in the mornings and afternoons but I am enjoying spending time with my family, which I can’t do because I’m away a lot. My children are 4 and 2 so it’s nice to be with them.”

Returning to the Race at Home Challenge, he said: “It’s not like real racing but it’s better than nothing. Everybody is stuck at home, so clearly you have something to watch and I’m very happy that Formula E has launched this.”

Rowland had one suggestion. “You practice all week and then qualifying is one lap, which is kind of nerve-wracking because you don’t want to make a mistake. Instead of practicing for five days, I think it would be better if they didn’t give us the circuit until Saturday morning. Then we could practice for an hour and then qualify.”

For the record: Rowland finished sixth, and in the points at Hong Kong. Buemi didn’t have a good day and finished 18th.

Formula E donated 10,000 pounds sterling ($17,400 Canadian) to UNICEF and will do so at the conclusion of every race up to a total of 100,000 pounds ($174,000). Fans are encouraged to donate by clicking on the prompts at the official Formula E YouTube channel, Facebook page and Facebook Gaming site, Twitch channel and via @FIAFormulaE on Twitter.

Penske Corp


There’s no real reason for the photo that holds up this column, except to illustrate how much safer racing is today than it was in the Sixties. Here, John Surtees blasts his Ferrari past photographers who are trackside at the Eau Rouge turn at Spa Francorchamps during the Belgian Grand Prix. Crazy.

AlphaTauri F1 team boss Franz Tost says that every missed Grand Prix costs his team upwards of 2 million euros. If F1 is going again by July, “we will escape with just a black eye,” he said. “After that, it will become very, very serious.”

Meantime, the race track at Imola in Italy says it is spiffed up and ready to go, if F1 should want to stage a race or two there.

And F1 now says it hopes to start racing in July in Austria, without fans. We’ll see.

One of my good email friends thinks a virtual IndyCar race at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park would be a winner. I’d watch. Would you?

Forget virtual races. My pal, Bob Winegar, who was a hobby driver back in the late-‘50s, early ‘60s at the CNE Stadium quarter-mile speedway, thinks there is little chance of real racing at any time this year but says if there’s an opportunity for just one race, forget the Indy 500 or the Coca-Cola 600 and run one, fantastic, run-whatcha-brung feature.

Writes Bob:

“I'm sure that NASCAR and IndyCar teams could organize themselves with masks andgloves in order to compete, while at the same time passing scrutiny of Dr. Anthony Fauci and fellow COVID pandemic experts.

“Scrutiny, mind you, that would be under the steely gaze of Roger Penske.

“Hell, pit personnel already provide fuel and perform tire changing duties with that apparel (and more) already.

“Forget about the crowds – that’s so Old School. Live TV would provide sufficient remuneration.

“Then throw 'em all on the track at the same time, three races of 75 laps, any driver of either class who wins all three gets a $10-million bonus.

“CNE promoter Ernie Lieberman used to do that in the Feature when curfew loomed, and especially when it was raining.

" ‘Guess what mom? I beat Jack Greedy tonight!’ “ a first heat Hobby racer was heard to say after one of Lieberman's hurry-up finales.

“If either group are squeamish about racing 40 NASCAR stockers and 25 IndyCars at the same time at Indy, Daytona, Talladega or Michigan, I could corral any number of GTA drivers who happily blast 401 on a daily basis in little black Hondas with loud mufflers, hammering from the first to the third lane and back, maniacs nose-to-tail at 140 plus, who would think roundy-round was a walk in the park!

“Please let me know If you think Roger might consider my learned proposition.”

Okay, Bob. I’ll tell him and get back to you.

F1 driver Lando Norris won the virtual IndyCar race Saturday at Circuit of the Americas. Pato O’Ward was second and Felix Rosenqvist finished third. Canadians: Dalton Kellett, 18th; James Hinchcliffe, 19th; Robert Wickens, 32nd.

I don’t like IndyCar inviting “outsiders” to race. Okay, so the races aren’t real – but that doesn’t matter. Norris arrives, wins the pole, wins the race and what kind of message does that send? It says that IndyCar drivers are second-rate, that’s what.

I mean, he even pulled a Danny Sullivan and recovered from a spin to win.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. shows up two weeks ago and finishes third. That made me cringe – particularly when the IndyCar chattering class got all excited at the prospect of Earnhardt and Jimmie Johnson coming to IndyCar to race for real. Ugh.

I can remember NASCAR fans getting pissed off back in the day when Indy car drivers would say things like, “When I retire from Indy cars, I might go and run NASCAR.” Those fans were properly insulted at the suggestion that it was somehow easier to race in NASCAR.

Well, guess what? The tables have turned. Now it’s the NASCAR guys who are saying, “When I finish running NASCAR, I think I’ll go IndyCar racing.” And instead of getting insulted, like the NASCAR fans, the IndyCar fans say, “Come on down.”

If IndyCar wants to say its drivers are the best, then stop inviting guests to come in and kick their butts. Like Lando Norris.

Meantime, I like his name. I like hearing Leigh Diffey, Paul Tracy and Townsend Bell say, “Norris this,” and “Norris that.” When he starts winning in F1, I plan to save the headline that says: “Norris wins Monaco.”

I think it’s time to disqualify Hendrick Motorsports drivers from racing in virtual NASCAR races. Alex Bowman won Sunday’s “race” at Talladega, with Corey LaJoie second and Ryan Preece third. His Hendrick stablemate, William Byron, won the previous two races.

There was a real race this weekend at the speedway in Sioux City, South Dakota. No fans in the stands but a healthy pay-per-vew audience watched 32 cars and drivers sign in (the limit allowed) to compete at Jefferson International Speedway.

National Speed Sport News (.com) reported that the scene was surreal, with everyone wearing masks and adhering to social distance rules.

The feature was won by Brock Zearfoss of Jonestown, Penn., with Australian Kerry Madsen second and Austin McCarl of Altoona, Iowa, third.

The World of Outlaws Sprint Car Series has a new fan – and virtual participant. Juan Pablo Montoya who’s won the Indianapolis 500 twice, three NASCAR Cup races, seven Formula One races and was the 2019 IMSA SportsCar Champion, has been racing sprint carts on dirt with the Outlaws online. And he’s loving it.

He was invited to run in a “race” at Knoxville earlier this season and finished 17th after crashing. Since then, he failed to make the feature at Lernerville, qualified through the last-chance race at Williams Grove and ran the virtual race Sunday night at Eldora Speedway in Ohio, which is owned by Tony Stewart. He finished 18th.

Here’s a prediction. Montoya says his wife wouldn’t let him drive a sprinter in a real race but that he’d love to test one. I bet Stewart will offer him the opportunity to do that test when the Outlaws race at Eldora for real and then, ta-da, will convince him to enter a race, “just once.” And Tony, of course, would run a sprinter too, in the same race.

What a crowd that would attract! Tony Stewart, Juan Montoya and the World of Outlaws!! Call Roger Slack. Tell him I’m coming.

This is not good news. Forbes reports that shares of Penske Corp. stock have dropped 40 per cent since the coronavirus crisis hit. Roger Penske’s personal net worth has fallen by $400 million, which is 25 per of his net worth.

Penske Automotive, which normally employs about 25,000, has seen between 16,000 and 17,000 employees either laid off or furloughed, the Indianapolis Star is reporting. Ditto people employed by the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and IndyCar, whose PR staff is down to just one person.

Penske is not taking his salary and Penske Corp.’s board of directors has waived its cash compensation for six months. And the start of the IndyCar season has been delayed until June, primarily for health reasons but also because IndyCar needs bums in seats and the money from admissions in order for their promoters to turn a buck.

NASCAR, of course, is a private family business. They are talking about racing without fans at Charlotte on the U.S. Memorial Day weekend. Maybe their war chest, plus the track’s owner, Bruton Smith, can handle that. At the moment, though, they’re just talking about it.

Talking and doing are two different things.

By Norris McDonald Special to wheels.ca




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