Most of my professional life revolves around test driving cars or being in an office writing stories. And while gaming has been part of my youth, it’s not something that I’ve spent my time on recently. So earlier this year, I wrote a couple of stories on the BMW SIM Live Racing, but without fully understanding or appreciating the virtual world of racing.
With that in mind, I wanted to further explore this world, so I headed to Munich for a fun day with BMW Motorsport. In the heart of Munich, at the BMW Welt, the Motorsport and Marketing teams at BMW had prepared a special event for ten of the best sim racers in the world.
To make it even more interesting, they allowed media representatives and fans to showcase their talents and compete for a spot in the final round. A beautiful setup greeted us: ten high-tech racing stations placed carefully around a center stage. On that stage, a car was still under wraps, while a large screen behind it would livestream the race. Just like it would in real life racing.
Furthermore, two radio hosts were broadcasting the race from a booth placed high-up, providing colorful commentary and showing excitement around the virtual events taking place.
The format of the SIM racing event was quite simple. The first round would see media representatives compete for a spot in the next round where they would get to meet a team of SIM racing fans. The second round would advance the winner to the next stage with ten of the best SIM racers in the world.
But before the event kicked off, BMW Motorsport boss Jens Marquardt had a surprise for us. The world premiere of the all-new BMW M2 CS Racing. The new racing car – which goes on sale in 2020 – was previously shown through some digital materials, so it was a treat to see it in person.
In a conversation with BMW executives, we learned that this SIM Live event is just the beginning of a long journey. Rudolf Dittrich, Head of Vehicle Development BMW Motorsport, and Stefan Ponikva, Vice President BMW Brand Experience, said that future events will get bigger stages and even more involvements from the SIM racing community.
Furthermore, BMW will expand their collaboration with gaming companies to deliver some of the most accurate and high-fidelity racing games. The event in Munich was put together in collaboration with iRacing, rFactor2 and Fanatec, who provided the logistics, hardware and expertise.
I also learned that compared to e-sports championships like Counter Strike or League of Legends, SIM Racing is still fairly small. The prizes are not as big, but it has a devoted community behind it. In the end, who wouldn’t love to race cars in a virtual professional setup?
During the event, I had the chance to chat with a few of the PRO SIM racers and it’s when I learned about some of their goals. While money prizes are always welcome, and in the e-sports world they can be quite substantial, the main motivation for many of these e-racers is the opportunity to maybe one day compete in the real world of racing.
Just a quick glance of the crowd and you can see how serious these e-racers are. There are teams wearing identical t-shirts with logos plastered all over. They wear either driving shoes or no shoes at all while competing, and they have real racing gloves. They take their job seriously and even practice on an off-stage racing simulator.
The first e-race of the day finds me in a BMW M2 ready to go around the short loop of Nurburgring. My butt is in a Fanatec racing seat with an original Sparco seat, and a racing steering wheel. Each competitor gets a coach from the BMW Works pool of drivers.
The one responsible to guide me through the track is none other than former F1-driver Timo Glock. He’s got a tough job ahead of him since this was my first time in this racing simulator. But how tough can this be? My confidence is at an all-time high, considering that I’ve done plenty of real track days without disappointing anyone.
And disappointed Glock was. After my first few laps, it was clear that it takes a lot of practice and skills to drive fast in a racing simulator. There is no feedback from the wheels or steering, so every input has to be extremely smooth. Braking is significantly different than in real life. There is not much travel in the pedal, so the force applied has to be smooth and linear.
Now it made sense why most of the e-sim racers took off their shoes to get a better feel of the pedals. It also takes a bit of time to get used to the curved LCD screen and basically allow your eyes to guide the driving. Looking into the next corner is a bit different than in real life.
My qualifying lap is a disaster. I placed 7 out of 10. But my first lap was even worse. A couple of bumps into the sidewall has almost threw me out of the race, despite Glock’s persistence that I can do this. My e-driving gets better as the race progresses, the colorful commentary from the booth puts a smile on my face, and I start to pick-up some speed.
By now I have a better feel of the controls, yet I’m still not smooth enough to sustain constant high-speeds. So despite my best efforts, I finished how I started 7 out of 10.
And it looked so easy from the sidelines…
The winner from my group now gets to race in the next fans’ round where the stakes are even higher and the quality of driving even better. At the top of pack await the BMW factory drivers.
Naturally, the fans’ competition was even more exciting. They were properly prepared for the SIM race, knew how to change the car setups and were extremely fast on the track. It was actually mind-blowing seeing the race on the big screen, and at times, it looked just as real as normal racing.
Now it was time to turn to the e-sim PROs. There were ten racers coming from all parts of the world, including one from California who took the big prize home. Mitchell deJong (USA) of VRS Coanda Simsport raced in the BMW M8 GTE on the legendary Daytona Speedway and snagged the top spot after a photo finish. deJong is quite an experienced e-sim racer. He trains 4 hours a day on average, while spending many more hours reading through the data and adjusting the car’s settings.
deJong also showed me how you can adjust the tire pressure, braking distribution, suspensions setup and much more. He also pulled a stunning move before the last corner on Daytona. He was leading the race, slowed down, dropped second in order to take advantage of the slipstreaming aerodynamic technique. A move that netted him 10,000 euros. You can see the finish here.
He was followed by Laurin Heinrich (GER, Williams eSports) and Maximilian Benecke (GER, Pure Racing Team) in second and third who received cheques over 5,000 and 2,500 Euros respectively. Michi Hoyer from Germany triumphed in the fan competition and still took home 5,000 euros.
In the last event of the day, BMW Works drivers competed against each other. Philipp Eng, Marco Wittmann, Timo Glock, Martin Tomczyk, Maximilian Günther, Jesse Krohn, Augusto Farfus, Alexander Sims and Beitske Visser were joined by BMW Motorrad Motorsport works rider Tom Sykes.
Out of the pack, Eng was the most experienced e-sim driver since he has a similar setup in his home. His teammates felt that he’s going to be the winner. But after an exciting race, with plenty of crashes and bumps, it the end, Krohn finished first. Speaking of the racing simulator, according to rFactor 2 and Fanatac, a setup similar to the one I raced in costs around 5,000 euros. It can go a bit higher if you opt for a 4K display and multiple steering wheels.
Over a desert and Weissbier, I questioned several BMW Factory drivers whether the e-sim PROs could actually be faster than them on this simulator. The unanimous answer was YES! Wittmann told me that this particular setup is quite different than what they’re used to.
Which brings me to the earlier part of the day. Prior to the event at BMW Welt, I took a tour of the BMW Motorsport facility in Munich. First stop was the simulator room where a multi-million dollar rig was setup to simulate nearly identical racing conditions. Rudolf Dittrich, Head of Vehicle Development BMW Motorsport, said that the idea of this proprietary and custom-built simulator is to immerse yourself in the actual racing environment.
Dittrich and Ponikva also told us that future events will see a bigger stage, with a lot more PRO SIM racers from around the world and bigger venues.
In the event that I do get invited back – slim chances – I’m gonna start practicing my left-foot braking and get a proper pair of socks.
Here is the full e-SIM PRO race: