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


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.

Bruno Spengler celebrates after a DTM in Nuremberg, Germany, last July. (TF-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.”

Nick Catsburg celebrates after a WTCC win at Moscow Raceway (Mikhail JaparidzeTASS 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.”

Ford Mustang GT3 test has Austin Cindric dreaming of Daytona: ‘I want to drive that car’

Cindric Ford GT3 test
Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

Austin Cindric wasn’t the “mystery” test driver behind the wheel of the new Ford Mustang GT3 at Sebring International Raceway, but the Team Penske driver desperately wanted to be.

Ford CEO Jim Farley, an amateur sports car driver himself, made the big reveal via a Tuesday tweet that provided the first video evidence of the GT3 Mustang on track.

“I’ve watched the video in question about a million times,” Cindric said Wednesday during a Ford Performance Zoom news conference to promote NASCAR’s first road course weekend of the season at Circuit of the Americas. “Definitely exciting times for sure. I want to drive that car. It suits my experience level and also the relationships that I have.”

Ford will enter the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship next season with its GT3 Mustang, entering a two-car factory effort (that will be managed by Multimatic) in GTD Pro and making customer cars available in the GT Daytona category.

That increases the likelihood of seeing more NASCAR drivers crossing over to IMSA. Cindric has been the only full-time Cup driver in the Rolex 24 at Daytona the past two years, but Ford Performance global director Mark Rushbrook has said the GT3 Mustang will provide more opportunities.

Ford has used its GT4 Mustang as a NASCAR driver development tool in the IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge with Harrison Burton and Zane Smith combining to win the season opener at Daytona International Speedway in January.

“We’re excited about the Next Gen car and the new architecture there and the similarities between that car and GT3 and even GT4 cars,” Rushbrook said at the announcement of the Ford GT3 program in January 2022 at Daytona. “We think it’s a great opportunity and to do be able to do that in a 24-hour race and get NASCAR drivers even more time is something we need to consider taking advantage of that opportunity.”

Given his sports car background, Cindric probably still would be in the Rolex 24 regardless. He has eight IMSA starts since the 2017 season opener at Daytona, racing a Lexus RCF GT3 and Mercedes-AMG GT3 in the GT category. The 2022 Daytona 500 winner made his second LMP2 start this year with Rick Ware Racing.

But Cindric’s preference naturally would be in a Ford, particularly with sports car racing enjoying convergence and crossovers in both GT and prototype racing.

“It’s an exciting time in GT racing, just as it is now for prototype racing with a lot of new regulations and manufacturers building new GT3 cars,” he said. “And also the opportunity with WEC (the World Endurance Championship) and Le Mans and how that all lines up for that category of car. It’s definitely an exciting time. I want to be as much of a part of that as possible.”

Though those odds seemingly will increase with multiple Ford entries in the Rolex 24 field next year, Cindric said NASCAR drivers still have to put in the networking to land rides as he has in recent years.

“Now how (the GT3 Mustang) relates to specifically NASCAR drivers and how often they want to be in the Rolex, could it be an influence? Absolutely, as far as the tie-in with the manufacturer,” Cindric said. “But the challenge and the drive and the logistics of getting an opportunity for a race like the Rolex 24 will be just as challenging as it always is to find your one-off ride for the race. At least from my experience, that’s what I still anticipate.”

It turned out the “mystery” test driver wasn’t from NASCAR (Farley revealed the driver to be 24 Hours of Le Mans winner Joey Hand after a fan asked whether it was Joey Logano).

But Cindric believes there could be more Cup drivers — and perhaps himself — behind the wheel of Mustang GT3s in the future.

“There’s definitely more of a pathway than I think there would be before as far as Ford drivers are concerned,” he said. “Hopefully, I’ll get the opportunity to drive that thing. It’s obviously a great looking car. That’s the first box you’ve got to check. And it’s cool (to have) a guy like Jim Farley, no doubt he’s a racer just as much as he is steering the ship for Ford. It’s cool to see he’s just as excited as the rest of us about it.”