Runner-up in iRacing, Sweden’s Felix Rosenqvist fast in real, virtual worlds

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Sweden’s Felix Rosenqvist has proven to be fast in the real world, and that helped him earn a ride in the No. 10 NTT DATA Honda at Chip Ganassi Racing in IndyCar.

Rosenqvist is just as talented in the virtual world and displayed that with his impressive second-place finish in Saturday’s American Red Cross Grand Prix.

It was the opener of a six-race series in the IndyCar iRacing Challenge.

Saturday’s race was held at the virtual Watkins Glen International and included a full field of drivers, including practically all of the NTT IndyCar Series lineup. In addition, seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson finished 16th in the No. 48 Chevrolet.

WHAT DRIVERS SAID: A roundup of the postrace reaction

RESULTS: Where everyone finished

No surprise the top three drivers in Saturday’s 45-lap contest are also three of the most avid racers on iRacing. Sage Karam of Dreyer & Reinbold Racing started on the pole and won the race, leading nearly every lap. Rosenqvist was second and Team Penske’s Will Power was third.

Karam’s winning strategy was simple.

“Qualify first, lead every lap, and hopefully keep the car in one piece,” said the former high school wrestling champion from Nazareth, Pa. “That was the strategy, and it worked out pretty well.

The main thing I had to do was make sure I was starting first. I spent basically all morning this morning just offline practicing qual sims,, and that’s why I wasn’t in any of the practice runs this morning. I was on offline just literally doing qual sims, and I really just focused on that because that was, I feel like going to be half the battle.”

Karam was amazed at how much the virtual car raced like the real No. 24 Chevrolet that he drives for D&R.

“The car was pretty hard to drive when you were in dirty air, so I knew I had to be at least first or second,” Karam explained. “Once I had that checked off the list, then it was all about just like keeping it consistent for 45 laps.”

All three drivers have made quite an investment in their sim racing rigs while others have tried to learn the system in the past week.

The contest wasn’t without a few glitches. James Hinchcliffe’s car disappeared from the grid for good before the race began. A screw came out of an IKEA kitchen chair that driver Conor Daly was using during the race. The cardboard box that secured his pedals also began to collapse toward the end.

But for the fans that tuned in on IndyCar.com, Twitch, iRacing and other platforms, it was competition on a race track and helped take their minds off the grim reality of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic that has much of the world locked inside their homes.

Rosenqvist made it interesting at the end by closing in on Karam but was unable to get close enough to fight for the checkered flag.

“Just based on pure pace, I didn’t really have what it took,” Rosenqvist said. “I think we did similar lap times, but whenever I got closer, it seemed like Sage was able to react and go a bit faster. I was hoping for the lapping part to be my advantage, but there were some cars flying and stuff, and every time I thought Sage was collected, he seemed to get through all of them.

“In these races you can never really — you have to do all the laps until the finish because you never know when — it’s very easy to make a mistake on your own or to get together with someone. It’s pretty hard to race closely.

“I was also really impressed with the effort that everyone put in and how well it came together. I actually had a look at the TV just to see how it looked, and the cars look amazing and the track and everything almost looks like real. It was cool to see my NTT DATA car there, as well. Yeah, in these times it was nice to do something for the fans and for ourselves. We’re competitors, and we don’t want to sit around all the time just waiting, so yeah, good fun.”

Although Rosenqvist never has driven an Indy car at Watkins Glen International, he loved the flow of one of the great road courses in North America.

Even in the virtual world, Rosenqvist still could sense the flowing nature of the upstate New York road course that last hosted an NTT IndyCar Series race in 2017.

“The track is just amazing,” Rosenqvist said in response to a question from NBCSports.com. “You can definitely feel it in iRacing, as well. Almost every corner is a high-speed corner. There seems to be a lot of grip and one of those tracks where you just kind of hang on for a lap in qualifying.

“I would love to do that again. That’s a really historic track, as well, with F1 and other kinds of series that has been there many times, and yeah, hopefully we can go there in the real car.”

Rosenqvist is a major racing hero in Sweden, and it’s likely some of the viewers on the various platforms were from his home country. His homeland loves his racing exploits, whether it’s on a real race track, or a virtual track.

“Especially in these times people are just eager to watch something, I think people from Sweden and a lot of Americans are following.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500