VIRTUAL MOTEGI, Japan — There will come a day when real world racing returns and drivers in the NTT IndyCar Series apply their techniques to the real race car. But when that day arrives, hopefully soon, iRacing could continue to play a key role as a valuable learning tool.
The best example is from Saturday’s Firestone 175, the fourth race of IndyCar’s iRacing Challenge at virtual Twin Ring Motegi.
The high-speed oval was last used by the NTT IndyCar Series in 2010. The last IndyCar race at Motegi was held on the road course in 2011 because the oval was damaged from an earthquake that created the huge Tsunami that devastated much of the coast of Japan. During that earthquake, a nuclear powerplant was damaged at Fukushima, leaking radiation into the area.
WHAT DRIVERS SAID: Postrace reaction from Motegi
Saturday’s Firestone 175 on the virtual oval was a tremendous reminder of how fast and how tricky the oval was at Motegi. In many ways, it’s similar to NASCAR’s Darlington Raceway because Turns 1 and two have a completely different radius than Turns 3 and 4. making it egg-shaped.
During Saturday’s race, rookie Oliver Askew was involved in multiple incidents with veteran drivers. The 23-year-old from Jupiter, Florida, is in his rookie season in IndyCar and is the reigning Indy Lights Series champion.
The only two oval races on the Indy Lights schedule in 2019 were the Freedom 100 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and at Gateway. Askew won both last year, including a win from the pole at Gateway.
Saturday’s virtual race was the first time Askew raced against IndyCar competition on a high-banked oval.
Team Penske driver Will Power sent the Arrow McLaren Racing SP rookie a rather snarky text message afterward. Askew was part of Team Penske driver Scott McLaughlin’s virtual crash and also had an incident with Power, damaging his car.
Because this was iRacing, however, there were no real-world consequences, other than some red-hot tempers.
“I had three of the clapping signs with a little sign like this,” Power said, using the “OK” sign sarcastically, in describing the text he sent Askew. “’Took out the two leaders with a few laps to go. Huge lack of respect for the drivers who worked hard to be there racing for the win at the end, which you will be at some point.’
“That’s what I sent to Askew.”
Askew later apologized for the crash on Twitter.
— Oliver Askew (@Oliver_Askew) April 18, 2020
The beauty of virtual racing is nobody gets hurt in a spectacular crash. If that had happened in a real race, however, the incidents could have had huge consequences.
That is why the iRacing platform can be used as a teaching tool for younger drivers in the series to learn what they can do and can’t do on a race track in an actual race.
“It is a great tool for those young guys to understand how you should race a superspeedway, sort of respect, you’re supposed to hold your lane, not weaving around,” Power said in response to a question from NBCSports.com. “The fact that came to me is you do get called out if you’re driving like an idiot and other people comment on it. You get pulled back straight into line. I thought that was a really good thing.
“What I think is great about this is I just noticed when we’re racing in Michigan last weekend, which is kind of a pack race, if you were driving like an idiot, you would be called out. Like we all hear each other’s radios. You can talk to each other. It actually brought people into line. People slowly gained more respect. I thought that was really interesting.
“I kind of thought it would be interesting if we could do that for real in the car.”
Five-time NTT IndyCar Series driver Scott Dixon is one of the most respected drivers in the garage area. Though he ran into the back of race winner Simon Pagenaud after finishing second at the checkered flag, Dixon said he didn’t realize the race was over.
That triggered a spectacular crash that also involved Helio Castroneves where both cars went airborne.
Again, in the virtual world, these incidents don’t have physical consequences.
Dixon, though, believes young drivers can learn some valuable lessons through virtual racing.
“If Texas is the first race, you hope we don’t get there and people start to race like they do on iRacing because the consequences are going to be pretty bad,” Dixon told NBCSports.com. “I agree with Will. There’s plenty of people that get called out. I think in oval racing especially, a lot of the time you have to learn the hard way. It’s one of those things you can take a lot of risks, but eventually it’s going to catch up with you. Hopefully this maybe does lend a little bit in that direction that it will help you down the road.
“Again, I think once you get around the guys that understand it a lot more, it flows pretty well.”
Pagenaud won in the virtual racing series for the second straight week, both on ovals. Last weekend, he won on the virtual Michigan International Speedway. This week, without having to make the 16-hour flight to Japan, the defending Indianapolis 500 winner won at the simulated Twin Ring Motegi.
“I totally agree with them,” Pagenaud told NBCSports.com when posed the same question as Power and Dixon. “We haven’t raced on an oval yet. I don’t think some of the drivers, the new drivers especially, know how to behave yet. Some of them, like Filipe Nasr is a great driver but never had a chance to be on the track with others.
“It’s actually interesting what Will said. I agree with him. We all talking to each other during the race. It helps, calms the emotions down sometimes. There might be something to learn from that.
“Like Scott said, I hope some of the behavior we see won’t happen in real life because it’s way different of a consequence.
“So far so good.”
Pagenaud avoided any such potential for an incident with Askew by letting the driver by after the rookie made his final pit stop.
“He came out of the pits on new tires right next to me,” Pagenaud said. “We had a bit of a battle as well. Kind of touched a little bit. I let him by because I could see he was very aggressive and on new tires.
“My hope was that I was going to use his draft to get back to Scott and Will. Then he wiped them out. After that it was hard with Will. So much understeer, I chose the outside lane which probably wasn’t smart.
“I thought that was Dixon’s win right there. We managed to come out of it and get another very strong result for Team Penske.”
There was also a point late in the race when the two Team Penske drivers running up front banged sidepods with each other in a battle for the win.
What would the response have been in real life from Team Penske President Tim Cindric or team and IndyCar owner Roger Penske?
“It’s okay because we won the race as a team,” Pagenaud said. “Otherwise…”
Power was unaware of the damage from the contact.
“Pagenaud was glued to my side pod,” Power said. “What’s going on? He told me I had damage. I didn’t know I had damage. He’s like, ‘Dude, you’ve got damage.’
“That’s what lost us the race basically. We couldn’t battle for the win anymore. I was missing half a front wing; I was pushing a lot obviously. Literally I couldn’t battle for the win because of that reason.
“I was happy to hang on for third. That showed how much of a gap we’d pulled on the whole field that I could just nurse it home and have another third place. Real consistent for me week in and week out.”