At the start of the Legends Trophy second-round opener in virtual Malaysia last week, Adrian Fernandez’s No. 40 Brabham BT44B got tagged.
Fernandez managed to reach Turn 1, where his red and green car was nailed again yet soldiered on — until the back straightaway.
A third shunt there completely destroyed his ride, which completed half a lap after the green flag.
A wave of aggravation washed over Fernandez, who has grown accustomed to feeling in virtual racing the same emotions he once felt as a world-class championship driver. The typically mild-mannered and reserved veteran of IndyCar, sports cars and NASCAR sometimes has turned to his wife, Priscila, and thrown his hands up in anger and resignation.
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“I got so pissed,” Fernandez said with a laugh in a recent NBCSports.com interview. “You get so frustrated, you get really mad. It’s amazing because you put so many hours on it, and suddenly someone hits you or you make a mistake. It’s quite serious.”
But just like the real world, luck often can turn on a dime.
In the second race of the doubleheader, the field was inverted. Fernandez started on pole, staved off a first-corner challenge from British touring cars champion Jason Plato and slowly increased the gap in a wire-to-wire victory.
Vean la arrancada 🏎😎 https://t.co/WHFTnxvOnP
— Adrian Fernandez (@AdrianF007) May 3, 2020
“I was really excited to win that,” he said. “Look at all the guys we are racing! To be able to race again with the same guys I used to race a long time ago and a lot of friends and all these legends is fantastic.”
An 11-time winner in Indy cars, Fernandez’s career heyday was in CART during the mid- to late 1990s, and he’s competing against many of the same names (Emerson Fittipaldi, Juan Pablo Montoya, Dario Franchitti, Gil de Ferran, Max Papis, Tony Kanaan) as well as a host of other champions from various racing disciplines.
Though he had two simulators housed in his personal museum and office in Miami, Fernandez raced only locally against other retired drivers.
The Mexico City native hardly raced online before being invited to the Legends Trophy, which was created in late March.
He got some help on the basics from AllInSports, a simulator company started by F1 engineers, but he initially struggled with a delay between what happened with his hands and feet and in the simulation. Fernandez modified his gear to be more precise.
He also upgraded his view from a TV-style display to a “pure gamer screen.”
Adrian Fernandez gets emotional while unveiling a plaque honoring him at Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez on Sept. 20, 2016 in his native Mexico City (Miguel Tovar/LatinContent via Getty Images)
Kanaan (who has a love-hate relationship with sim racing) provided a computer contact that Fernandez used to invest in new gear. Montoya, whose hand-eye coordination is peerless, also offered some tips.
“Obviously Juan Pablo is way ahead of all of us,” Fernandez said. “So he helps me a lot. He doesn’t care to give you what he does. I tried changing my equipment like that, and it was amazing how precise it is now.”
Fernandez has paid the goodwill forward. He spent 30 minutes this week advising Papis, who also is finding pace while improving his equipment.
“At the end of the day, it’s about having fun,” Fernandez said. “If we get everybody faster, the more fun the races will be. What’s the point of being 4 seconds faster?
“So that camaraderie is very, very, very nice, and everybody helps each other.”
Fernandez said the most difficult part of sim racing is the reference points, particularly on unfamiliar tracks such as Malaysia and its many blind corners
He practices for two hours daily to get acclimated to the rig and the new layouts. The Legends Trophy permits only 100 laps of practice with the assigned setup (tracks are chosen and announced a few days ahead of each Saturday race).
“I’m getting better,” Fernandez said. “It was really good to win Malaysia. It’s amazing how intense it is. The concentration is more because it’s so much more difficult. Everything is virtual. You don’t have the real feel of the car. You look at the track in person, and it’s not the same, even though the graphics are unbelievable.
“To be consistent, the Brabham car doesn’t handle very well. Just to stay on track without making mistakes is quite a challenge.”
He has singled out four series standouts: two-time Indy 500 winner Montoya (who also has won in F1, IMSA and NASCAR); F1 and sports car ace Jan Magnussen (who also ran F1 and IndyCar); five-time 24 Hours of Le Mans winner Emmanuelle Pirro and 2009 Formula One champion Jenson Button.
“My aim is to be as fast as those guys,” Fernandez said. “They know the tricks and are extremely good at it. Anytime you push the throttle, the car wants to spin. It’s just not stable. That’s what makes it very difficult, and these guys are very good at it.”
Fernandez, who led with 10 laps remaining in the 2004 Indy 500 won by Buddy Rice, has tried out his old ride, too.
He recently took a 2020 NTT IndyCar Dallara for a spin at Laguna Seca Raceway and Road America. He enjoyed the new aeroscreen model but “if we were driving the Indy cars, they’re much easier to drive (by) 100 times. Because they do what they’re supposed to do. You can crash if you push it, but (with the Brabham), you crash and you don’t know why.”
That’s what made the competitive sim debut of four-time Formula One champion Sebastian Vettel at Malaysia an unexpected treat.
“I have a lot of respect for (Vettel),” Fernandez said. “It was very humble of him to get into this race with these guys without having practiced in a while in a car that’s not that easy and to just jump on the weekend knowing he wasn’t going to be able to be strong.
“He was very humble in his comments, and I take my hat off to him. A lot of people say, ‘I’m ready to win.’ Sebastian just jumped in, had fun and made nice comments in the (driver) chat.”
Fernandez remains as humble as he was during a career from modest middle-class beginnings in Mexico. He was known as a business-savvy driver who signed and kept many sponsors for years, including with the team he started.
After Fernandez Racing’s run in CART and IndyCar ended when corporate sponsorship dried up post-2001 recession, he extended his career several years by turning a NASCAR Xfinity one-off with Lowe’s into a full-time deal for the American Le Mans Series.
After winning the 2009 championship in LMP2, the ramifications of the Great Recession of 2008 reduced Lowe’s funding and led to a partial schedule with Aston Martin Racing the next three seasons.
Fernandez worries about a repeat of the trend for the racing industry during the ongoing novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.
“Fernandez Racing in essence disappeared because of two different crises,” said Fernandez, whose final 24 Hours of Le Mans ended on the LM GTE podium in 2012. “That’s what I’m afraid is happening now. There’s a lot of good teams that took a lot of time to build up to where they are now. But unfortunately, circumstances happen in the world like what happened to us two times. That really prevents some teams to continue.
“That happened to us and was very sad because our team was very, very good.”
Having started a Mexican restaurant (Cantina Catrina is on the sidepods of his Legends Trophy cars) last November in Miami that had been doing well until the COVID-19 shutdown, Fernandez feels the pinch of the pandemic, too.
But with Priscila three months’ pregnant as he enjoys a healthy retirement, Fernandez relishes the views in his museum (which isn’t open to the public but available for tours from the owner).
The trophies, cars (a 2001 Reynard and the Panoz from the 2004 Indy 500) and collectibles reflect the sacrifices were worth it now that he has more time to enjoy with family (he also has two children, Valentina and Niko, from a previous marriage).
He is content to have “accomplished everything I have dreamed” and now gets a bonus in sim racing.
“At 57, it’s just fantastic to be able to (race) again,” Fernandez said. “I’ve loved racing all my life. So now to be able to do (the Legends Trophy) and be here with my wife expecting a baby, it’s just fantastic to be able to still be able to do what I used to have as a passion and love.
“I had it all my life. I still have it. I’m working at it.”