The year got off to a pretty good start for BMW Motorsport. It scored a win at Daytona in January, the second year in a row its big M8 GTE came home best-in-class at the high-profile 24-hour race that really starts off the international racing season. Next up was supposed to be the 12 Hours of Sebring in March. But that visit to the bumpy concrete track that used to be a WWII bomber base in Florida bumped into the hard reality of SARS-CoV-2. The (hopefully temporary) end of public gatherings has driven real-world racers to compete on virtual race tracks for our entertainment as each professional racing series in turn spins up its own take on esports. And despite the shift, BMW Motorsport keeps racking up the wins.
IMSA has unlocked car setup
Most of the esports racing events, whether in iRacing, rFactor 2, or something else, have used standardized cars and locked-down setups as a way to level playing fields. But IMSA’s sports car series has taken a different tack, allowing competitors to set their cars up to their liking. And right from the start, BMW Motorsport took full advantage, locking out the podium at a virtual Sebring with a 1-2-3 finish for the iRacing version of its M8 GTE race car. That’s because it has been treating sim racing like any other discipline in motorsport for a while now, says Rudolf Dittrich, general manager for BMW Motorsport’s vehicle development.
“Obviously the situation right now is a bit special with coronavirus, but even before that you could see that the interest in participants and but also in viewers and spectators has been growing a lot, so therefore it was obvious for us to investigate a bit more,” Dittrich told Ars. “And we thought it’s worthwhile to expand our activities and also try to really have a very structured backbone, like we would have in any other motor racing discipline; to really be able to work on this stuff the way we’re used to do in other programs.”
As a manufacturer, BMW’s involvement with a platform like iRacing starts early on, with reams of technical data and images for the M8 GTE race car supplied to the developers to ensure as accurate a model as possible. It has also been organizing its own professional sim racing series (the BMW Sim Cups), but for IMSA’s iRacing Pro series, BMW Motorsport’s role is as a competitor, and it’s approaching that the same way it approaches “normal” racing. “But there are still a couple of differences. One is that testing is not restricted, and testing doesn’t cost much. Therefore, if you’re ambitious enough, you can spend the time and really try to figure out what your best possible configuration is,” Dittrich said.
In the sim, no one can hear you test
Despite the high fidelity of current racing sims, it’s not quite as easy as just using track-specific suspension or aero settings straight from the real-world M8 GTE. “The physics engine of iRacing is obviously just as limited as any other model of a car—we’re always talking about a model, be it our own in-house simulation model or be it the iRacing simulation model. The way you’re inputting the data is not exactly the same, and you need to understand why you’re doing it,” explained Dittrich.
The freedom to test in sim racing can’t be overstated. In real-world racing, testing is a highly regulated activity, and most series restrict the number of test days to a handful each year as a way to control costs. But with sim racing you don’t need to schedule a track, load up the trailers, or spend hours scraping knuckles, adjusting suspension setups between runs.
“Sometimes I’ll be thinking overnight ‘Okay, I have to try this tomorrow morning,’ and then I wake up first thing in the morning, I go in my sim and try something new on the setup, even if it doesn’t always work,” explained Bruno Spengler, one of BMW’s factory racing drivers and the winner of the first two rounds of IMSA’s iRacing Pro series.
If they wanted to, drivers could spend every waking hour practicing, and the aliens that dominate professional esports will have countless thousands of hours under their belts. But Dittrich is there to make sure his drivers are making the most of their time, just like in the real world.
“If you work as a team, like in the real world, you have at least two drivers out there working together. They can also exchange ideas, exchange data, and help each other—maybe with setup—which brings the team as a whole forward. So, that applies just like in the real world. And then beyond that, like I mentioned, we try a little bit with the infrastructure and backbone to keep it structured to keep it together and also to keep a little bit of guidance if necessary,” Dittrich told me.
It’s not just setup: Strategy is important, too
One aspect that might surprise the sim racing newbie is the importance of ambient conditions like track or air temperature, conditions set by the race organizer.
“In the M8 GTE, conditions make quite a difference—and also in sim racing. Therefore, you’re also limited to what you can prepare because you don’t necessarily know what the exact ending conditions are, right? So what you do is try your tire pressures and [tire] degradation for a likely scenario of any conditions. But once the race is going on, you still have to see how the race evolves, like you do in the real world. I think that’s the thing—it’s not about having exactly the same [suspension or aero setting], but it’s more about having the same approach, the same methodology—how you react to what you encounter,” Dittrich said.
The approach is obviously working. Last Thursday, Spengler went two for two in IMSA’s Pro iRacing series with a win at a virtual Laguna Seca, with his teammate Nicky Catsburg in third (separated by visiting Australian Supercar driver Shane Van Gisbergen, who also happened to be in a BMW).
Listing image by BMW Motorsport