With the Covid-19 pandemic forcing the 2020 24 Hours of Le Mans to be rescheduled until September, the first-ever Virtual Le Mans 24 took place over the weekend, on the original date of the race, and for Andrew Watson, it offered him a unique insight into the legendary race.
Partnering with his regular outfit in the FIA WEC, Gulf Racing, the team has entered in an exciting Moving online for the world-famous twenty-four-hour race, Andrew’s Gulf Racing team entered into an exciting partnership with Wolverhampton Wanderers Football Club which saw the team’s Porsche 991 RSR GTE car kitted out in old gold and black Wolves branding alongside Andrew’s personal partners - Howdens and Gratte Brothers.
“The collaboration with Wolves definitely made for one of the most exciting partnerships on the virtual grid and one of the best looking cars too! Wolves have a huge following and have made great strides in the esports arena so it was great to use their expertise to help us make the step from the real world to the virtual world!”
Despite the race being held ‘just for fun’ to keep the racing world entertained during the pandemic, the level of competition remained high with all the team’s on the grid fielding strong lines up with a mixture of professional racing drivers and sim racing experts, In the #86 Porsche 991 RSR GTE, Andrew was joined by regular driver Ben Barker in the car alongside sim experts Adam Maguire and Eros Masciulli.
“This weekend definitely showed how hungry everyone is to get back racing and competing on the track! There was a lot of preparation and practice that went in to make sure we were competitive and not just there to make up the numbers."
"We had a lot of practice and test sessions before the race weekend and were constantly in contact with the Gulf Racing engineers to find the ideal set up and strategy for the race. It really was a team effort and the level of preparation was extremely similar to what we would do for a real race weekend.”
With over 200 drivers fielding a 50 car grid, the 2020 Virtual Le Mans 24 Hours featured one of the most impressive grids in motorsport including current F1 drivers Charles Leclerc, Max Verstappen, Lando Norris, Antonio Giovinazzi and Pierre Gasly all making their debut in the Le Mans race. Also featured on the grid were thirteen former F1 drivers, including World Champions Jenson Button and Fernando Alonso, as well as many WEC drivers and six previous real-world Le Mans 24 Hours winners.
“It was fantastic to see the event bring so many big names to the race and for myself to line up against a huge selection of talent and experience. To lineup against and outperform the likes of Charles Leclerc (yes, virtually!) does add a bit more excitement to the event and it’s great to hear all these guys say they want to come back and compete in the race for real now.”
The race itself saw competitive action from the off but unfortunately, technical issues with the server meant that Andrew and his teammates couldn't affect the race right at the very front which was even more frustrating considering their lap times were some of the quickest in their category and Andrew led the way as the fastest of the professional drivers in his car.
“Essentially, what happened was a server issue which every time we came to swapping drivers around, we had to exit and re-enter the server which cost us a lot of time so we had to redo our strategy and do longer stints! We also got taken out by both Jota Sport LMPs which affected our race but we persevered and took the chequered flag.”
Despite the technical issues and with the virtual running taking away the sense of danger that real-world racing provides, Andrew still took plenty away from the event and believes the virtual race was the perfect preparation for his debut at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in September.
“There’s plenty of things I have learnt from the virtual race that I can implement in my real-world racing. The major thing for me is managing the traffic of the LMPs, as over the space of a 24 hour race you’re having to manage the traffic a lot more than you do in a 4-hour race. Working out where to safely put the car when being passed is key as you don’t want to lose too much time and you definitely don’t want contact with another car!”
“This event has definitely helped my preparation and made me even hungrier to do the real thing - I can’t wait to hit the track for real in September!”
With the Virtual Le Mans 24 Hours complete, Andrew will have to wait until the lights go green on 19 September for his next taste of the legendary race at the Circuit de la Sarthe, France.