When motorsport came to a halt due to the coronavirus pandemic, sim racing took to the fore. Many junior single-seater drivers used Esports to keep sharp, and to entertain fans. We analyse the lockdown racing stars
It wasn’t just the big-name rising stars that stole the spotlight, as the lockdown period also provided an opportunity for those who are better known in sim racing circle to get their names out to a wider audience. For those unfamiliar with the demands of the virtual cars in a digital world, it was a case of adapting to this alien way of racing.
Some adapted quicker than others, while a few very decorated drivers struggled to adapt at all. This didn’t stop stars of Formula 1, IndyCar and touring cars flocking to race in the virtual junior single-seater cars – and gave opportunities for future stars to bang virtual wheels against some of motorsport’s finest (and on a few occasions their illustrious parents).
Formula Scout has identified 10 drivers – across a range of sim software, series and experience pre-lockdown – who have stood out in this unusual setting and made a name for themselves as some of the best up-and-coming real-world racers who have also impressed in the sim racing world.
Key wins (w), heat wins (HW), poles (P), fastest laps (FL)
Muhammad Ibrahim INDIA 16y/o
May Isolation F3 champion (2 W, 3 HW, 4 P, 5 FL), US F4 champion (4 W, 3 P, 1 FL), 4th in April Isolation F3 (2 HW, 1 P, 2 FL)
The humble Indian teenager has two single-seater appearances to his name in real life, both in Formula 4 South East Asia, yet he looked totally at home in the Dallara F317 Formula 3-spec car used in many of the Esports series. The April and May Isolation Dallara F3 series were where we faced his toughest opposition, and which had a real old-school feel with an entry list that usually surpassed 60 cars (and was packed with professional racers) and required heats and a consolation race to decide the grid for the points-scoring feature race.
Ibrahim started and finished second in the first two April rounds, which earned him the points lead and raised eyebrows given his low karting profile. A charge up the order after a netcode off next time out at Silverstone was even more impressive, but he succumbed to the inevitable chaos of packed sim racing battles at Road America. He responded by taking pole and victory in his heat at the Road Atlanta title decider, but was under the pressure in the feature race and lost the title when another netcode error led to him clashing with rival Rame Azzam.
Ibrahim applied what he learned in April against top opposition, and turned up in May as the driver to beat. He won the first and final rounds at Watkins Glen and Brands Hatch to claim the title, and had it easy when he raced the same car in US F4’s Esports series.
Phillippe Denes HUNGARY/USA 21y/o
Road to Indy S1 champion (3 W, 3 P, 2 FL), Road to Indy S2 champion (5 W, 3 P, 4 FL), 4th in May Isolation F3 (1 W, 1 HW, 4 FL)
Denes has raced against his Road to Indy rivals in the virtual world for many years, originally on a kart simulator, and it was no surprise that he was quickest in the virtual version of IndyCar’s support series. The previous generation Indy Pro 2000 car was the basis of the two back-to-back Esports seasons, with the first focusing on road courses and the next on ovals.
Despite his (relative) oval inexperience, it was those tracks where Denes really outshone his opposition on racecraft, despite their own sim racing experience having built up. In addition to his early dominance, he also came up to speed to win in the May Isolation F3 series, dominated a Formula Regional Americas round and triumphed in a stunning Road to Indy pack race at Gateway from 23rd on the grid.
Felipe Drugovich BRAZIL 20y/o
April Isolation F3 champion (1 W, 1 HW, 1 P, 3 FL), 3rd in May Isolation F3 (1 W, 1 HW, 1 P, 1 FL), 14th in F2
Ahead of his step up to Formula 2 this year, Drugovich contested the F1 2019-based virtual series and got a few points finishes on the damage-free game. He was more in his element in the more realistic iRacing sim, and was consistently one of the fastest and cleanest drivers in the Isolation F3 series.
Consistency won him the April title, and two Indianapolis 500 tickets, but his assured domination of the May round at home track Interlagos was more impressive. Drugovich led the May points too before skipping the title decider to do a real-world test. The next-gen Dallara 320 made its debut in a Euroformula-organised mini-series on rFactor where Drugovich also excelled and was third in the points.
Louis Deletraz SWITZERLAND 23y/o
2nd in F2 (2 W, 1 FL) – Virtual Le Mans 24H winner, SRO GT champion (1 W, 2 P), 12th in F1
Deletraz’s inclusion here should come as no surprise as he is a very experienced sim racer in his own right – so it was fitting that he would star in one of the biggest sim races ever. Whatever platform he has taken to – he has been quick.
He won the Virtual Le Mans 24 Hours on rFactor 2 for Rebellion Williams alongside Raffaele Marciello and sim racers Nikodem Wisniewski and Kuba Brzezinski. His sportscar prowess extends to GT cars too, winning the SRO Esport GT Series on Assetto Corsa Competizione with speed and consistency. On top of that, he was one of the best in F2’s Virtual Racing series and fulfilled his F1 reserve duties by representing Haas throughout the F1 Virtual Grand Prix series.
Arthur Leclerc MONACO 19y/o
F2 champion (3 W, 2 P, 3 FL) – 10th in F1
The younger Leclerc has stuck largely to F1 2019, but he is a mighty force on that game. He took podiums for Ferrari in F1’s VGP series, was a frontrunner in the driver-organised Race For the World charity series, and turned out to be the driver to beat in F2. He won the feature and sprint race in style in the Bahrain season opener, adding to his victory tally at his home circuit Monaco, and scored more than double of what all but four other drivers could achieve.
Nico Varrone ARGENTINA 19y/o
BRDC British F3 champion (4 W, 3 P), 6th in British F4 (1 W), 12th in May Isolation F3 (1 HW)
Varrone is a natural on iRacing, and comfortably won the BRDC British F3 title on that platform. Among his competitors was IndyCar star Will Power – one of just a few drivers who was able to match Varrone in the series. On top of that, the Argentinian won in British F4 and was a frontrunner whenever he appeared in the Isolation F3 series. He was pretty much one of the strongest junior single-seater racers on iRacing during lockdown, and looks set to star in the real world this year.
Luke Browning BRITAIN 18y/o
2nd in British F4 (5 W, 7 P, 6 FL)
Browning is a very experienced sim racer – having made appearances in Grand Prix Virtual World Championship’s highest tier on rF2 in the past. During lockdown, he took to iRacing and very narrowly lost out on the British F4 title to Fortec Motorsports team-mate Chris Lulham after somewhat unsurprisingly being the class of the field.
Beitske Visser NETHERLANDS 25y/o
currently 1st in W Series (5 W, 3 P, 6 FL), 16th in FR3.5 – 8th in The Race All-Star S3, 43rd in The Race All-Star S2
Visser entered the sim racing world in April with very little experience but proved to be rapid from the off. She set the standard immediately in the ongoing Formula Renault 2.0-based W Series Esports League on iRacing ,and is not just the benchmark for the other drivers – but the one they ask for driving tips and setup advice.
Where Visser has excelled is in making the most of the reversed grid races in the seres. On top of that, she has also proven handy on rF2 – as she is among the best junior drivers in The Race All-Star Pro Cup (where she is a BMW factory driver), all while swapping between two very different kinds of software.
Jack Aitken BRITAIN/SOUTH KOREA 24y/o
5th in F2 – 3rd in Virtual Le Mans 24H, 18th in The Race All-Star S2
Aitken’s inexperience in the sim world partnered with some solid driving nets him a spot on our list. He lacks a sim racing win which goes against him, but third place in the LM24 Virtual with Argentine touring car star (and Williams colleague) Agustin Canapino, Marc Gassner and Michael Romanidis in a Rebellion Williams entry was very impressive. He was not the quickest, but his rF2 adaptability has translated to the All-Star Series too – finishing as one of the highest-placed junior drivers there. In F2, he also came fifth in the points thanks to his scintillating overtaking ability transferring to the digital world.
Eduardo Barrichello BRAZIL 18y/o
2nd in Road to Indy S1 (1 W, 1 FL), 10th in April Isolation F3 (1 HW), 13th in May Isolation F3
Barrichello loved racing against the professional drivers and his idols – including his F1 race-winning father Rubens – in the two Isolation F3 series, but it was the Road to Indy where he (unsurprisingly) claimed better results.
His RTI victory at Road America was down to fuel saving and great strategy choices made with his Pabst Racing team-mates as much as it was pace, which he did have in abundance. While that was his only win, he was usually the only driver able to hold a candle to Denes on road courses.
In Isolation F3 he did come close to victory, albeit by being second-best to Drugovich at Interlagos, but he did take a heat win in the April series that put him 10th in the points (out of more than 80 drivers).
Yifei Ye was one of the stars of The Race’s All-Star Pro Cup, and took a stunning win at Indianapolis Motor Speedway towards the conclusion of the third season. His performances warranted a call-up to Rebellion Williams for the Virtual Le Mans 24 Hours – in which he finished sixth overall.
Fellow Chinese driver Guanyu Zhou made few Esports appearances, but made an impact. He was the first winner of a F1 Virtual Grand Prix at Bahrain, and also tasted success in the supporting F2 series at Barcelona – despite a time penalty.
Johnathan Hoggard has already won a virtual Porsche Carrera Cup Asia title before even making his real-world debut this year, and he claimed a first F3-based title via Esports too in the BRDC’s Dallara F317 series on iRacing. That was against a field of pros, many of whom he raced against first in the April Isolation F3 series. He was also a frontrunner in the same car in BRDC British F3 and British F4’s Esport series.
Falling just short of claiming the first title of Formula Renault 3.5’s virtual revival was Victor Martins, who unlike most had to go up against full-time sim racers. He won three races and fought tooth-and-nail with Cem Bolukbasi, who wants to turn his sim racing success into a single-seater career.
Written by Craig Woollard and Elliot Wood