Opinion: Why Max Verstappen and real-world drivers are good for sim racing 

Ross McGregor
Sure, there have been from fractious incidents of late, but on the whole, motorsports mega-stars are more than welcome to compete in sim racing events – opines Ross.
2024 Le Mans Virtual Series - Max Verstappen, #1 Redline car, retires

“Racing fans want Max Verstappen banned.”  “F1 Twitter bashes Max Verstappen for sore loser behaviour.”  “Max Verstappen sees red in Spa battle to deliberately take out rival driver.”  

Those are just some of the headlines concerning double Formula 1 World Champion Max Verstappen over the last few days, after an admittedly shoddy piece of driving in a virtual race at Spa-Francorchamps over the weekend. 

It was a reckless, retaliatory act done in the heat of the moment, argue his defenders. But ultimately, the Dutchman had plenty of time to back out of it.  

There was a dubious coming together between Verstappen and Sven-Ole Haase at the Bus Stop chicane (I still call it that because I’m old), before Haase aggressively came back at his rival at La Source. 

Opinion - Motorsport stars have a responsibility to treat sim racing with respect

Verstappen proceeded to cut through Les Combes and fired Haase off into Bruxelles. He was (rightly) disqualified, taking the sheen off what was a typically pacy Verstappen performance up to that point 

Remember all those headlines? They read more like comments on a recent F1 race, but they’re talking about a sim race. Our little niche is making news; it’s being spoken about by potentially millions of F1 fans worldwide.  

Forget about the negativity: our hobby is becoming mainstream, and it’s thanks to the exploits of Max Verstappen and other high-profile drivers. It’s a good thing. 

Keeping it real 

As we all know, simulators are part and parcel of modern motorsport. To gain an edge on the competition – or even maintain the status quo – more and more drivers feel they must spend time in their team’s bespoke simulator; with most owning their own sim set-ups at home. 

Even sim racing sceptic Daniel Ricciardo has come around to the idea of sim racing, no doubt watching how his former McLaren team-mate – and avid sim racer – Lando Norris translates his virtual speed to Grand Prix.  

Max Verstappen unveils Verstappen.com Racing squad, includes Team Redline esports team

Even the veteran racer Sebastian Vettel had a bespoke Aston Martin F1 sim installed in his Swiss home in 2021, aiding his pre-race preparations (and saving on airfares to visit the team’s headquarters in the UK).  

But drivers like Max Verstappen have taken it to the next level, dovetailing front-running motorsport and sim racing careers, promoting our hobby in front of a huge motorsport fanbase. 

Max Factor 

Make no mistake, Max Verstappen has put sim racing on the map in recent years – F1 champions have the clout to do that, after all. 

Through his time with Team Redline he’s won several major online races, including rounds of the Le Mans Virtual Series. He also created his own Verstappen.com Racing outfit to support extracurricular activities, part of which is partnering with Redline – which he regularly extolls virtues of in interviews.

He is absolute box office material for sim race organisers, bringing in a raft of fans who may not even be interested in virtual competition (a cursory glance at the chatbox of an LMVS race would confirm this). 

He has the speed to back up the fanfare too, taking on the fastest sim racers in the world and regularly beating them. He’s a phenomenon, and his real-world racing credentials legitimise sim racing in a way that transcends its status as a niche hobby.  

Is sim racing as well understood and ‘tolerated’ as hobbies like golf or football? No, but thanks to Max Verstappen’s headline-grabbing exploits more people than ever understand what sim racing is and why we love it.  

Even when he acts like he’s a sandwich short of a Red Bull catering budget… 

Covid-19 

Fellow Traxion.GG correspondent John Munro and I were lucky enough to sim race with some huge motorsport names during the UK’s Covid-induced lockdowns of 2020 and 2021.  

It was odd to be chatting to your racing heroes for prolonged periods of time, starting out with set-up discussions and driving tips, before progressing on to more relaxed and jokey banter – almost like though they’re normal people

And who can forget the hilarious sight of Charles Leclerc, George Russell and Lando Norris playing Euro Truck Simulator 2 in such a wholesome and relaxed fashion?  

Charles Leclerc truck sim driving

We saw the positive side of real-world drivers in sim racing first-hand, too (bear with me dear reader, I’m about to drop some names here).  

For my former co-driver Tony Kanaan (CLANG), sim racing is all about having fun. After worrying I would let my teammates down in an endurance event due to poor pace, he said to me: “don’t worry, this is for fun. If it’s not fun I wouldn’t be doing it”. Wise words. 

And Kanaan is one of sim racing’s greatest exponents, his Twitch channel has nearly 100,000 followers and he streams his virtual racing most nights of the week, switching on motorsport enthusiasts who may have just tuned in to see what the former Indy 500 winner was up to. 

Ross McGregor and Tony Kanaan teaming up at Le Mans in iRacing
Teaming up with Tony Kanaan at Le Mans in iRacing – Image by Dan Kell

He retains the positive outlook I experienced first-hand in his broadcasts, enthusing about whichever race he’s doing and completing it in a professional manner. You won’t see him berating other drivers or deliberately taking another car out of the race. 

Kanaan also enjoys several sim racing commercial partnerships, with other high-profile drivers like Kevin Magnussen (Asetek), Lando Norris (Logitech) and Verstappen (EA SPORTS) lending themselves to the industry. 

On the Button 

We also spent a lot of time with 2009 F1 World Champion Jenson Button (CLANG), taking part in team practise sessions and races. He was properly quick and always eager to pick up pointers from his more experienced sim racing colleagues; colleagues like John Munro (CLANG-A-LANG). 

In one endurance race*, I was scything my way through the field and caught him mid-stint. Even though we were driving for different teams he almost immediately moved over to let me pass. Would Verstappen have done that? Well, 2022’s Brazilian Grand Prix answers that question… 

When conducting interviews during sim racing broadcasts Button would always retain a professional and easy-going attitude you’d expect from such a well-known figure, always emphasising the positive side of virtual racing. There were no hissy fits when things didn’t go his way, no “clown show” comments and certainly no do-or-die driving standards.  

And many of the viewers had tuned in solely due to his presence. No doubt some were even impressed by the quality of the broadcast; Assetto Corsa Competizione can look very realistic after all.  

Who knows? Maybe a small percentage were inspired to give sim racing a go and have a bit of fun? 

Which is really what it’s all about, isn’t it? 

Ross McGregor vs Jenson Button sim racing 02

Yes, the world knows more about sim racing now than it ever did, but it also knows that professional online racing has professional stewarding too, which is why Verstappen was disqualified after his misdemeanour. 

Would a stiffer punishment than disqualification have been more suitable? Arguably, yes, but we must acknowledge the role that high-profile drivers like Verstappen have played in popularising sim racing. 

Sponsors and viewers flock towards wherever Verstappen races online and despite one or two blips can you name a bigger advocate of sim racing? I don’t think so. 

*sharing driving duties with John, obviously. We missed out on the win that day– and £750 cash – by just two seconds.

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