Indycar's Virtual Race Crashes Sparked Real-World Controversy Among Drivers

Indycar's Virtual Race Crashes Sparked Real-World Controversy Among Drivers

With about three laps to go in the First Responders 175, the final race of the virtual, quarantine-inspired sim racing series featuring pro Indycar drivers, it was shaping up to be a classic finale at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. F1 driver Lando Norris was in a battle for the lead with Oliver Askew, Patricio O’Ward, and Marcus Ericsson, and caution was going out the window as the drivers went three-cars wide through corners, completely filling the width of the track with no margin for error.

It was all taking place inside the video game iRacing, but it was built to re-create the look and feel of a real Indycar event, complete with broadcast camera angles and the actual NBC Indycar commentators providing play-by-play. It was everything you’d hope to see at a real Indy racing event and the cherry on top of a sim racing series that was frequently as gripping as anything you see during a season of real-life motorsport.

Then, as the lead pack of cars whipped through a corner onto a straight, Norris’s car piled into the back of the slow-moving, highlighter-yellow car of 2019 Indy 500 winner Simon Pagenaud. It happened so fast that for a moment the NBC commentary team wasn’t sure what had occurred: one minute Norris was there the next he was gone. When the broadcast had a chance to bring up the replay, it no longer looked like a freak accident. Pagenaud’s car slowed way down as Norris approached from behind in the exit to a turn, like he was brake-checking someone on the highway and giving the young British driver little chance to avoid piling into the back of Pagenaud’s car.

Pagenaud’s deliberate wrecking is an annoying troll within the context of a video game, but it’s a betrayal of the highest order in the context of real-world, professional racing. An inherent tension in F1 and Indy racing is that drivers are in ruthless competition at the same time that they are all trying to prevent crashes that can easily turn deadly. Now that these same drivers are competing in a space where the deadly physical consequences are no longer an issue, the sport is changing fast, and in ways that can carry over to real-world tracks when drivers are able to race on them again.

The rest of the race was no less of a shitshow. With Norris out of the race, there was still a good fight shaping up for the victory. But on the final lap, O’Ward made a dangerous dive from second-place at the race-leading Marcus Ericsson, and the two drivers crashed out of the race. That left Oliver Askew ready to take the victory ahead of Santino Ferrucci, but as the two approached the finish line, Ferrucci slammed his car into Askew and sent him veering into the wall. All the action and excitement of the previous hour of racing was rendered meaningless as the win effectively defaulted to Scott McLaughlin, who had been firmly out of contention until Pagenaud touched off a demolition derby.

Having a good competition ruined by poor sports would be enough cause for controversy, but there’s additional context that makes the finale of that race particularly sour. For one thing, it was exactly the kind of incident that the game they were playing was built to prevent. iRacing—which was founded by one of the pioneers of PC racing games, David Kaemmer—is not just a detailed racing simulation on a technological level, with tracks re-created from laser scans of the real world locations, but it's also structured more like a serious racing league than even games like the Forza series.

Unlike popular or arcade racing games, where people are free to wield their cars as weapons, iRacing has always enforced realistic racing regulations that promote clean racing. If you’re an amateur prone to rookie mistakes, there are classes of events that simply won’t be open to you. If you are a troll or a griefer, you can be banned. While many racing games have adopted elements of this approach, iRacing remains the game where drivers are known for taking events seriously.

What set Pagenaud off occurred several laps earlier, when he was fighting for the lead of the race with Graham Rahal and Lando Norris. Norris was on fresh tires and took the low line through a corner to force his way past Rahal. Rahal flinched and drove into Pagenaud, knocking him out of contention.

Pagenaud was seething at Norris as he drove his wounded car into the pits to be repaired. As he left, on the POV stream from his spotter Ben Bretzman, he can be heard sayingsaid, “I’m gonna take Lando out, let’s do it.” A moment later, on that stream, someone else (I don’t know who, but he’s the only real friend Pagenaud had on Saturday) on the team comms said, “Just make sure you do not do a decision that you might regret.” Pagenaud scoffed, “I don’t regret anything, what are you talking about? I’m racing!”

As his car spiraled into the fencing, Pagenaud claimed that he had just been coming into the pits. Later, on a phone call with Norris that both drivers streamed, he explained further that he had only intended to slow Norris down and help Oliver Askew take the win. The entire incident and Pagenaud’s explanation is here:

After talking to Pagenaud, Norris said on his stream that it seemed like Paganaud had done it because he was “a bit salty that a non-IndyCar driver is about to win an Indy race.” There may be something to that.

Norris is a Formula 1 driver with the British McLaren team and, justly or not, F1 has always cultivated a reputation as the series where the world’s greatest drivers race the world’s fastest cars. It’s the rich European prep school of motorsport, and drivers there tend to enjoy more prestige. He was invited by Indycar to take part in last weekend’s virtual race at Circuit of the Americas (COTA), a road course in Austin, Texas that F1 also races as part of its annual calendar. At that race, he turned in a near-flawless performance: he dominated qualifying, and then practically walked away with the race.

From a purely video game standpoint, there was nothing very surprising about Norris’s victory at COTA. He’s been playing racing sims for half his life. But looked at from the traditional motorsports perspective, Norris is a young F1 driver who came into an Indy event and administered a beat-down to a field of drivers whose job is to drive Indycars.

That’s a job Pagenaud made a point of taking seriously throughout this virtual series. The 35 year-old veteran of several different racing series proved to be one of the sharpest and most serious drivers in the iRacing series, winning both the Michigan and Motegi events and wearing his full racing firesuit at times. Which makes it all the more surprising that, in the final moments of the iRacing event, he would be the driver to turn troll.

The end of the race was further marred by Santino Ferrucci, who wrecked race-leader Oliver Askew before the finish line. During his stream of the race he played it off as a joke, him trying to arrange a dramatic crash at the finish line: “It’s for the TV, it’s for the fans!” he said. Another driver on his comms said, “Yeah I don’t think that was too good.”

In the postrace interview with NBC, Ferrucci claimed that he was trying to close up on Askew and said, “I wanted to get a little closer there, but I did not expect to do that. That is for sure.”

With Ferrucci, trolling is less of a surprise. His career in European open-wheel racing ended spectacularly as he intentionally drove into a teammate, ignored a summons by racing officials, and got caught texting and driving in a race car. There were also rumors that he had used racial slurs toward his teammate, allegations that Ferrucci denied as he explained the prejudice he encountered as an American competing in European racing and called a “Yankee.” Toward the end of his Formula 2 career, he asked for permission to run a MAGA livery on his car.

This farcical ending has ramifications go beyond spoiling one race. It forces the issue of whether professional drivers’ behavior during simulated events should have any bearing on their careers. It will certainly have a bearing on their relationships, as implied by this masterpiece of deadpan from driver Will Power as he explained how great it was that all the drivers have gotten a chance to know each other better, and how there’s definitely not going to be any bad blood between drivers when regular racing resumes.

Ferrucci’s comments on stream point at the crux of the matter: at any point in a sim racing event, someone can decide to stop playing the game everyone else is playing and start playing a different one. Ferrucci couldn’t get past Askew for the victory, so he decided to smash him. Whether he intended to affect the results of the race is harder to say, but it’s undeniable that he wanted to cause some spectacular chaos.

But of course, Ferrucci is a driver who infamously did hit a teammate he was angry at following a race. With all the disregard for the work of his team’s mechanics and equipment, and the safety of his fellow drivers that implies. That fact is that while Ferrucci’s behavior online doesn’t have any of the same risks and consequences, he’s also the driver from whom that behavior is most concerning. He is already a driver that the sport has tried mightily to rehabilitate; to see him demolish a rival at the finish line for laughs raises old questions about his overall fitness to race with other drivers.

Pagenaud doesn’t have that body of work, which makes his decision to wreck Norris all the more confounding. You could have made the case that Pagenaud had taken the iRacing series more seriously than anyone else. He notched two wins doing exactly that. iRacing was super important to Pagenaud until he decided he decided it was just a game, and then it became a place for him to grief a much younger driver.

Marcus Ericsson, who felt like Patricio O’Ward had knocked him out of the race with a reckless move, explained Monday on Twitter why he was taking it so hard.

Norris echoed some of this on his own stream after the race, after his conversation with Pagenaud (before he saw the full POV stream from Pagenaud’s side).

Maybe some people aren’t taking it seriously, they just think it’s a game, it doesn’t matter, but… there’s still a lot of other drivers—I had Jarv and the engineers and the guys doing the strategy. We still put time into it. Whether or not we’re at home doing nothing, they’re still working and trying to do things. They could be doing other things with their family, say. They’re still wanting to take part in this and have a bit of fun and try and win a race still. And yeah, some guys, they just get all selfish. And don’t care about any of it.

Because sim racing does not have the same physical stakes, any driver may feel free to sabotage a sim event at any time. Which means the only way to have a sim series featuring pro drivers is going to be with rules enforcement that bears on drivers’ real-world careers. Otherwise, the future of competitive sim racing will be closer to that of any kind of celebrity competition or all-star event: something where the game fundamentally doesn’t matter to its participants, and which is only notable for the personalities on display.

But even if that’s all Indycar wanted or needed from their iRacing invitational series, the personalities displayed during the Indianapolis event put a terrible face on a racing series that has spent years clawing its way back out of NASCAR’s and F1’s shadows and regaining the elite status it had in the 1990s. The lasting impression of the Indycar iRacing event is one of resentful second-raters whose sense of fair play extends exactly as far as their chances to win. For those within Indycar, it’s raised uncomfortable questions about how well the drivers really know each other and how much they can be trusted. When they're back at Indy in the real world, what will Pagenaud's competitors think when they see him up ahead? What will they expect from Ferrucci when he appears in the rearview mirror? The iRacing event was just a game but sports are always just games. It’s the people who are real.

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