BMW factory racer Philipp Eng is slated to race in DTM in 2020, and he is running in the long IMSA enduros with Team RLL. But for now, with his track cars parked because of the coronavirus outbreak, he is focusing on sim racing.
Eng, 30, began sim racing as a teenager. He says, “I was 17, I think, and my simulator was such that I had to shift my exercise books to one side, clamp my steering wheel on my desk, and fasten the pedals to the floor using tape.”
Now, he participates in virtual races from his home on a state-of-the-art simulator. Last weekend he participated in two events, including “The Race All-Stars Esports Battle” on Saturday and the “F1 Esports Virtual Bahrain Grand Prix”, the first sim race officially staged by Formula 1, on Sunday.
He says, “I am glad I have my race simulator at home at the moment. In these times, when everyone has to avoid moving about in public as much as possible, it is basically my, “substitute racing drug.” The virtual races help me to stay in race mode, particularly mentally. Although the simulator doesn’t feel exactly the same as reality, my instincts are the same as on an actual racetrack. It allows me to keep them sharp. For me, sim racing is more than just fun, it also really helps me to improve as a professional racing driver.”
When BMW Motorsport revealed its 2020 strategy last December, it announced, in what now appears to have been a prescient move, that sim racing would become a pillar of its motorsport program.
BMW Motorsport indicates that it is currently committed to two racing platforms: “BMW works drivers and some of the world’s best sim racers regularly compete on the iRacing platform—primarily in the virtual BMW M8 GTE. Bruno Spengler, Nick Catsburg, and Jesse Krohn claimed a one-two-three in that car in last Saturday’s IMSA Super Sebring Saturday. The Digital Nürburgring Endurance Series has recently also started to hold its races on the iRacing platform. There, BMW works drivers and the BMW Juniors take to the Nordschleife in the BMW Z4 GT3. The second platform is rFactor 2 which is home to the BMW SIM M2 CS Racing Cup, in which the new BMW Junior Team regularly competes.”
Eng says, “In my opinion, BMW Motorsport’s intensive involvement is currently giving sim racing another huge boost. When a major manufacturer like BMW gets involved to such a degree, the general public picks up on it and the perception of sim racing changes in a positive way. I see it this way: as a motorsport fan, watch the DTM race at the Nürburgring in the afternoon and then why not watch the livestream of the sim race in Sebring in the evening.”
And why are full-time sim racers often faster than pro racers on the simulator? Eng explains, “That is mainly because of the incredible amount of time that these guys have spent on simulators over the years. I like to compare it with fitness training. If I train regularly and do, let’s say, 350 kilometers per week on my bike, then I will be pretty fit. If, however, I have two weeks off because I am away somewhere racing, then my fitness level drops again. That is exactly the difference between me, who is not regularly in the simulator during a normal season, and a professional sim racer—who is also very talented.”
But would a professional sim racer make a good track racer? Eng says, “I am sure that the best have the necessary technical know-how and driving potential. However, in a real race car, they must first learn to deal with the fact that they could get hurt if they make a mistake. I notice that with myself. I always take more risks in the simulator than I do in a real race car.”
BMW Motorsport’s race simulator in Munich is used for both vehicle development and race preparation. It is used extensively before Formula E races, and is also regularly used by DTM racers.
Eng says, “The simulator I have at home is pretty good, for something that ordinary citizens can buy. However, it is miles away from what the BMW Motorsport simulator can do. As the BMW Motorsport simulator moves on a flexible platform, you, the driver, feel every curb and bump, just as you would do in reality. For me, the way the car handles is barely different to reality.”
For now, sim racing is the only game in town. But when the postponed track season resumes in motorsport, it is apparent that sim racing will not go away.—Brian Morgan
[Photos courtesy BMW Motorsport.]