Max Verstappen simply loves to race — whether it’s in real life or in a video game.
The 25-year-old Dutch driver, who won his second consecutive Formula One world championship last season, will put his gaming prowess to the test this weekend when he headlines the 24 Hours of Le Mans Virtual, a sim-racing version of the prestigious French endurance race. The event, which runs on the sim-racing platform rFactor 2, features a total of 180 participants — a mix of real-life drivers and professional sim racers — competing in teams of four.
Just like at the real Le Mans, teammates take turns racing for hours at a time over the course of a full day. In the virtual version, though, they compete in their own sim-racing rigs from their respective homes.
“I started racing [in video games] with a controller way back when I was 4 or 5 years old,” Verstappen said in an interview with The Washington Post. “I don’t really have a lot of free time anymore to compete in big sim races, but this one is very important to me and the team — and we’re hoping for a great weekend to bring home the win.”
Founded in 2020, the 24 Hours of Le Mans Virtual was intended as a pandemic stopgap to replace that year’s postponed, real-life Le Mans. But it proved to be a surprise hit, generating more than 20 million viewers across TV and streaming, later spawning an entire sim-racing endurance series with participation from real-life car manufacturers including Ferrari, Porsche and BMW.
Verstappen has been a key participant in the series since its inception and is glad to be bringing more attention to the event.
“I’ve really enjoyed seeing the sim-racing community get more and more recognition these past few years,” he said. “Everyone can see how professional it has become.”
Verstappen is no stranger to esports. Since 2015, he has participated in a variety of sim races with Team Redline, a long-standing esports organization. He says that his team’s approach to this weekend’s race is not dissimilar to how he prepares for a typical Formula One Grand Prix.
“We treat this like a real, live race,” he said. “We’re fine-tuning the car’s setup and testing it in the hottest and coldest conditions, in rainy and dry weather, and in both night and day. There are weeks of preparation that go into this, and a lot of people don’t realize that.”
Verstappen spoke with The Washington Post about his game plan for this weekend’s race, his fascination with sim racing and why he feels it makes him a better Formula One driver.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Launcher: You’ve been participating in the virtual Le Mans every year since it began in 2020. Why is this race so important to you?
Max Verstappen: Well, I love endurance racing in general, I love the track, and I just like good competition. A lot of great teams are participating, so all of that comes together to make this a very fun race for me.
Unlike most of us, you drive an actual racecar nearly every weekend in Formula One. Is it tricky to adapt to sim racing when you’re so accustomed to the real thing?
Verstappen: Yeah, you really do miss the G-force. And in real racing, a lot relies on what you feel through the wheel. I must say, though, that simulators are getting quite accurate — I would say it’s now 90 percent accurate to a real racecar.
It’s becoming fairly common to hear about up-and-coming drivers who got their start in sim racing. Is this a generational thing, and is sim racing now a legitimate part of the racing landscape?
Verstappen: Yeah, I think so — and many real racers love to drive on the simulator in their spare time. I still think that for people who grew up only using a simulator, it’s quite a big step to go straight into real-world racing. But we’ve seen that happen before, so nothing is impossible.
Another key difference is there is a certain physicality to real racing — you need to be fit and well trained. On a simulator, even if you don’t have that, you can still manage to be really quick.
Everyone lays out their sim-racing rig differently. People will put it in their living room, their office or even their bedroom. How do you arrange it in your Monaco apartment?
Verstappen: The bedroom? I don’t think the girlfriend would appreciate that! Especially since you have late nights talking to your team members — and I definitely don’t think she’d appreciate that. But here in Monaco, the living room is perfect for me.
You often hear stories of people getting distracted while sim racing, whether it’s pets, phone calls or just the doorbell ringing. Do those types of distractions happen to you?
Verstappen: During practice days, yes. I have two cats, and they’re always running around. My girlfriend has a daughter, and sometimes she might be tapping me on the shoulder. But on race day, I make sure no one is interfering — I close the doors and no one is allowed within 10 meters of my simulator.
Are you a big gamer outside of sim racing?
Verstappen: Mainly with FIFA, yes. A few years back, I was really, seriously into it. I was trying as much as I could to be on a professional level. But you really can’t combine being a Formula One driver and a high-level FIFA player. Most of my free time now is spent on the simulator, but if I get a few spare hours, I might still sneak in a few FIFA games.
How do you manage your 24 hours during a virtual race like this? When you’re done with a stint, do you stay up most of the night watching your teammates?
Verstappen: Yeah, once I hop off the simulator [after a stint], I’m always on my phone to watch what’s developing in our driver chat. And I put the broadcast on TV to follow what’s happening live.
At last year’s virtual Le Mans, you dramatically crashed out of the race while in the lead late in the evening. Do you feel extra motivated this year to get the win?
Verstappen: These things happen in Formula One, too. You’ll crash, and people will ask, ‘Are you looking for payback or redemption?’ But I never look at it like that. Last year, that was a very big and unnecessary mistake, and I felt sorry for my teammates because we could have won the championship. For this year, I just want to have a strong race — we’ve put everything into this, now it’s up to us to go deliver.
Does sim racing make you a better Formula One driver?
Verstappen: The main thing is that on all the simulator platforms, I race non-Formula One cars. So, you have to be adaptive and change your driving style, since every car demands something else as far as steering input, throttle and driving lines. I’m constantly learning and adapting to what I need to do in each car to go as quick as possible.
At the end of the day, that helps you when you go back to Formula One, because you have all of this experience in the back of your mind. Sometimes you might not be entirely happy with the setup of your Formula One car, but you can draw on all of your different experiences in the simulator.
So, essentially, it makes you a more well-rounded racer.
Verstappen: That’s exactly what I’m trying to achieve.
Gregory Leporati is a freelance writer and photographer covering esports, tech and motorsports. His recent work has appeared in GQ, the Los Angeles Times, Pitchfork and Ars Technica. Follow him on Twitter @leporparty.