A second straight victory in virtual racing for Simon Pagenaud and Team Penske, and tempers were hot at the end of this one.
Pagenaud, the reigning Indianapolis 500 winner, competed in his firesuit and captured IndyCar's race Saturday on a simulated Twin Ring Motegi in Japan. A frantic final 10 laps decided the iRacing event.
Essentially, Penske drivers Will Power and Scott McLaughlin were racing each other for the lead — and probably the win — when they came upon the lapped car of Oliver Askew that caused Power to touch McLaughlin's car.
McLaughlin, the Australian V8 SuperCars champion and winner of the virtual race three weeks ago at Barber Motorsports Park, was sent spinning into the wall and out of contention.
McLaughlin was livid and actively trying to calm himself on his simulator in Brisbane, where he awakened at 2 a.m. to prep for the series.
“It's a video game, it's a video game,” McLaughlin repeated. “I know it's a game, but I'm still (mad).”
Power fired off an angry text to Askew, then shared the contents during a post-race Zoom video conference of the podium finishers.
“I had three of the clapping signs ... ‘took out the two leaders with a few laps to go. Huge lack of respect for the drivers who worked hard to be there racing for the win at the end, which you will be at some point,’” read Power. “That’s what I sent to Askew.”
Pagenaud then raced Power wheel-to-wheel and the cars appeared to touch before Pagenaud took the lead. He still had to hold off Scott Dixon's last-lap attempt to pass him for the win.
“It was very hectic with Will at one point and then Dixon at the end,” Pagenuad said. “I work hard all week to be competitive and I think I'm getting there.”
Pagenaud also won last week at virtual Michigan International Speedway, and along with McLaughlin's victory the Penske drivers have won three of the four IndyCar iRaces.
The Frenchman said he spends about five hours a day practicing on his simulator
“I put a lot of hours to be at the level of people like Will, for example. They are very fast on iRacing, very competitive,” Pagenaud said. "At the end it got a bit crazy. What’s fun to me, it’s actually that you’re racing the exact same guys as usual, exact same moves as you would in real life. You keep turning your wheels in your head.
“Right now we’re not racing, so we’re racing on the weekend. That gives me a lot of joy. The adrenaline was definitely at the maximum level at the end of the race.”
Pagenaud slowed after taking the checkered flag and Dixon ran into the back of his car — contact that sent him spinning into the lapped car of Helio Castroneves. Both Dixon and Castroneves went virtually airborne after the finish.
“I was running for a spectacular finish there. I didn’t realize it was the last lap. I thought we were still racing, man,” said Dixon, the five-time IndyCar champion who entered the iRacing Series in its second event when it became clear how advantageous it is for sponsors during the shutdown.
“It’s great for our sponsors. PNC Bank have been really interested in how this program was going to play out. Kudos obviously to the NTT IndyCar Series and iRacing — iRacing have so much on their plate at the moment with so many different series. It’s honestly gone very smoothly from their standpoint.”
Dixon finished second, Power was third and Marcus Ericsson, Dixon's new teammate at Chip Ganassi Racing, was fourth.
iRacing has become a hit for IndyCar, NASCAR, IMSA and even some Formula One competitors who have entered events that can be found either on television or streaming every day of the week. But NASCAR has hit some speed-bumps through the first month and Kyle Larson this week was fired by Ganassi for using a racial slur during a race. Bubba Wallace lost a sponsor for “rage quitting” the game, and there was an uproar this week when lesser-known drivers were cut from NASCAR's field Sunday in an effort to have a cleaner race on national TV.
IndyCar raced at virtual Twin Ring Motegi, a track the series last visited in 2011 but was selected in a fan vote as the circuit for the fourth round of the iRacing Series started when sports were shutdown because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Kyle Busch, who has made no secret of his desire to race in the Indianapolis 500, made his IndyCar debut virtually via a league Invitation extended to the two-time and reigning NASCAR champion. Busch finished 13th — better than any finish yet in the NASCAR virtual races. He's a newcomer to iRacing but quickly improving on his simulator.
Busch was joined by newcomers Castroneves, a three-time Indianapolis 500 winner, and Takuma Sato, also an Indianapolis 500 winner, as the field included a series iRacing-high 33 drivers.
Broadcast on NBC Sports, analyst Paul Tracy drew virtual laughs when Sato pitted and Tracy took note of the packed grandstands.
“Look at all the fans in the stands. They are here to watch Sato,” Tracy cracked.
Robert Wickens started on the pole after a qualifying session, and James Hinchcliffe's iRacing struggles continued when technical difficulties knocked him out of yet another race despite logging many hours on his simulator.
“A glitch kicked me out of today’s race!” he posted on Twitter. “Super bummed because practice had gone well and thought we could have had a good one. Using my newfound free time to actually go outside. See sun. Breath fresh air.”