The new NEO season is set to begin this weekend, but for the first time in six years, it won’t be the virtual Sebring raceway hosting the first round.
A familiar track is still set to welcome the series, although in a very unfamiliar combination of cars. The 24H SERIES ESPORTS championship kicks off on Sunday with round 1 at the Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps, and our team representatives have convened to share their expectations.
NEO has competed at Spa in every season so far, and several teams and drivers with a successful history in the series will be in the field this time as well.
Way back in season one, Anders Dahl scored the GTC class win at Spa with Vergil Racing. Back in a GT3 Cup-spec car, Dahl and his Burst Esport team who paced 991-class pre-qualifying will again expect to be contenders.
In season three, Vendaval Simracing drove their Aston Martin DBR9 to a GT-class victory. Matti Kaidesoja and Juan E. Lopez return from that winning team to Vendaval’s TCR lineup this season.
In the GTS class that season, Julien Grünastel and Lukas Jestädt came away winners for MSP-DRIVERS-HOME in the Audi R8. They’re now back in the same car for Biela Racing Team EURONICS in the #45 entry.
Last season, Logitech G Altus Esports dominated the GTE race at Spa with Yannick Lapchin and Simone Maria Marcenò behind the wheel. They’re also back together this season in the GT3 class.
The real-world 24H SERIES also has plenty of history at Spa, with annual races at the track each of the past three years. This April, Bohemia Energy Racing with Scuderia Praha won the 12H SPA in their Ferrari 488 GT3. Modena Motorsports including iRacer Benny Simonsen won the 991 class, and father-and-son Ivo and Rik Breukers were part of the top TCR team from Red Camel-Jordans.nl in the Cupra DSG.
Just last weekend, 17 24H SERIES teams were back at Spa for the TCR SPA 500, a 500-lap single-class race spanning 23 hours. In that one, it was again Red Camel-Jordans.nl earning the win while DG Sport Compétition was second in its Peugeot 308 and TOPCAR sport by Bas Koeten Racing made it two Cupras on the podium with a third-place result.
The highest-finishing Audi RS 3 LMS belonged to AC Motorsport, who finished fifth overall and second in the Pro/Am class.
Spa may be the longest circuit of the NEO season at 7.0 kilometers, but nearly every one of our team representatives pointed to the same corner as the most important: Eau Rouge.
Carrying maximum speed up the hill and into Raidillon requires a precise line and a bit of bravery; Dennis Gerressen of the Virtual Motorsport GT3 team noted “the risk of destroying your car if you get it wrong”.
Even if you don’t crash, it will be easy to lose time compared to your competitors if you don’t hit it exactly right.
“In the Porsche, Eau Rouge is very easy to get a tiny bit wrong, which will easily lose you 0.2 to 0.3 seconds at the end of the Kemmel straight,” said Anders Dahl from Burst Esport.
For teams in a battle, staying close through that complex will be key to setting up a pass, but “especially while driving in the slipstream, this can be quite challenging,” said Michael Drechsler from the Huber Racing E-Sports GT3 team.
And in the momentum-dependent TCR, taking Eau Rouge and Raidillon at maximum speed will test teams all day long.
“With the lower power of the Audi TCR, the run down from La Source and up Eau Rouge and Raidillon will be absolutely crucial,” said Georg Gruber from Torque Freak Racing. “Carrying speed through here is difficult and can make or break your lap times.”
Other tricky turns our team members pointed out were Pouhon and Blanchimont.
“They are the most challenging corners on this beautiful track, but it’s not only a matter of setup,” said Moreno Sirica from Williams JIM Esports’ GT3 team. “Here you need to show your real talent and make the difference.”
Track limits in both corners make them even more difficult, and with only 25 off-tracks to play with before the first warning and 50 before the first penalty, going wide too often could earn a costly drive-through down the long endurance pit lane.
“You can gain much time by using as much track as possible,” said Joakim Vennström from GOTeam Racing in the 991 class. “But then you are also very close to getting an off track. So precision here is crucial.”
For drivers carrying speed out of Blanchimont, whether on-track or off, the final chicane could be another potential passing opportunity, and it’s also one of the easiest corners to get wrong.
“A slight mistake will lose you speed and you can get overtaken easily,” said Miguel Vigo from Alpinestars Geodesic Racing’s 991 team. “Teams need to be prepared for this to happen constantly, and it’s up to you to lose the least amount of time when this happens.”
While setting up potential passes, TCR teams will have to be careful and avoid overdriving several of Spa’s deceptively long braking zones.
“I believe we have to look out for Bruxelles and Pouhon,” said Miguel Freitas of Team MAD. “A hot entry on any of those corners will make the rear step out and see us being eaten by the field.”
Challenges in Each Class
Sticking with that analogy, the TCR class could be downright cannibalistic this season, with little margin for error and mistakes punished harshly.
“These NTMv7 tires are really sensitive to being pushed too hard. Plus, most cars will probably be in close battles throughout the race,” said Brian Lockwood from RaceKraft Esports.
“These cars can take a hit, so damage shouldn’t play too much of a factor. The story of this race will be who can setup and manage their tires the best, and we’re working hard to make sure that’s us!”
For many teams, hour-long stints in the new Audi RS 3 LMS will be a trip into the unknown.
“It’s the first time that we will take part in an endurance race with the TCR, so obviously you don’t have any reference to work with.” noted Eneric Andre from Satellite Racing.
Although the annual iRacing 24 Hours of Spa has given teams plenty of laps around this track, for some of this season’s GT3 teams, this may be the first Spa race in their current car — or the first race at all, given the last-minute car swaps by several teams. As a result, we now have a slightly more balanced grid with 11 Audi R8s and 7 Mercedes AMGs.
As they get up to speed in their machinery for the season, GT3 drivers noted two big challenges in this race will be optimizing their setup and managing tire wear.
“There is always a lot of effort behind the race setup, and many tests are needed to find the last tenth,” said Sirica. “Looking at pre-qualifying, that can be the tenth that separates the winner from the loser.”
Added Lapchin, “the biggest challenge will be the tire management in GT3, and being able to maintain pace as much as possible in the stint.”
For 991-class teams, who have been allotted their full fuel tank capacity of 100 liters, they’ll have to decide whether to stretch their fuel to save a pit stop, all while contending with the circuit and their competitors.
“Off-tracks will be a big limiting factor, but we have to manage,” said Dahl. “Combine that with traffic and I think it will be a very tough race.”
This race will be the first time we’ve seen this season’s three classes on track together in anger, and drivers have mixed opinions on whether that will make traffic easier or more difficult to contend with.
“There’s enough of a pace gap from the TCR to the other classes that it should make it easy for them to pass us and small taps probably won’t lead to full spins in a FWD car,” said Tuomas Tähtelä from Altus.
“The lack of a prototype class means everything happens at a bit slower pace, which makes it easier. The challenge is to make sure we don’t lose too much time from having to get out of the racing line.”
Other TCR drivers said that their straight-line speed disadvantage to both the GT3 and 991 classes should make those overtakes more straightforward, but those faster-class competitors noted that those passes may not always be easy.
“Multiclass is always tricky, and it is easy to have misunderstandings, especially when the approaching speed is significantly different,” said Sirica. “We already had some experience with the Porsche 911s, but is going to be funny to understand how we can navigate through the TCR train.”
In practice so far, GT3s have been lapping around 18 seconds quicker than the TCRs, which means going through traffic every seven to eight laps.
Porsches are around 7 seconds per lap slower than the GT3s, so they’ll only see each other every 19 laps or so, while the 991s will pass the TCRs about every 13 laps, or roughly twice per stint.
Stuck in the middle class, the Porsche drivers will have to keep their heads on a swivel all race.
“It will be demanding to pay attention simultaneously to the front and to the rear,” said Vennström. “We can quite easily overtake the TCRs on the long straights, but it won’t be as easy for the GT3s to overtake the Porsche.”
With such little track time together so far, some teams are expecting the worst.
“There’s probably going to be a lot of contact,” said Gruber. “No one has any experience as to what to expect from the other classes, especially from the TCR cars that have extremely limited capabilities of altering their course on the exits of corners.”
“Hopefully teams will account for that and there won’t be too many — or any, haha — incidents during the race,” added Lockwood.
Past experience also suggests a season-opener can be a bit rough around the edges when it comes to driving standards.
“History shows that these first races of the season are often the most chaotic of them all, and keeping your head cool is a must when dealing with traffic,” said Dennis Gerressen.
“Everyone is nervous, or perhaps even more dangerous — ambitious!,” said Dahl. “It’s gonna be a brawl!”
That brawl begins at 12:05 GMT on Sunday with qualifying followed by the race at 1300, and it will all be carried live by RaceSpot on the iRacing eSports Network.
Expectations for the Season
A good start to the season will be the key to a strong result in the final standings, as last season proved. The P1 and P2 class winners, Thrustmaster Mivano Racing and AVA Vervatic, respectively, went on to win their championships, while it took all season and nearly all 24 hours at Le Mans for Altus to rebound from its Sebring crash to jump to the top of the standings.
Entering this season, all of our team representatives acknowledge how strong and closely matched their classes are, and few are expecting immediate success.
“We would like to get some top fives and be consistent throughout the season,” said Andre. “Obviously, getting a podium would be amazing, but there’s a lot of pretty good teams here, so it’ll be tough.”
“Since it will be our first season racing with the big boys, we don’t expect anything crazy like podiums or race wins, to be honest,” said Drechsler. “But we will be aiming at consistent midfield positions without getting in trouble in any of the races.”
“The switch to the TCR puts us in a class with some of the best teams on iRacing, in a car we don’t have extensive experience with yet, so we will have to wait for the first race at Spa to see how we stack up against the field,” said Gruber.
For a few teams, though, there are reasons to be optimistic.
“Our lineup is one of the best in the category,” said Sirica. “We know each other and with our commitment, we are sure that a top-five is definitely possible.”
“This time around, we are driving a touring car, which is a car where Team MAD is very competitive, so we are looking forward to seeing where we place ourselves among world class drivers,” said Freitas.
“As last season’s champions, we expect to play for this title win as well. Still there are some obstacles in our path, especially considering the density of the competition in our class,” said Lapchin.
“But we are very motivated! Game on!”