A Complete Guide To This Weekend's Controversial IndyCar Challenge

A Complete Guide To This Weekend's Controversial IndyCar Challenge

Social media lit up following Saturday's IndyCar event on iRacing after some drivers decided not to take things as seriously as they perhaps should have done

Chance are you’ve already seen or heard about what happened on a basic level, but allow me to quickly go through it again before we dive a bit deeper into the whos, the whats, and the whys.

Basically, Lando Norris (attending his second IndyCar Challenge race having won at COTA) was leading with three laps to go and looking set to win when he was taken out in an accident while lapping Simon Pagenaud.

Then, the last lap descended into complete chaos. New lead Marcus Ericsson was taken out by Pato O’Ward at the final corner, while Oliver Askew was denied victory on the line after taking a swipe from Santino Ferrucci, allowing Scott McLaughlin to sneak through and pinch the win.

Simple, right? Errrm, not quite. Let’s deal with the Norris/Pagenaud collision first. Afterwards, Pagenaud said that it was a misjudgement - he was apparently slowing down in order to come into the pit lane.

However, on his own stream, Pagenaud could very clearly be heard saying he’s going to ‘take Lando out’. He exits the pits, drives a couple of slow laps, and then backs off when Lando is right behind him, before saying that he “didn’t want to crash him” and was only going to “slow him down a bit”.

But why would someone with the experience of Simon Pagenaud - an IndyCar champion, Indy 500 winner, Penske driver, and all-around decent and respected guy - want to wipe someone out of the lead?

It all seems to stem from the moment when Norris actually took the lead. With eight laps to go, he was running in third place behind Pagenaud and Graham Rahal, but on much fresher tyres and with a quicker car. Norris got a run through Turn 1 and made a move down the inside of the pair of them to take the lead. Rahal - either through overreaction, a mistake, or perhaps a bit of contact due to a moment of dodgy netcode - jinked to the right, sending Pagenaud into the wall.

Now, at the actual Indy 500, there are various unwritten rules and etiquettes among the drivers. One of which is that if drivers go three-wide into a corner, the last one into the situation should be the first one to back out. Also, you don’t generally see overtakes of the kind that Norris did into Turn 2 (or Turn 4) in real life. But this isn’t real life. It’s iRacing. And things are going to be slightly different.

Rahal and Pagenaud wouldn’t have been expecting Norris to make that move if they were in real life - and if it was real life, he probably wouldn’t have attempted it. But in the context of iRacing, the overtake was very much on and Lando pulled it off cleanly. His experience with iRacing and the mindset of what’s possible in sim racing gave him a competitive edge over two of his rivals… and they didn’t seem to like it. We’ll get back to the sporting implications in a moment.

A Complete Guide To This Weekend's Controversial IndyCar Challenge - Indycar

Next up, O’Ward’s incident with Ericsson. Of the three major accidents, this is the only one that you can really chalk up as a genuine mistake. Having gone from third to first into Turn 3, Ericsson was compromised on a tighter line heading into Turn 4. He covered it well, but O’Ward attempted to duck underneath, perhaps anticipating that Ericsson would go a touch wide and leave a space. It didn’t happen, he ran into the back of him, and Ericsson was spun out.

An avoidable incident? Of course - but it was the last lap of the last corner of the race and O’Ward was simply having a go. If it was the same situation in the real Indy 500, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a similar incident happen. As much as it sucks for Ericsson and as blameless as he was, I don’t think you can criticise O’Ward too harshly for making a simple driving error while going for the win.

And then there’s Santino Ferrucci. In 2018 he was banned from Formula 2 for deliberately crashing into his teammate, fined for using his phone while driving his car, and then sacked by his team after reports of unsavoury behaviour in the paddock He found a new home in IndyCar and seemed to be putting his past behind him with some very impressive performance - although he didn’t endear himself to Josef Newgarden following a potentially dangerous move at Gateway.

Back to iRacing, and his swipe at Askew as the two raced for the line looked incredibly suspect. In an interview after the race he said he was just trying to grab the slipstream and made a mess of it, but a clip from his own stream - which he’d hastily deleted - revealed a different story.

Yikes. Ferrucci’s track record makes such a move unsurprising. But what really rubbed salt in the wounds afterwards wasn’t only the excuse, but the feeble apology and attempt to justify his actions by saying “it’s only a game’.

‘It’s only a game’. That phrase has been used a lot over the last couple of days and it angers me. Yes, it’s only a game, in the same way that F1 is only driving cars, or that football is only kicking a ball. There’s a world of difference between grown adults taking part in professionally organised competitions using high-end equipment, and an 11-year-old on Xbox Live saying he did things to your mum because you killed him on Call of Duty.

You may not care about sim racing. You may see it as ‘only a game’, and you may not give two hoots about why the race has caused so much controversy. That’s all fine, you don’t have to like everything. However, this an entire industry which means an awful lot to a hell of a lot of people. Many of those watching and competing care about it deeply, so when we see that some of the real drivers competing not only don’t take it as seriously as they should, but are willing to actively spoil it for others in the assumption that everyone sees it as ‘just a game’, it comes across as disrespectful. Not just to the people involved in a particular race, but to the thousands of sim racers around the world who take it seriously who do it not only because they love it, but because it’s the closest most of us will get to being real-life racing drivers.

A Complete Guide To This Weekend's Controversial IndyCar Challenge - Indycar

IndyCar and iRacing have gone to huge efforts to set this series up. Drivers have spent their own money on sim rigs to be able to compete. It’s broadcast on national television to a very high production standard. Sponsors and advertisers want to be associated with the end product. It matters.

Anyone who’s ever done any amount of semi-organised league racing online will know just how frustrating it is to put in hours of practice for an event, only to be wiped out on the first lap by someone implementing their own brand of vigilante justice. The preparation drivers have done for the IndyCar events has been insane and the result of a great deal of effort by many different people, as Lando explained on his stream after the race:

“Do you know how many hours, how much time I put into [going] left? How many hours I’ve spent driving in a straight line and then just doing this [turning left]? I must have spent a day in total, I reckon I’ve spent 24 hours flicking driving in a straight line and turning left, trying to perfect it. With the most delicate touch, I’ve tried doing it one-handed, with my knee. 24 hours!

“And then because that guy gets a bit salty that a non-IndyCar driver is about to win an Indy race. It just ruins it. So, yeah, that’s that.

“I feel so bad for the guys as well. 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 have 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 families. They’re still wanting to take part in this and have a bit of fun and try to win a race. Then some guys get all selfish, don’t care about any of it.”

Pagenaud might not have actually said ‘it’s just a game’, but his actions showed it. The irony is he had been taking it seriously up to that point, but the moment he felt wronged, or frustrated, or jealous, or whatever emotion was triggered in him, Pagenaud felt compelled to do something that (I hope) he’d never even contemplate doing in a real race. If he could suspend his disbelief to take the rest of the events seriously, why couldn’t he do so that particular moment? Just because the cars aren’t real, it doesn’t mean the concept of basic sportsmanship can be abandoned.

If drivers want to mess around and do silly things on a sim (which, let’s be honest, is a lot of fun and we absolutely want to see) then they should do it on their own time and in their own sessions. Acting like that in such a high-profile event undoes a lot of the hard work done by the sim racing industry to be taken seriously.

A Complete Guide To This Weekend's Controversial IndyCar Challenge - Indycar

Did Lando make a bold, unexpected move to take the lead? Yes. Was it executed cleanly? Yes. Did Pagenaud have a right to be annoyed because he felt it indirectly caused him to crash? Also yes. Should he have reacted by deliberately ruining Lando’s race? Absolutely not. And I don’t know why Ferrucci thought it would be fun to wipe out Askew within sight of the line - at least it didn’t win him the race.

There will have been people watching this who are new to sim racing and may very well have been enjoying it. Then, when they see drivers they know treating the whole thing as joke, they’ll turn it off and think ‘it’s just a game’. Because at this level, it really isn’t.