Virtual 24 Hours of Le Mans: Aurélien Mallet gets real

Virtual 24 Hours of Le Mans: Aurélien Mallet gets real

The inaugural Virtual 24 Hours of Le Mans in 2020 was an unprecedented experience for Aurélien Mallet in more ways than one. Not only did the multiple sim racing champion shoulder the responsibility of driving the pace car and safety car at this legendary event, he did so at the wheel of the world’s first hydrogen endurance prototype – the MissionH24 LMPH2G – shared with the then development driver on the ACO/GreenGT-led programme, Olivier Lombard. With the second Virtual 24 Hours of Le Mans just around the corner (15-16 January 2022), Mallet talks about his unique involvement which will shortly see him switch to the “real” LMPH2G.

When the Covid-19 pandemic forced the postponement of the 2020 24 Hours of Le Mans, the traditional mid-June slot in the racing calendar saw the inception of a “virtual” version of the legendary event. A world-wide mix of professional drivers and gamers took up the challenge. Five-time French and world sim racing champion Aurélien Mallet was invited to participate, but in what was for him a rather unique role – as a member of the organising team.

“When this opportunity arose, I jumped at it,” says Mallet. “It was a tremendous chance to experience this awesome event from the inside alongside race director Eduardo Freitas, who normally officiates at the 24 Hours of Le Mans and in the FIA World Endurance Championship and whose responsibilities include deciding when the safety car is required. I’ve always been fascinated by motor racing but you need big bucks behind you to compete. So, I discovered the thrill of competition through gaming,” says the 26-year-old “Laige”, Mallet’s sim racing moniker. “Just about everyone can get involved. All you need is an X-Box and controller. I started at 16 as an amateur. After catching their eye online, I joined a pro team. I’ve driven everything from a Volkswagen Polo to an LMP1, including GT3 and supercars.”

And now the LMPH2G, the world’s first hydrogen-electric prototype built for endurance racing! “I shared the car with Olivier Lombard (development driver at the time for the ACO and GreenGT’s MissionH24 programme, the precursor for a Hydrogen class at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 2025). The combination of professional racing drivers and sim racing experts in the teams was extremely interesting. Some of the pros took to sim racing like a duck to water and the discussions between the two disciplines were lively. I wanted to take my role seriously, so I chatted a lot to Olivier about the Hydrogen programme, the car itself and this new technology. He told me that the adaptation of the car’s handling for simulation purposes was quite realistic. I saw how different it was to the LMP1s that I’d already driven in sim racing. It’s really well done because the Virtual 24 Hours of Le Mans not only reproduced the car’s outline but its physical features too. You soon realise that you can’t use the engine to brake on the LMPH2G, when energy is recovered too…” says Mallet, who had the job of driving the safety car. “I was called out twice, for three or four laps each time. Luckily, I was on call both times the safety car was required.”

The Virtual 24 Hours of Le Mans has resulted in an unexpected spin-off for Mallet. In a few weeks, he will take the wheel of the real LMPH2G at the invitation of the H24Racing team. He will be guided by Norman Nato and Stéphane Richelmi, two of the drivers employed by the outfit that will make its racing début in the 2022 Michelin Le Mans Cup. “When I get into the passenger seat and then behind the wheel of the LMPH2G, I’ll obviously be looking for the markers I found during the virtual event, as is only natural. But I’ll find out what it actually feels like to drive, which is the main thing that is lacking in the virtual world,” he explains.

The former “Laige” has now turned over a new leaf. After 10 years of virtual racing with up to 15 hours a day of sim training when preparing for a championship, the Le Mans Esports Series title holder has traded in his computer and controller for a go-kart. “I love the thrills,” he admits. “In sim racing, it’s all about concentration and mental strength.” A whole new array of emotions surely awaits the first virtual driver of the LMPH2G when he climbs into the cockpit of the real thing!