It was around this time last year, on June 15, when Princess Charlene brought the crowd of 250,000 to their feet as she waved the tricolor French flag to start the beginning of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the epic “Grand Prix of Endurance and Efficiency.”
Now Her Serene Highness is about to return to the Circuit de la Sarthe—but this time with a team to compete in the first-ever 24 Hours of Le Mans Virtual as she draws attention to the battle against Covid-19. Over the duration of the race, the Princess Charlene of Monaco Foundation will be collecting donations towards medical research for a universal vaccine.
Princess Charlene starts 24 Hours of Le Mans in 2019. Photo: 24 Heures du Mans/Facebook
Driving under the banner of the Princess Charlene Foundation and the Monegasque flag, team #54 Strong Together brings together sim racer Tony Mella with pro drivers Francesco Castellacci, Giancarlo Fisichella and Felipe Massa.
Massa, a Monaco resident who has 269 F1 Grand Prix races under his belt, including 11 wins and the 2008 vice-champion title, tells Forbes Monaco, “Le Mans 24 is one of the most important sport events in the world and this inaugural virtual race is going to be fun, especially as we will represent Monaco and Princess Charlene’s Foundation.”
And while the 39-year-old Venturi Formula E driver will actually be in Brazil for the race, Mella, Castellacci and his former 2004 Sauber teammate, Fisichella, will drive from Monaco.
With 50 teams at the start grid, 24 Hours of Le Mans Virtual will replicate the real deal—night racing, damage and technical issues, driver and tire changes and refueling. “Virtual racing is really different and we need to train a lot,” explains Massa, who was a starter at the 2018 Le Mans Classic. “We began preparing last month, learning the ropes from a professional scene driver and about how to set up the car for all four drivers, not easy.”
On May 29, the team virtually jumped into their official LM 488 GTE Ferrari racecar, designed by Gareth Wittstock, the tireless General Secretary of his sister’s Foundation. Since its creation in 2012, the Fondation de Princesse Charlene, which promotes water safety, sport and education programs, particularly for children, has benefited 730,000 people in 34 countries.
Closer to home, the Foundation has distributed 12,500 free cloth masks in Monaco since the beginning of the Covid epidemic. In April, Wittstock helped deliver 5,000 reusable masks with the message #strongtogether to commerces at the Condamine market and Fontvieille Shopping Centre, as well as to other Essential Services. More recently, he presented 1,000 of these to Yvette Lambin-Berti, General Secretary of the Monaco Olympic Committee.
“The virtual races have really caught the imagination of spectators who were unable to attend sporting events,” Wittstock tells Forbes Monaco, “and Motorsport is closely linked to Monaco obviously with the Formula 1, which sadly had to be cancelled this year.”
He says the virtual race team is a fun way “to help raise much needed support in the fight against Covid” and also raise awareness for the Foundation.
“The drivers involved have always been great in helping us so I’m really pleased to have them race in our colors. Let’s hope we can win at what will be a grueling event for them.”
While the 88th edition of the live 24 Hours Le Mans race has been postponed until the September 18-19 weekend, the inaugural 24 Hours of Le Mans Virtual 2020 starts at 3 p.m. on this Saturday.
“I am excited that Princess Charlene invited me to be a part of her team,” Massa shares, “and I hope we are ready for June 13.”
Addressing the future of fanless races for Formula One (the season returns on July 5 in Austria) and Formula E (changes to the calendar season have been made but not officially announced), Massa remarks, “The coronavirus has had such a big impact on all categories of sport. We need to make the championships happen but without fans, drivers will massively feel that something important is missing from the race. I hope it won’t be for long before we can get back to normal.”
Article first published on June 11, 2020.