Sseeing a father like that hurt him. The money was gone too. They had to realize that it was useless. Harald Heinrich, who deals in used cars in Kürnach near Würzburg, toiled away for hours after and outside work, sacrificing free weekends on the track or in the garage to prepare the car for the next race. So he wanted to make motorsport possible for his son Laurin.
But with the used Formula 4 racer, which his father had bought for 35,000 euros along with a few tools, the then 15-year-old drove hopelessly behind. “It was tough school,” Laurin Heinrich recalls at the time: “I didn’t have anyone who told me what I had to do to get better.” His crew consisted of his father and two of his friend’s mechanics. “No one had any idea how to adjust the car.”
Early in the dead end
Team Heinrich competed against the big players in the Formula 1 juniors, such as Van Amersfoort Racing, whose former drivers include today’s Formula 1 World Champion Max Verstappen, and Ferrari driver Charles Leclerc. His best result in the 2017 Formula 4 championship was 14th place, the project was completed before the finale in Hockenheim, and the hoped-for racing driver career seemed to have reached a dead end early on.
That six years later, at the start of the DTM season this weekend in Oschersleben, he would make his debut as a factory-paid contract driver in a Porsche 911 GT 3 R? That a 650,000 euro sports car is waiting for him that he just has to drive off because a professional team has prepared everything? To put it mildly, that was not to be expected.
After leaving Formula 4, Heinrich concentrated on school and also drove virtual car races on the computer, as a so-called simracer. “It’s not the same, but it’s a substitute for staying active,” he says. The slopes in modern simulations are laser scanned, accurate to every bump. The car models are created in close cooperation with the manufacturers, the tire model, the physics “everything very, very close,” says Heinrich. It has long since had nothing to do with a bit of gambling.
As an occasional player of the iRacing simulation, he “got a lot on his head at first”, but soon things went better than on the real race track, and Heinrich made a name for himself. The Williams Formula 1 team became aware of the high school graduate and hired him for its “e-sport” squad, his dream came alive again – although he had long since forbidden himself to dream.
Sim racing instead of karting
Then, at the end of 2018, Heinrich met a passionate racing driver at the Hockenheimring who was enthusiastic about the young lad. He provides Heinrich with an old 911 Cup, which he uses to compete against older amateur pilots. The Heinrichs make contacts, get to know supporters “who have the wherewithal.” Laurin Heinrich’s ascent begins.
He wins the amateur series straight away. A year later he is a professional racing driver, starts in the international Porsche Carrera Cup, and again a year later in the Supercup, the manufacturer’s most important one-make cup. He finished fourth in his debut season, then third in 2022, and at the same time he won the Carrera Cup. Porsche supports him after he wins an international decision. Today, at the age of 21, he is a paid contract driver and drives for the team of two-time Le Mans winner Timo Bernhard in the DTM.
Heinrich believes that sim racing can replace karting as an entry point into motorsport, mainly because the sport is becoming more and more expensive. His professional equipment is comparatively cheap at 8,000 euros, includes three 27-inch monitors and a powerful computer, plus a real racing seat and steering wheel – and fast internet. Plus the cost of iRacing, which works on a subscription model and currently costs $110 a year.
But sim racing alone is not enough, Heinrich points out: “It’s unlikely that someone would sign you because they said ‘He’s good in the simulator, he’s also one hundred percent good in real life’.” Motorsport costs too much money for that, no one will risk that. But you can start a conversation, because the industry is watching the sim racers closely.
Although Laurin Heinrich is spending around 30 weekends on racetracks around the world this year, he is still a successful sim racer, most recently he came second in the virtual 24 Hours of Le Mans.
He shares his passion with this year’s DTM team-mate: he and Ayhancan Güven used to have heated duels on the computer, including nasty text messages – all long forgotten. And at Father Harald’s in the car dealership, Laurin Heinrich tells us and laughs, the shelves are now sagging under the weight of the many trophies that the junior has won in the meantime.
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