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The head-smashing story of Daniel Abt’s “ringer” case

The recent news about German Formula E racer Daniel Abt being suspended by Audi Sport has left the motorsport community in shock following from a “ringer” scandal in Round 5 of ABB Formula E Race at Home Challenge in support of UNICEF last Saturday (23rd May 2020). 

The statement from the German manufacturer read:

Daniel Abt did not drive his car in qualifying and the race at the fifth event of the Race at Home Challenge on May 23 himself, but let a professional Sim-Racer do so. He directly apologized for this on the following day and accepted the disqualification. Integrity, transparency and consistent compliance with applicable rules are top priorities for Audi – this applies to all activities the brand is involved in without exception. For this reason, Audi Sport has decided to suspend Daniel Abt with immediate effect.

 

What actually went wrong?

As my title of this scribble is “head-smashing” for the metaphor of this scandal, let me explain what went wrong for Abt during the charity sim racing. Abt was disqualified from 3rd place of Round 5 of the Race at Home Challenge and fined €10,000 – donated to a charity of his choice – after he was plotted to have Lorenz Hoerzing, a professional sim racer, to “replace” him in the Drivers Grid category to improve his results from previous rounds of charity eSports race. What made everyone suspicious (including Mercedes-Benz EQ racer Stoffel Vandoorne) throughout the eSports race was Abt’s face was obscured by a microphone before the live broadcast of the race started. You can read the full timeline of how Abt’s ringer plot exposed by The Race here.

Abt was initially planned to get Hoerzing as a “replacement” for the race to prank his subscribers on his official YouTube channel. According to Inside Electric’s co-founder Katy Fairman, Abt had engaged a conversation with Hoerzing before the broadcast started whether he wants to drive the race instead of Abt, which was a no-joke for the young sim racer. “Let’s actually think about this, that would be super funny,” said Abt in his video statement.

You can click English subtitles for translation.

Based on the statement released by Audi, integrity plays one of the core parts of the iconic German car brand’s corporate image. With that said, it is crucial for racers as the ambassador of a brand to oblige the terms and conditions on the contract, whether it’s internal or any outdoor activities. The implication of Abt’s “ringer” plot becomes more serious when Audi suspends him from the marque’s Formula E squad, with his real-life racing seat in danger and his points removed from the 2019-2020 championship standings. Not only that, but Abt’s contract with the team also might not be renewed as far as I know. Surely, it will be sad for Formula E community to lose one of the prominent drivers since the inaugural season.

 

Has sim racing become too serious lately?

Following from Abt’s “ringer” scandal, many of professional racing drivers have voiced out their opinions, questioning the German marque’s decision to suspend the 27-year old racer from Kempten, Germany. Double Formula E champion and former Toro Rosso Formula 1 racer Jean-Eric Vergne said on his now-deleted tweet:

After all this a game that should be taken seriously, but it’s a GAME. Then, what about all the drivers crashing on purpose, that would probably get their licence removed if that was reality? Been out of almost all races for un-sportsman behaviour and drivers using me as brakes.

Current Formula E championship leader Antonio Felix da Costa and series newcomer James Calado have decided to not to stream their live broadcast on their Twitch channels amid the controversy. I’m pretty sure there will be more following the suit. As mentioned earlier in this scribble, Abt wanted to do this for fun. However, Audi took this issue seriously by suspending him immediately and Formula E fined him €10,000 for cheating in the charity eSports race. That brings the question: has the sim racing event/league become too serious for professional drivers lately?

We all know that sim racing should be fun and entertaining for participating competitors and fans alike, but this takes a biscuit. Formula E’s Race at Home Challenge has become a “new norm” for the class of 2019-2020 FE drivers on every Saturday (until the Grand Final on June 7th). As all the drivers are compulsory to take part in the challenge and racing under the name of charity, they are being paid to race although there are some technical errors such as bugs and glitches, as well as lousy internet connection before the live broadcast start. Take an example of Sam Bird who couldn’t join the first few charity esports races because of glitches he had and was substitute by reigning Japan Super Formula champion Nick Cassidy.

Another thing that why sim racing become too serious is the lack of transparency. If you follow the virtual esport racing such as Vergne’s co-owned company Veloce “Not the GP” series, F1 Esports Virtual GP and FIA Formula 2 Virtual Racing, you already know why they invite current and upcoming young drivers, pop stars and sports athletes to join the fun and making these as successful events. In contrast, Formula E Race at Home Challenge only field the current drivers on the grid, while in the Challengers grid is based on invitational by the teams [correct me if I’m wrong!]. I’ve been watching the #RaceAtHomeChallenge on and off, whether it’s live or highlights, all I could see was there were some drivers pretty handy at sim racing as they put their time to improve lap times before the real event happens (especially Maximilian Gunther) and some of them need to hone their skills and fine-tuning their virtual race craft. Although they have entertained us in the previous rounds of the charity sim racing event, it seemed that there was a lack of fun and humorous side of the event. #WhySoSeriousLah?

For Abt’s case, he wanted to replicate the success from Veloce’s “Not the GP” series according to Katy Fairman via her article. As I know while writing this, Abt got Hoerzing to disguise him during the Drivers Grid race just for fun on his YouTube channel besides improving his result. However, as everyone knows, things went really wrong when he got disqualified from the race classification after the investigation from the organisers – by checking the IP address, and fined 10k Euros until the statement from Audi came out a few days later. I understand there were no malicious intentions and exchange of money from both Abt and Hoerzing throughout the event while creating the “good-vibes” and humorous contents on Abt’s YouTube channel.

The harsh consequences hit Abt really hard as he didn’t intend to make the prank harmful. However, it is really risky for a driver who represents an iconic, legendary brand to make such kind of things for entertainment. For other competitors, it’s really difficult to get into sim racing with all the things become more serious and professional while trying themselves to win in each round of the event. #Killjoy eh?

 

Opinions and reactions

I understand the news has brought a lot of mixed opinions and reactions from the motorsport community for the past 24 hours. After collecting the opinions from the community through social media outlets and my personal posts, here’s what everyone has had to say:

Hazel Southwell, Inside Electric co-founder and content creator: “A lot of the keenness to fire Abt on here (Twitter) is always the perception he’s a talentless pay driver because his family are Audi-connected. He nearly won GP3, has won Le Mans, got Audi their first FE constructor title with Di Grassi, 7 FE podiums, 2 wins (3 on track) – silly situation. Anyway if I was a pro racing driver I’d get well away from any online racing I could get out of. What Abt did was very, very stupid but he’s not a sim racing pro nor was he contracted as such. Yes, it is dangerous getting amateurs to represent your brand on a sponsored broadcast.” 

Mikail Hizal, 2019 FIA Gran Turismo Nations Cup champion: “Even though he [Abt] didn’t mean it like that, he should have expected the outcome to it.”

Martin Hippe, European and Asian Le Mans Series competitor: “It’s an interesting situation. Daniel published a video in German language (yesterday) and said he is very sorry for what happened and it was never planned to cheat. He never took this (Race at Home Challenge) races seriously, but he will respect the decision. It’s a really stupid mistake from him, especially he should have known the reaction of social media. And Audi’s reaction should have been expected, if you are a factory driver you are representing a brand and shouldn’t behave like he did.”

Mehdi el-Fathy, owner and creative director of RaceKraft Esports: “He didn’t mean to do it in a harmful way but the consequences are. When you’re representing top-level manufacturers, brands and sponsors you’re supposed to handle yourself in a proper manner. This series is meant to be a placeholder of its RL counterpart during lockdown so you’re expected to take it seriously. Sad to see some drivers aren’t taking sim racing seriously especially when a ton of people are busting themselves to make it a true e-sport, with all the things becoming more and more professional.”

Duurt Dijkman, owner of MSportXtra: “I think the penalty is too harsh, take it over from the virtual world into the real world. That said, I understand all the weight behind it due to sponsors and what not but they gave him a 10K penalty to give to a charity and they could’ve banned him for any upcoming esports activities. Sad thing is that ever since the series, media and sponsors got heavily involved in esports, all drivers have been put under great scrutiny so they can’t really “play” for fun anymore while that was the first intention of most drivers to have something to do while the real-world racing is on its a**. Earlier, in NASCAR esports, Kyle Larson used the “n-word” one time and also lost his seat in the real world. No wonder many real-life drivers won’t take part in online races as it is getting way too serious and that is taking the fun out of it.”

Andre Harrison, lead host of Motorsport101:

Afiq Amom, sim racer: “Game is a fun place to put it. It’s no problem if someone trying to have fun with it. But in terms of professional, should follow terms and condition. We understand that he [Abt] tried to have fun [with the prank], but at the same time, the event is international with the brand name in front. I can say it’s his fault, but at the same time, Audi impose a harsh punishment to him. Maybe they are afraid their brand got a bad reputation.”

Tobias Brockmann, esports caster: “He really thought it was a joke, but it wasn’t thought through to the end. The essence is: He didn’t take it seriously. I mean you don’t have to take sim racing or “gaming” that serious, but an organised event with sponsors, where you represent your team and do stuff for charity it is a different story. But I think there was more in the background going on. Abt wasn’t offered a contract for after July 2020. So maybe they wanted to prove something, knowing he would leave them anyway and that was just the last straw.”

Virginia Guzman, DNA on Track photojournalist: “He [Abt] did the right thing by apologizing and accepting his mistake. The sanction he received from FE was right. What the team did by ending his contract was a little bit too much. But, seeing the situation as a brand and enterprise – who have principles and values, seeing that a person who represents them does the opposite to those values and principles, it’s likely they take action by not taking action and move on, apply a fine, do some social action or end a contract. Despite his mistake, Abt deserved a second chance, but he could also think better before doing what he did.”

Farhana Kamal, Formula 1 fan: “If this was just one of their Twitch session like what some young F1 drivers do like Lando Norris, Charles Leclerc where they are simply playing around then it’s not an issue to fool around like that. But given that this was a Formula E event and to make it worst – a charity event, then it was a case of the wrong thing to do at the wrong time. However I do feel given that Abt is racing in his family team, unfortunately, he had to pay a bigger price for that joke.”

Ahmad Haziq, motorsport enthusiast: “Some people might think it’s just a ‘racing game’. Nothing serious, all for fun. But little do people know how much money is still involved, and Abt is carrying Audi’s name and the sponsors. While I think this is not 100% Audi’s decision, the team’s sponsors and investors might have had their say on this too. Abt is being paid for his driving, and to also represent the team. He let them down and I guess it’s a fair case. Furthermore, he’s been on a 12-month contract basis for some time, I’m guessing Audi might also want to get rid of him anyway by end of season.”

Natalie Martin, Formula E fan“I am on the fence with this, but I think that Audi made the right decision for 2 reasons: If he [Abt] didn’t want to compete, he should have made Formula E and Audi aware. Secondly, the way in which he went around doing what he did, and the fact that other drivers were complaining about it, shouldn’t have happened and been so obvious to the drivers. I think that this [suspension] was the right thing to do, and hope that this is a learning curve for all the other drivers involved. As for the sim driver [Hoerzing], he was also banned from the competition. As he was driving for Envision Virgin Racing, and I am a massive Envision Virgin Racing fan, I am upset and appalled that this has happened, but know it is for the best so that it doesn’t happen again.”

 

Previous “ringer” cases in professional sim racing league/events

While there are/were no data about “ringer” cases before Abt’s scandal – which I’m currently researching, bringing in ringers is quite a rare occurrence in sim racing according to 2019 E-Racing Grand Prix Southeast Asia finalist, Amir Haziq (or known as Ammo). Before I started writing this scribble, Ammo explained an example of a cheating case which involved RaceRoom regular Tim Heinemann in a Porsche Cup race a few years ago. Heinemann used an invulnerability to not let his car get damaged and caused him excluded from that championship.

 

Closing words

It was a tough time for every motorsport community, particularly Formula E after knew about Abt’s suspension news on the Internet. While I’m trying to understand the situation, it gave me an instant reminder to be professional in all events. Surely, this applies to all who want to be good at whatever they want to achieve in life.

I know Abt has a bright future ahead of him in motorsport as he is capable of winning races since he started his motorsport career in 2008 ADAC Formula Masters (now known as ADAC Formula 4 since 2015) as the inaugural series champion. Although some people criticised him as a cheater and not a good racer, Abt’s suspension from Audi Formula E and separation from the iconic marque are never meant to be the end his whole motorsport career. I believe he has more racing opportunity to come in near future, mostly in the GT and endurance racing which his family are mostly active. I recalled the times I met him in Putrajaya and Hong Kong Formula E races as I saw he has a great character of friendliness, good-hearted and strong-willed inside him. Not to forget, a very approachable guy by making all the fun stuff on his YouTube channel and social media pages to interact with his fans.

In terms of sim racing, there is a difference between having fun online and taking part in a virtual racing series/event which you need to be serious and professional. It’s acceptable if you want to have fun and bantering with a fellow sim racer in a Twitch stream (for example a friendly race between you and your gang), as long your objective is to make people happy and entertain. But, when it comes to participating in an official sim racing series/event organised by race organiser and sponsors, the safest way to save yourself from messing up your common sense is to maintain professionalism and sportsmanship at the highest level.

For those who are still not getting cool with him because of the case, please watch his video statement and forgive him. After all, mistakes were made and learn them as lessons.

Alles Gute, Daniel!

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