Abt being dropped from his Formula E drive by Audi because he effectively cheated during a sim race is probably the most bizarre motorsport story of the year so far. When the news broke that he’d used a pro sim racer as a ringer, the initial impression was that he’d done it to make up for previous bad results and make himself look better.
However, Abt has since explained in a video on his YouTube channel that the whole thing was planned as a bit of joke which would later have been revealed as a surprise – and was not a genuine attempt at cheating to boost his results.
“When we were practicing for this Race at Home Challenge on a Twitch stream, we had a conversation and the idea came up that it would be a funny move if a sim racer basically drove for me to show the other, real drivers what he is capable of and use the chance to drive against them. We wanted to document it and create a funny story for the fans with it.
“That was our idea on this day and our thought. So we talked about it, we thought about how to make it happen, how to document it, and how to unwind it in a video after.
“It is also very important to me to say that it was never my intention to let another driver drive for me to get a result and keep quiet about it later on just to make me look better.”
Abt went on to talk about the aftermath and the decision Audi made to part ways with him, accepting that he’d taken things too far.
“I can understand that we went too far with this idea. We made a huge mistake there. I stand by this mistake. I accept it and I will carry all the consequences for what I have done.
“This virtual delict of mine has real consequences for me because today I was informed in a conversation with Audi that our ways will split from now on. We won’t be racing together in Formula E anymore and the cooperation has ended. It’s a pain which I have never felt in this way in my life.
“At the end, there is only to say: you make mistakes in life. I feel like I couldn’t fall any deeper. I’m on the ground but I’ll get up again.”
It’s hard not to feel bad for the guy. He’s a 27-year-old racing driver who’s had a funny idea for his 350,000+ subscriber YouTube channel. I’d have watched the hell out of that reveal video.
Following this drama, some drivers now seem to be increasingly wary of their online sim racing activities, with some saying they’re going to give it up altogether.
No more streaming, sorry guys.
— James Calado (@CaladoJames) May 26, 2020
Good bye Twitch, good bye streams…
Im out. See you never
— Antonio Felix da Costa (@afelixdacosta) May 26, 2020
You can’t blame them, either. For many real-world drivers, sim racing and streaming is a bit of fun in their free time which entertains fans. Now, with sim racing and esports having to substitute for real action, suddenly this fun, light-hearted environment has more of a crossover with their actual jobs.
There’s an increasingly grey area surrounding what these events are, what they should be, and what the expectations of those involved should be. Simon Pagenaud and Santino Ferrucci behaved appallingly in the IndyCar series event, but I think the most anyone wanted to see from that was some kind of apology or acceptance that what they did was wrong. It might have cost them some fans, but no sane person was calling for it to cost them their real-life drive, and rightly so.
What Abt did was nowhere near as bad as the events of that race, yet he was disqualified from the race and made to donate a not-insignificant amount of money to charity. That’s already a fairly firm penalty for his actions. To lose his drive as well is a reaction that nobody – least of all Abt – would have even considered possible. Drivers are having to discover the boundaries of what is and isn’t acceptable in an unusual and unprecedented global scenario. Abt apparently went beyond those boundaries, yet was afforded no leeway for making an error of judgement which seemingly had no intention of malice whatsoever and has paid a hefty price.
However, the fact remains that, regardless of the lack of realism in the racing, or the fact that not everyone was taking it completely seriously, many people are taking it seriously. Drivers who put in hours of practice. Teams and sponsors who are getting coverage around the world. Brands, partners, broadcasters, and charities who put their names to a series of events which are being treated as a substitute for the real thing and expect a certain degree of professionalism.
When it comes to real drivers doing virtual racing, it’s evident that there’s a bit of a disconnect between people on the ends of the scale of ‘let’s take it seriously’ to ‘it’s only a game’. From Audi’s perspective, their employee intentionally did something ‘bad’ in a Formula E event in which they were representing Audi, and which resulted in a ton of negative press. Getting rid of him was incredibly harsh, but from Audi’s view, completely understandable – especially if you consider the theory that Audi was looking to drop Abt anyway and merely took this as an opportunity to hasten the process.
If Abt had consulted with his team and the series on his plans beforehand, then not only could this whole mess have been avoided, but ended up having a positive outcome. Instead, all the joy and entertainment we’ve had from virtual motorsport over the past couple of months is threatening to end on a very sour note indeed.