There was a bizarre incident during the weekend's Formula E 'Race at Home' Challenge event which saw Daniel Abt getting a professional sim racer to secretly substitute for him
Over the last few months, when sim racing became the only way to watch any kind of motorsport, we’ve seen a few examples which show that although the cars aren’t real, the racing very much is - and so are the penalties. Nascar driver Bubba Wallace lost a personal sponsor when he rage quit an event, and Kyle Larson was fired by his team when he used a racial slur.
Then, there was the incredibly controversial finish to IndyCar’s ‘Indy 175’ event, which involved Simon Pagenaud and Santino Ferrucci deliberately taking out the race leader in two separate incidents, raising questions about whether some drivers were taking their virtual racing as seriously as they should be.
However, in terms of weirdness, the Formula E events of the weekend probably trump the lot.
Formula E’s virtual championship - running as a charity event in support of Unicef - has been running on a weekly basis, with races featuring almost the entire current field of Formula E drivers.
Audi Sport driver Daniel Abt - a race winner in real Formula E - hasn’t been doing particularly well in this series. Until this weekend, he’d managed a best grid position of ninth and a best finish of 15th. Yet, in this weekend’s race in Berlin, he suddenly qualified second and finished third. That’s not an impossible turnaround in form, but his rival drivers suspected something was up. During the broadcast of the race, a Zoom feed of the drivers in their rigs showed that Abt’s face was cunningly obscured by a piece of equipment. He also had ‘connection issues’ which prevented him from speaking after the race, and his Twitch feed was completely blank.
Other drivers grew suspicious - Stoffel Vandoorne and Jean-Eric Vergne both accused Abt of not driving the car, and a particularly frustrated Vandoorne (who believed ‘Abt’ had cost him the win) even phoned the German after the race. He didn’t pick up.
Formula E launched an investigation and discovered through an examination of IP addresses that it was not Abt at the wheel. Abt then admitted that it wasn’t him: he’d managed to get professional sim racer Lorenz Hoerzing to take his place and be an imposter in the race.
‘Abt’ was disqualified from the race and made to make a mandatory €10,000 donation to charity, while Hoerzing has been disqualified from taking part in the part of the championship that’s only open to sim racers. Abt released a statement afterwards admitting his mistake, saying:
“I would like to apologize to Formula E, all of the fans, my team and my fellow drivers for having called in outside help during the race on Saturday. I didn’t take it as seriously as I should have. I’m especially sorry about this, because I know how much work has gone into this project on the part of the Formula E organisation.
“I am aware that my offence has a bitter aftertaste, but it was never meant with any bad intention. Of course, I accept the disqualification from the race. In addition, I will donate 10,000 Euros to a charitable project.”
It’s an utterly bizarre thing to have done - and let’s be honest, a little bit amusing - but it once again raises of the question of whether drivers are aware of how seriously they should be taking these sort of events. Yes, it’s all a bit of fun. But just like the IndyCar drama, this is a championship put on by Formula E itself (in the name of charity, to boot) and the drivers are representing the series, their teams, and the sponsors. A base level of professionalism is the very least that should be expected.
In this case, though, Abt’s actions are intriguing. They show that he does care about how good he’s perceived to be at sim racing - why else would he have brought in a pro to make his name look good? It’s obviously backfired and just goes to show that when it comes to sim racing, there are no shortcuts. The only way to git gud is through practice, determination and hard work. A bit like real racing, then…