Audi has dropped driver Daniel Abt in the all-electric racing series Formula E after he had a pro sim driver surreptitiously race for him during a virtual competition over the weekend. He has also been told to pay €10,000 to charity as a result.
Abt said Tuesday that he thought the idea would be funny and that he had planned to release a video about the whole ruse.
Abt was supposed to be competing in the fifth round of Formula E’s online sim racing series, which started up in April alongside virtual substitute series from Formula One, NASCAR, and IndyCar. The Formula E sim series was not only meant to give fans something to watch during the pandemic, but it was also supposed to keep the drivers and teams connected, all while raising funds for UNICEF.
But Abt had tapped 18-year-old Lorenz Hoerzing, who has been competing in the sim racer section of Formula E’s events, to run in his place. (Hoerzing has since been suspended from the sim racing series as a result.) Abt had someone even appear on the drivers’ group Zoom call under the name “Daniel Abt” dressed in Audi red, but with a microphone blocking his face — a noticeable departure considering Abt’s lively presence on his personal streams of the previous races:
Hoerzing led most of the race in Abt’s virtual car, but he came into contact with Mercedes-Benz driver Stoffel Vandoorne, allowing Nissan driver Oliver Rowland to take the win. This initially raised suspicions because Abt had previously struggled to compete in the earlier rounds of the virtual championship.
The deception really started to unravel after Hoerzing finished third, meaning Abt was supposed to show up for the standard post-race interview with the top three drivers. But he didn’t; Rowland and Vandoorne’s Zoom feeds were instead placed next to a black box with Abt’s name, and the broadcast hosts never even attempted to interview the Audi driver. During his portion of the interview, Vandoorne said was “questioning if it was really Daniel in the car.”
Vandoorne vented even more on his personal Twitch channel following the race and even tried to call Abt while streaming, but the Audi driver did not pick up. Organizers of the race were reportedly able to verify that Abt was not racing based on Hoerzing’s IP address.
Abt apologized after he was caught. “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,” he said in a statement this weekend.
On Tuesday morning, Audi announced that Abt was suspended. Later in the day, Abt released a 14-minute video about the scandal where he announced that he “won’t be racing” with the Formula E team anymore.
Abt explains in the video that he had viewed these races more as entertainment for the fans and less as serious competition. As a result, Abt says he thought it would be a “funny move if a sim racer” drove for him, according to the English subtitles. “We wanted to document it and create a funny story for the fans with it.”
He even included footage and audio from a practice session where he proposed the idea to Hoerzing. “Honestly, do you want to drive the race instead of me, man?” he asks Hoerzing, who laughs in response. “No joke, no joke,” Abt says. “Let’s actually think about this. That would be super funny.”
Abt goes on to explain that it was “never [his] intention to let another driver drive for [him]” to make him look better and that his plan was to release a video “unwind[ing]” the scheme at some point. He also says he didn’t pay Hoerzing, and claims that not using a VPN to hide the Austrian sim racer’s IP address is proof that they weren’t trying to cover it up. He blames the media for painting him as a cheater “without giving [him] a chance to personally talk about it.”
“Shortly after the race, I realized myself that it did not end there and it suddenly went in a direction which I, myself, had not ever been able to even imagine in my dreams,” Abt says. “We did not think enough about the seriousness and the consequences of the situation.” The driver says he made a “huge mistake.”
Abt is not the first driver to wind up causing real-world consequences for himself during these online competitions. Just last month, NASCAR driver Kyle Larson was fired from his team for using the n-word on a Twitch stream while competing in a sim race.
But Abt’s situation is the first to really brush up against the issue of cheating. This is something other big gaming leagues have already tried to prevent during the pandemic by implementing rules around screen recording as well as forcing players to use webcams — presumably with a clear shot of their faces.
Abt’s removal from the team is striking. He’s one of four drivers to have run in every Formula E race since the series’s inception in 2014. He’s also the sun of Hans-Jürgen Abt, who runs the company that oversees the Audi Formula E team. (The “Abt” surname is even part of the team’s full name, Audi Sport ABT Schaeffler.)
“I believe that, even if it does not feel good now, one should not forget that together, we achieved the first Formula E victory for Audi, for a German driver, for me,” he says in the video.