Daniel Abt responds to sim racing “imposter incident,” claims it was a prank gone wrong

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Phillip Thomas

Sim racing has already clashed with professional motorsports during its rise as a replacement for live racing events while COVID-19 regulations suspend in-person events. Many of the struggles have come from racers who take their virtual racing responsibilities less seriously than they would when on an actual track. Daniel Abt’s ringer controversy is the latest example, and his story is one of the wildest yet.

On Sunday, May 24, Formula E hosted the fifth installment of its virtual racing series, the Race at Home Challenge. The charity series runs separately from Formula E’s live championship and is primarily focused on maintaining fan involvement—all proceeds go to Unicef. During the race, Abt’s competitors began to question whether the German racer was really turning the wheel. One driver even attempted to call Abt during the race after suspecting that someone else was behind the wheel:

After the race, in which “Daniel” apparently finished third, it was revealed that the Formula E star had a stand-in driver—a full-on ringer—piloting his digital race car. The consequences for Abt himself were weighty: a required $10,000 donation to charity and the loss of his seat on Audi’s Formula E team. Days later, Abt finally explains his side of the story, which he describes as a prank gone horribly wrong.

“In this stream, on this day, we had a conversation and the idea came up that it would be fun 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,” Daniel explains in his statement, which is translated from the German. “That was our idea on this day and our thought. So we talked about it, we thought how to make it happen, how to document it, and how to unwind it in a video afterward.”

The conversation started between Abt and esports racer Lorenz Hoerzing, an 18-year-old who competes in a partner sim-racing series for a real chance at Formula E seat (from which he has since been banned). Abt and Hoerzing wondered whether they could sneak Hoerzing into a Formula E race against bona fide professional drivers as a prank. The driver-facing camera that would normally be present was blocked in order to mask Hoerzing’s identity, but that was the only tactic the pair used to disguise the “imposter incident,” as The Race (the host of the series) calls it.

Those who have taken part in wheel-to-wheel racing know that, despite the analytic and data-driven nature of the sport, racers still have a personal driving style and can be identified through the red mist by close competitors. Even if everyone drove identical cars and couldn’t see who was in the car next to them, many racers could still identify each other. A driver’s observation—or ignorance—of racing etiquette is also a telling factor, and the trigger for Sunday’s field to question whether Abt were really driving.

“What the hell, what is he doing, man? This is not even … ah man, this is a joke. That’s not even Daniel driving,” Stoffel Vandoorne claimed in frustration during the race. More revealing, however, was the sudden leap in podium positions, which was significant enough to cause the organizers to dig into the IP address of the racer driving Abt’s car. That investigation gave organizers enough info to disqualify Abt and Hoerzing.

“I can understand that we went too far with the idea. When looking back, we did not think enough about the seriousness and the consequences of the situation,” says Abt. “We made a huge mistake there and I stand by that mistake.”

If eracing is to be taken seriously, especially as major racing series and sponsors begin investing cash, then the consequences for unaccepted behavior must similar to real-life motorsports. The crucial divide, however, lies in driver rankings and the effect of esports on drivers’ professional careers. Since these virtual races don’t accumulate championship points, many racers struggle to predict the consequences of certain actions on the virtual track.

“These points, this result, is irrelevant to me, personally. It has no impact in any way, I’m not getting any money for it,” Abt explains. “[Hoerzing] hasn’t received any money from me, either. It was simply a common idea, the feeling of this could be something cool.”

Though the pandemic won’t last forever and live events will eventually relieve our dependency on sim racing, the question becomes one of expectations. Sponsors and organizers see these virtual races as little different than the actual 24 Hours of Le Mans or Daytona 500; in their eyes, these events are to be taken seriously, driven ethically, and packaged professionally. For a group of professional speed freaks missing the irreplaceable experience of a live track, however, the differences can feel all too real.

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