Well that certainly escalated quickly!

As far as unusual outcomes for some tales go, Audi Sport’s decision to entirely suspend Daniel Abt from its team – real-world racing included – for a clumsy indiscretion while competing in an esports race is perhaps the most bizarre moment of what is already a strange period for motorsport.

Looking solely at the facts of the matter, Abt’s conduct during the Formula E Race at Home esports event this weekend is ill-conceived at best and dim-witted at worst.

However, was it an offence worthy of having your real-life contract terminated? Not really…

First a little background. The German circumnavigated stipulations by Formula E that he – and every other contracted driver – must participate in the esports races by pretending to be racing on camera, enlisting a more seasoned esports ‘ringer’ named Lorenz Hoerzing to race in his place.

As one of racing’s more ‘influential’ social media personalities, whether Abt did so because he thought it would be an amusing (albeit misguided) ‘bit’ for his channels or because, frankly, he isn’t very good at computer games, we’ll perhaps won’t ever know.

The ruse wasn’t terribly well executed though as both Stoffel Vandoorne and Jean-Eric Vergne called him out directly, accusing Abt – whose webcam was obscured during the live event – of not being at the controls of his virtual Audi en route to third place in the Berlin race. It didn’t take much digging by Formula E officials to realise the IP address in use wasn’t that of Abt.

The penalty from Formula E was swift, Abt disqualified from that and every other race up to that point. He was also made to donate 10,000Euros to charity, with a contrite Abt apologising for his actions afterwards, saying:

“I would like to apologise 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 did not take it as seriously as I should have. I am especially sorry about this, because I know how much work has gone into this project on the part of 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."

That ‘bitter aftertaste’ however has gone on to leave a very nasty taste in the mouth of Abt after Audi rebuked him by not only criticising his conduct but going to the lengths of axing him from the team with immediate effect. After more than five seasons in the team – plus two wins and nine podiums - it has taken one esports clanger to get Abt sensationally dropped.

In Audi’s defence there are mitigating circumstances beyond Abt’s individual actions. The incident has drawn some rather embarrassing publicity to the German brand – one that has been magnified by the generally thin motorsport headlines doing the rounds at the moment – citing how his actions don’t align with the brand’s core values for integrity.

It doesn’t help that the whole Race At Home format is being sponsored by such a huge and noble charity as UNICEF, which admittedly emphasises how face-palming Abt’s actions have been.

However, it’s difficult to see how the punishment really fits the crime on this occasion. After all, while Formula E disqualified him for races up to this point, it appeared he was free to race on in the ensuing events (webcam unobscured).

By going to the lengths of axing Abt from the team entirely, Audi has set a rather concerning precedent that sucks the fun out of the esports format which is supposed to be bringing entertainment for fans during this dearth of actual race action.

Though not impressed by Abt’s actions, his rivals have been swift to blast Audi’s decision, vowing to cancel their Twitch accounts through fear of repercussions. After all, if drivers were aware their actual jobs were on the line based on their esports conduct, would they bother?

“We lose sight of what we really do and what really matters ... Do we accept fraud? No, but who never cheated on monopoly? Let us put things into perspective,” BMW’s Antonio Felix da Costa said.

You only have to watch some of these Formula E races to see there is a pinch of salt when it comes to actual racing values, when you see glitches and spectacular accidents frequently occur as part of the entertainment.

There is only so far esports can go to reflect real-world racing, which is what makes this real-world decision based on an esports race so bewildering.

Of course, there are exceptions to this rule. Kyle Larson was fired for his use of a racial slur during a NASCAR esports race, an outcome that would have occurred too had it happened in real life.

However, watching the F1 or MotoGP Virtual GPs you can see drivers and riders are bringing esports to an audience with a dash of fun, not least because of some of rather suspect overtaking moves and interpretations of track limits. But then there have been numerous viral moments generated from these moments (George Russell frequently and deliberately crashing into Alex Albon being one such example)... in short, esports is a professional set-up in isolation but for drivers that risk their lives in the real-world, it's clearly not taken too seriously.

Granted, drivers must be prepared to represent their team colours at all times whether they’re on camera or posting on social media and slip ups can indeed lead to serious repercussions, just as it would for you and me.

One may have expected Audi to rebuke Abt by withdrawing him from the remaining esports races, but to drop a front-running driver from its physical team is unprecedented. Had he been a professional esports racer cheating, then fine, but…

After all, drivers have arguably committed worst offences on and off-track but save for a rubbing down, generally keep their seats.

To me as a motorsport purist, esports has become an amusing and welcome alternative to nothing at all, but I consider it entirely separate to the real thing and it should remain that way.

Abt may have been correctly rebuked – and I expect another team will quickly snap him up before racing gets underway again - but for sure esports just became a little bit less enjoyable…

 

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