Over the past few hours, I have been trying to get down what I want to say about this whole situation. I’ve sat down and filmed myself, composed a thread on Twitter but still I gravitate back to my blog. The place where I can just blurt out my thoughts, feelings and opinions to the world.
I am not going to bullshit, I am just going to get straight into this.
The announcement today really hurt.
I’ve been covering Formula E since it’s inaugural race back in 2014. In doing so, I have been able to meet and interview a large array of drivers. Most of them are pleasant and charming, but very few have you leaving an interview with a smile quite like Daniel does.
He is a very caring, gentle but funny guy who is always the first to make a joke or pull a prank in the pitlane. I don’t think there are many drivers in the championship that have a bad word to say about him – he is widely respected and adored by those in Formula E for his ‘cheeky chappy’ character as well as being a fantastic global ambassador.
Which is why when news broke of this ‘scandal’ over the weekend, I was distressed to read some really destructive things about Daniel which I knew were simply not true. I had no doubt that Daniel would never be so malicious as to “cheat” in a charity sim racing competition.
I had spoken to him, 1-on-1, only weeks before about the Race At Home Challenge. Yes, he admitted it wasn’t his favourite pastime and furthermore that he “wasn’t super into this whole sim racing scene because you need to spend a whole lot of time and effort for it to be great”.
I totally understood it and continued to joke about the hours, and likely days, his colleagues such as Maximilian Günther put into sim racing. He understood that for most of the grid, they took part because they wanted to be able to entertain the fans. That’s who they cared most about, hence why in a week every driver and its dog has signed up to broadcast their races live on Twitch. Fans lapped it up, with some drivers having more viewers on their streams than the official Formula E broadcast.
This ‘entertainment’ for fans wasn’t a new concept for Abt though. He has always been passionate about bringing another level of access for those not involved in Formula E. His YouTube channel now boasts 362,000 subscribers at the time of publishing this and has been arguably one of the sport’s most important and influential assets in terms of making it seem ‘cool’ and ‘trendy’ to the championship’s millennial audience.
If you haven’t seen Abt’s full statement, he explained in full the reasoning behind his “huge mistake”. Abt goes on to say that on the day, Saturday 23rd May, he engaged in conversation with Lorenz Hörzing who was participating in the sister championship put on by Formula E for more ‘professional’ sim racers. On camera, Abt askes Hörzing “do you want to drive the race instead of me, man?”, to which the young sim racer replies “no joke, no joke”.
“Let’s actually think about this,” Abt comes back with before going on to say, “that would be super funny.”
As I mentioned before, Abt is a prankster. If it’s not having a laugh in a paddock, he is creating content on YouTube aimed at bringing joy to his audience – a recent video from just two weeks ago showed Daniel and a pal answering questions about each other with the loser getting a small electric shock. He enjoys making these comical videos, which was the idea behind the sim racing disaster that has now ended his Audi Formula E career.
Of course, I am not going to sit here and say that what Abt did was smart or clever. It was stupid. I know it, you know it and he knows it too. The way he approached the whole thing was quite frankly foolish and totally unintelligent. In doing what he did, he has now ended his career at Audi – in the most bizarre way I have ever seen a driver leave a team or indeed a sport – and has put a very young 18-year-old sim racer’s reputation on the line.
I still do not believe that he was intentionally cheating but I understand that from Audi’s perspective he breached their trust and made a mockery of the brands and values of one of Germany’s oldest-established automobile manufacturers. Should he have lost his race seat? Absolutely not.
My feeling is that Audi had plans to drop Daniel at the end of this season anyway. His performance in season six to date had been average and with the end of Audi’s involvement of DTM and many hungry and talented drivers looking for a seat, for Audi it was probably a no-brainer. Rinse themselves of this PR disaster and make way for a new fresh driver in the team. No sad and tainted goodbyes, just done and dusted in the most efficient way possible.
Some say it is unfair, others say ruthless and plenty say it is justified. For me, I just find the whole thing sad and disappointing. I know I could probably use a thesaurus and make up some elaborate wording, but those are the two words that keep coming back to me.
I’m sad that Abt’s Formula E racing career is over just like that. When speaking to my colleague Rob at Inside Electric last year, Abt said that if he didn’t get re-signed with Audi for the 2019/20 season, he’d likely just leave Formula E and give up on motorsport all together. He was 26 at the time and as someone just two years younger than that now, I feel like I am just sinking my teeth into my career in motorsport journalism. That was surprising but I guess Abt is an all or nothing kind of guy.
I’m disappointed that he didn’t think more about the impact this could have had on both him, but also Audi, the sport, the sponsors and the fans. This ‘scandal’, as it is being referred to, has not only damaged his reputation but also infiltrated the minds of Formula E’s already long line of sceptics and critics.
However, I am also annoyed in the way the media has handled and reported this news.
From my perspective, this has been reported on far too harshly. Before being able to legally give his opinion on it all, Abt was being branded a cheat and being compared to drivers such as Santino Ferrucci or Simon Pagenaud without the evidence to back up these claims. This isn’t an excuse to hype up Inside Electric, but I am proud of how we have covered this whole subject. From a 45 minute explainer YouTube video, to factual pieces with evidence to back it up rather than just slander which other publications have put out. Drivers have also noticed the witch hunt that Abt experienced and called out other publications on it.
I am not saying that publications should be walking on eggshells about the topic, but the need for clickbait headlines in a time when actual racing news is low has meant that this has been massively blown out of proportion and appears to be the final straw that broke the camel’s back.
I do not disagree that what Daniel did was wrong. It was moronic and has had consequences, but for these to be so dramatic is just what has shocked me. Maybe it has been done to cover up yet more shocking updates from the dieselgate scandal which were published yesterday.
Unfortunately and ultimately, the Race At Home Challenge has proven boring and a chore for a large majority of the grid. With the races being obligatory, drivers couldn’t say no and with the mass of glitches and bugs disrupting the simulation the ‘game’ has soon become one big joke for those involved.
Yes they are being paid to race and yes this is for charity, but it is still probably very demoralising being chucked in the deep end in something which you should theoretically be good at and then it turns out you are pretty bloody awful.
These drivers joke about racing around in circles for their jobs, but hop into a simulator and it is a whole different ball game. You should be good as it’s just the same thing but on a computer, right?
Wrong. Which is why we see so many content creators and sim racers take on – and win – against these big names in F1 like Lando Norris and Charles Leclerc. It’s bloody tough and a skill in itself, so for these drivers who have no experience to get thrown together every week for eight consecutive weeks on a simulator platform that is filled with flaws, you can see that cracks will still start to show – EVEN if, it is all done in aid of UNICEF.
Chucking in a professional sim racer and seeing how they get on against an actual grid of racing drivers is not a new idea. F1 and names like Veloce have been doing that for months now, with huge success. It was just when Abt tried to replicate it, he was nowhere near as transparent as he should have been. It looked like he was getting in an outsider to help him ‘win’ and score points for his so far point-less team and disguise the whole thing as if it was him racing. There was no money exchanged, no malicious or ego-centric morals, just two guys thinking they could have a bit of fun and create some amusing content for Abt’s YouTube channel.
As you likely know, before the statement was made that Abt’s future with Audi had come to an end earlier today, Abt was disqualified from the race, ordered to pay a €10,000 fine to a charity of his choice and had all his points removed.
What followed was a wave of media frenzy, rumours, accusations and the termination of Abt’s Formula E contact.
Perhaps, this will prove to be a turning point of this COVID-19 induced lockdown.
Drivers will hibernate from Twitch steams, slowly redact from social media and soon our timelines will be dead and quiet. All because drivers will now live in the fear of putting themselves out there online. I do worry how this will to impact the sim racing community but that is a post for another time.
Daniel Abt really grew up with Formula E. Not only as a driver, having to learn from some big highs and very low lows during his career, but also as a person. I always found that our journeys were sometimes mirrored, as newbies coming into this new all-electric sport and both growing in success and confidence overtime.
I’m happy that my last chat I will have had with him in Formula E was only earlier this month for a podcast that will be available on Inside Electric in the coming days. I laughed like I hadn’t in weeks and came away beaming from such a wonderful and fun hour-long interview.
It’s bittersweet that is how Abt’s Formula E chapter ends in my eyes.
Without a doubt, the gap that Daniel will leave in the Formula E paddock will be hugely missed.
Thursday 28th May 2020
Hey, guys. This is an additional note that I am adding in just a day after this was originally posted. Firstly, thank you so much for the response to this. It’s now the most-read piece I have ever produced and I am genuinely overwhelmed with all you reaching out to me with your kind words of support.
Secondly, in the feature I discuss an interview I did with Daniel several weeks ago. This was for the Inside Electric Podcast and, after an in-depth discussion with the IE team, we have decided to publish the interview as originally planned.
I wanted the interview to be shared, not only because it was great fun and made for enjoyable listening, but because in it we pretty much talk about Daniel’s entire Formula E career and following the news this week, it seemed fitting.