Daniel Abt, Lorenz Hörzing and accountability in sim racing

Although motorsport has been on a COVID-19 inspired hiatus since March. To help fans through the lockdown, many leading series have taken to sim racing as a replacement to entertain and excite.

On the whole, the multitude of virtual race series have done just that, putting on thrilling performances rivalling the real deal. It hasn’t been easy for everyone with dark clouds being cast over the NASCAR, Indycar and now Formula E worlds with real repercussions coming into the fray.

The first instance struck NASCAR in early April when Bubba Wallace wrecked with Clint Bowyer in the NASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series race at Bristol Motor Speedway. Wallace’s response? “That’s it, that’s why I don’t take this shit serious. Y’all have a good night, peace out”. After shutting down his stream, Wallace took to Twitter to mock those complaining about his actions. Bubba’s words didn’t go unnoticed with sponsor Blue-Emu pulling the plug there and then – “Good to know where you stand. Bye bye Bubba. We’re interested in drivers, not quitters.”

It was at this point that other drivers were warned that maybe racing from home wasn’t all about having fun. Their actions behind a monitor could haunt them when the time comes to getting back on the asphalt. Or not in the case of Kyle Larson.

Former NASCAR star Larson seemingly wasn’t kept in the loop of the Wallace incident that had happened just one week earlier. On April 13, fellow competitor Landon Cassill hosted an iRacing NASCAR race at the great Monza oval, inviting more drivers from NASCAR, Indycar, F1, V8 Supercars and beyond on a 62-car grid. Early in the race, Larson believed he was having audio mixing issues and took to iRacing’s in-game voice chat to test his microphone. As it happened, Larson chose to test his mic with a racial slur, in front of 61 other drivers, many of whom were streaming with combined viewership in the thousands.

With cautions disabled, the race was clearly intended to be a laugh to take the edge off the Covid situation. Yet Larson’s words managed to steal the show with clips of the incident flooding social media within minutes. To no-one’s surprise, Larson’s actions were picked up on by NASCAR and not-to mention his employers at Chip Ganassi Racing. The former suspended Larson from NASCAR-sanctioned races and his team and sponsors terminated Larson’s contract, putting the final nail in the coffin. And that was the end of Kyle Larson’s eight-year tenure at stock car racing’s highest level, or any other level for that matter, with the American admitting that the damage to his career is “probably unrepairable”.

When it comes to sporting spectacles, the Indy 500 is one of, if not the greatest around. With 300,000 fans packing around the 2.5 mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway and over 5 million tuning in from home. Indycar’s response to the coronavirus crisis also involved iRacing with the Indycar iRacing Challenge which hosted its final round at the Brickyard. The 70 lap endeavour featuring past, present and future Indycar drivers as well as others from different series, including Lando Norris who brought in a barrage of F1 fans. After infiltrating the Indycar crowd a round prior at Circuit of the America’s, Norris left an instant mark on the series with a win on debut. At Indianapolis, Norris continued to show his debut win was no fluke, fighting at the front of the pack throughout. Having narrowly escaped a tangle with Indycar champion and Indy 500 winner Simon Pagenaud, Norris looked to head a McLaren Arrow SP podium lockout – Pagenaud had other plans. Leaving the pit lane after repairing damage to his car, viewers of the Frenchman’s Twitch stream would have heard Simon say “Let’s take out Lando,” to his spotter. For the next few laps, his spotter would keep him posted on Lando’s positioning.

With three laps to go, Pagenaud and Norris met at the exit of turn 4 and inevitably, they collided, because racing drivers don’t forget. The affair was evidently orchestrated forensically by Simon Pagenaud who rapidly apologised, claiming he was slowing down for pit-entry and wasn’t aware of Norris’ closing speed. As fans mulled over what had just transpired in front of them, the professional drivers’ antics were not yet over. In a drag race to the line, Santino Ferucci side swiped Oliver Askew in an attempt to steal the win at the dying moments to no avail and instead allowed V8 Supercar driver Scott McLaughlin into Victory Circle. The whole event was thus shrouded in controversy. Televised live stateside and streamed to thousands on Indycar’s social media channels, the event saw sim-racing and those involved branded a laughing stock. Conveniently, the mini-series was now over and those at Indycar didn’t dwell on the matter further.

You would have thought that given the cases above, other members of the motorsport community would start to take the sim-racing gig more seriously. Arguably, the primary function of a sport star is to entertain while performing at the highest attainable level. Many motorsport fans can be seen as a different breed versus fans of other sports or different forms of entertainment. The hardcore fans take pleasure in real racing; fierce fights between unrelenting competitors at breakneck speeds where driver and machine act symbiotically, the marriage between intelligence and mechanical power and engineering genius. For some, this is where the premise of ‘eSports’ falls down. Although the ‘machinery’ aspect isn’t there, fans should still be more than able to appreciate that the spirit behind the sport remains – Mostly.

With Formula 1’s Virtual Grands Prix always having taken the more relaxed approach to online entertainment, the sport has managed to largely avoid grand controversies. The same approach was seemingly taken by F1’s electric alternative – Formula E. That is until the fifth round of the ‘Race at Home Challenge’.

The ‘Challenge’ sees Formula E drivers compete against one another on rFactor 2 with an officially licensed Gen 2 car and a host of official ePrix circuits. Round 5 of the series took place at the virtual Berlin Tempelhof circuit where almost everything took place as expected. I say almost everything as “Daniel Abt” had come on leaps and bounds in comparison to previous events. Instead of scrapping over 15th place, the Audi had suddenly been transformed into a podium contender in the space of a week.

If you haven’t heard the story by now, fellow Formula E drivers noted Abt’s exponential ‘development’ in the sim and that his face was conveniently hidden behind a microphone on his webcam. Formula E went on to investigate the matter and discovered that the IP address that Abt’s car was being controlled by was not the same as previous weeks. Upon closer inspection, it came to light that the IP address was the same as that of Lorenz Hörzing – a professional sim-racer that Daniel Abt had hired to race in his place.

Before we continue further, who exactly is Lorenz Hörzing? Lorenz is an eighteen-year-old sim-racer from Austria and drives for the Allied Racing eSports tem, previously known as ‘TCS Off’. For those keen on their European GT4 action, Allied Racing eSports are the virtual wing of the Allied Racing GT4 team. Although the synergies don’t appear strong between the two parties, the relationship is there nonetheless, giving an air of professionalism around the team.

The news that Abt had hired a ringer to drive in his place was swiftly followed by an announcement from Audi. Abt was suspended with immediate effect as “integrity, transparency and consistent compliance with applicable rules are top priorities for Audi” which they add apply to “all activities the brand is involved in without exception”. In addition, Formula E slapped Abt with a “compulsory donation” of €10,000 to charity.

Many view the responses from both Formula E and moreso Audi as an overreaction. But the truth is this – no matter what Abt says, he paid a professional sim-racer to make himself look better in front of an audience for his own personal gain. Even if you look at the situation from the perspective of a ‘sim-racing sceptic’, there is still no other way about it. As a driver and employee of Audi Sport, Abt would have been contractually obliged to represent the brand and its sponsors in commercial and media duties where requested and portray the aforementioned parties in the best light possible, steering clear of controversies – almost a common-sense clause if you will. Abt by-passed this common-sense clause and instead looked for personal gain.

Racing drivers, as we know, are fierce competitors with the majority only satisfied when they come out on top of the podium. Clearly Abt is one of these drivers and was unable to cope with being unable to perform on that level when it comes to the sim. So instead, he turned to cheating in order to protect his name. By not representing Audi in the virtual ePrix, Abt revealed his cards not just to his team, but the world. Although the racing is virtual, the spirit behind it is very much real. Although the cheating was virtual, the cheating spirit lives on in the real world. Although he let the brand and sponsors down virtually, the damage faced by all parties will be felt in the real world too. Not to mention that the entire series has been raising money for UNICEF…

Understandably, Abt has faced the brunt of the media attention that this “scandal” has amassed, going on to express his relief that those at Allied Racing eSports were left alone, relatively speaking. But why was Abt so thankful? There are two sides to every story after all.

I reached out to Thomas Coleman and Karsten van Eijck of Allied Racing eSports to get their response on the story or a few words from Lorenz himself. We, like others, were deprived of a comment from either Hörzing or the team’s management as “we believe it is best interest for Lorenz to have no media discussions at this time.”

Okay, I accept the next comparison is a drastic one, but bear with me. Take a murder for hire story. An individual hires a hitman, pays them to take down a staunch enemy, a threat or other – just to clarify, none of the above are circumstances I condone. But who would be guilty in the above situation? The individual who pulls the trigger, or the individual who pays the other to pull the trigger. There is no argument that both parties are guilty, but which is more? It’s a tough question of morals and I’ll allow you to make up your mind.

Now whichever way you leant on the previous question, I’m sure you would have come up with arguments for both sides. What I’m getting at is that if Daniel Abt is to pay for an “honest” mistake with his job and a fine, then surely Lorenz Hörzing should be sat in the same boat at the moment.

This is exactly why I reached out to those at Allied Racing to clarify their position on the matter. Was Daniel Abt in the wrong to hire someone to race in his place last week? Absolutely, the whole situation was highly immoral. So is Lorenz Hörzing in the wrong for accepting any money or bribe, for offering his services or even just agreeing to drive for Abt? Hörzing’s actions were a flagrant disregard to the spirit of the sport, the series and have contributed to motorsports use of eSports being thrown under the bus again as a root cause of controversy and criticism.

We understand that Hörzing has been banned from partaking in any future Formula E event, or at least involvement in upcoming ‘Challenge’ events. But arguably he should face the same retributions as Abt, or at least comparable. Were his team, Allied Racing or it’s eSports wing, knowledgeable of the arrangements Abt and Lorenz had in place? As it stands, only they know the answer to that but if the answer to that is yes, each and every member of that squad should be held accountable on the same level as Abt as an accomplice.

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