The Day Virtual Racing Became Real

In this period of global lockdown – no mass-gatherings and cancelled festivals and concerts – sport has also taken a real hit to the gut. Events the world over have been cancelled or at best, postponed, leading to an increased feeling of isolation and boredom among fans.

While some sports are beginning to show signs of coming back – sports like golf, surfing and tennis where distancing is less of an issue – some sports require close contact between competitors and their support teams. Football, basketball, and of course, motorsports. The teams of people involved in getting the drivers out on the track is immense and they work in very close-quarters of one another. And that is not to mention it is a global championship that requires extensive travel.

Thankfully though, motorsport has been able to sort of continue during this period, and that is down to the fact that there are many great simulations around and the magic of the Internet is able to bring these people together virtually on the same track at the same time. But of course, this isn’t all that new, and long before the pandemic there was a burgeoning industry forming.

Two of the big names to host virtual championships during the lockdown are Formula E and Formula One. I must admit, I’m not a fan of the electric racing series, but it has nothing to do with the powertrains. The technology involved is actually fascinating, but I dislike the gimmicky nature of the events – the power boost thing they drive over, the social media related fan-boost thing – it isn’t for me.

But praise should be strewn down on the organisers of the Formula E Race at Home Challenge because they were one of the first to set up a virtual championship, and by-and-large they have all their drivers competing. It really is a marvel of organisation and committment to get everything and everyone onboard. And reading their introduction, it even implies they have supplied the equipment to the drivers.

Similarly with Formula One, the drivers are using a copy of the official 2019 game, hooked up to a console but using each drivers’ own set up, or rig, as they like to call them. The races are commentated on and there is a studio pre and post-race discussion. Again, great organisation and something that many fans around the world will be glued to and getting excited about.

But there are some problems, and they seem to be getting worse as each event passes.

Most notably from the outset is the standard of driving. It is something that, when done intentionally, really takes away from watching a virtual race. A good example would be the recent Monaco event with Formula One’s virtual championship. The race does have many current and sometimes former Formula One drivers, but they also supplement the field with other sports people who presumably have shown an interest in wanting to be involved.

Of course, if you put Charles Leclerc or Lando Norris up against a pro golfer in a racing sim, what do you expect will happen – the drivers will run rings around the golfer. And similarly, vice versa, one would imagine, if George Russell was up against a professional from another sport in their natural habitat.

But with the Monaco race, there was certainly a lot of pushing and shoving. Damage was turned off to help the novices so the drivers didn’t mind knocking into each other a bit. And it was a whole lot more then you could ever expect during a real grand prix. At one point Lando Norris made a mistake and came streaming into Ste Devote at about 120mph and clouted the car ahead of him. However, and although it wasn’t caught on the broadcast, later that lap Norris was behind the other driver, presumably having given the place back by way of apology.

Conversly with Formula E, which even in real life is full of contact, the virtual driving is just ridiculous. I watched a round at… Hong Kong, I think, and it was just silly. For sure, bang about a bit, push each other a little. But the blatancy of it all just made the whole thing a mockery and unwatchable.

However, it is just a video game, after all. Or is it?

Well, yes. Yes it is just that, a video game. But recently there have been some real life consequences to what the drivers are doing and this is already threatening the continuation of it all.

A few weeks ago, NASCAR driver Bubba Wallace lost one of his main sponsors after he quit a race partway through because he wasn’t doing particularly well. Shortly after, fellow NASCAR driver Kyle Larson was fired by his employer, the Chip Ganassi team, because Larson used a racial slur during the live stream of himself competing in a race.

And not long after those incidents, Lando Norris was participating in an IndyCar event and was deliberately taken out of the race by former IndyCar champion, Simon Pagenaud. The French champion stated he didn’t want a non-IndyCar driver to win. Pagenaud received a fair amount of backlash for his actions.

And so to the immediate present, where Daniel Abt, a Formula E driver, has been suspended by his real life team because he replaced himself during a race with a professional e-racer. And didn’t inform anyone.*

Integrity, transparency and consistent compliance with applicable rules are top priorities for Audi – this applies to all activities the brand is involved in without exception. For this reason, Audi Sport has decided to suspend Daniel Abt with immediate effect. Audi Formula E Team

It has been seen as deception and has been widely condemned. However, fellow Formula E drivers are now upset by Abt’s suspension and are questioning their future involvement in virtual races. This isn’t to necessarily imply they are in solidarity with Abt, but perhaps because they are concerned about how their virtual performances and behaviour will be viewed.

So, the issue of the virtual world is spilling into the real world, but there are serious conseqences and careers are being put under the spotlight, and in some cases, even questioned.

There is a distinction between virtual and real life though, and that distinction should never be blurred. A driver making a racial slur while being streamed across the Internet is obviously unacceptable and Kyle Larson derserves to be punished by his employer – a company that he was representing while he spoke. This is real life.

Of course, Larson was probably at his home, in a comfortable place and position and may have been larking about. Similarly, I am at home myself right now. I would never ever repeat what Larson said. Nor would I say it if I was being broadcast. Well, I would never say it anyway, but particularly if I was being broadcast.

But should a driver be suspended or even fired for letting a fellow driver take their place in an online event? That’s a little more grey. Certainly, it doesn’t reflect well on Daniel Abt, primarily because he didn’t announce it. And I think that is where a lot of the hurt is coming from. It also pangs of unsportsman-like behaviour, and when you consider that a lot of these championships are raising money for charities and good causes, it does seem sour that a professional driver would do this.

If Abt had simply stated that he didn’t want to race, or didn’t feel well, or simply couldn’t be bothered, but has lined up a replacement blah blah blah I doubt the organisers and his fellow drivers would especially mind.

The problem, I feel, that is contributing to a lot of this wranglement is the fact the drivers are representing their employers when they take part in these events. They often set up a camera pointing at themselves and usually wear branded team clothing, or in some cases actually green-screen the background and have sponsor graphics visible.

The other issue is that e-Sports is a burgeoning industry and there are lots of people who genuinely take this very seriously. It is their job, their livlihood. And in some cases, virtual drivers have done so well they have made the leap from console to tarmac. Jann Mardenborough is a name that comes to my mind quckly, being one of the first to make the jump. There are countless others and real life teams are getting them onboard.

It is a game, and it should be fun. Because that is exactly what sport is; it’s a game and it should be fun. But as with all games and sports, there is a need for rules and standards. Just because it is online does not excuse ungentlemanly behaviour.


Daniel Abt has now been fired from the Audi Formula E Team.

Today I was informed in conversation with Audi that our ways will split from now on.
I stand by this mistake. I accept it and I will carry all the consequences – it is my responsibility. Daniel Abt

A veteran of the series since its inception, and now parting ways with a team that his family are actually involved with. The driver has apologised and taken all responsibility onto his own shoulders. But how that leaves his fellow competitors and their apparent uneasiness remains to be seen.