Audi Sport Abt has suspended its driver Daniel Abt for cheating in an Esports competition. The team needs a replacement capable of winning it titles and may need to look at its rivals to find the star it requires
Daniel Abt – runner-up to Mitch Evans in GP3 back in 2012 – has lost his Audi Sport ABT Formula E drive after he was found to have allowed simulator racer Lorenz Hoerzing to drive in his place during the latest FE Race at Home Challenge race.
The 27-year-old, who has driven for the team since the series’ inception in 2014, leaves behind a coveted seat for the remainder of the season alongside 2015-16 champion and current title contender Lucas di Grassi.
There will be plenty of drivers for Audi to choose from, not least one of its nine contracted drivers who will be displaced when the German manufacturer leaves the DTM later this year. Among those DTM refugees will be the obvious replacement picks in Robin Frijns and Nico Muller, who currently drive in FE for Virgin Racing and Dragon Racing respectively.
Although Audi supplies Virgin with its powertrain and loans Muller to Dragon, the automotive manufacturer may find it difficult to pry either driver from their respective team especially part-way through the season.
Two-time DTM champion Rene Rast may also be an enticing option, although his FE experience is limited to a cameo for Team Aguri at the 2016 Berlin E-Prix and he’s now 33 years old. Young GT drivers Kelvin van der Linde and Mattia Drudi tested for Audi during March’s rookie test in Marrakech and will also be in outside contention for the seat.
Formula Scout presents five young drivers, and an older Audi-known star, who should be in consideration for an FE seat…
Maximilian Gunther GERMANY 22y/o
Currently 4th in 2019-20 FE, 17th in 2018-19 FE – 14th in ’18 F2, 2nd in 2016 FIA European F3, 5th in ’17 Macau GP
Following a breakout second season, BMW Andretti’s Maximilian Gunther must be a driver many teams will consider for a drive in the future. At 22 he is the series’ youngest victor after taking his maiden win in Santiago earlier this year, and he followed that up with second in Marrakesh shortly before the season was halted. He currently sits fourth in the standings, just two points behind his experienced (in a wider motorsport sense) team-mate Alexander Sims.
While Gunther’s junior single-seater record never included a title, it was still very solid. Twice a runner-up in ADAC Formel Masters, Gunther was also a 10-time race-winner in FIA European Formula 3. He was a distant runner-up to Lance Stroll in 2016 (but beat George Russell) and was a less distant third in 2017 behind Lando Norris and Joel Eriksson.
That led on to Formula 2 with the somewhat unfancied Arden outfit. He claimed an unremarkable 41 points from 22 races in a year when fellow rookies Norris and Russell fought over the title and earned Formula 1 seats. But it was Gunther’s first season on Pirelli tyres and he outscored highly-rated team-mate Nirei Fukuzumi by 24 points despite the Honda junior having spent the previous two years on Pirellis in GP3. Gunther also took a convincing reversed-grid win at Silverstone.
He hasn’t always had things easy in FE, after a difficult maiden season with Dragon that included seat-swapping with IMSA star Felipe Nasr. However, Gunther emerged as a rough diamond with some excellent drives. Many went unrewarded due to reliability issues, notably at Santiago, but a brace of fifths was the team’s strongest results by some distance. He also effectively ended triple World Touring Car champion Jose Maria Lopez’s FE career in the process.
Gunther would be a very strong asset to Audi if they’re able to pry him away from BMW. That seems impossible to do in the middle of the season, but they’ll be keeping an eye on his long-term future, that is certain.
Ferdinand Habsburg AUSTRIA 22y/o
2020 DTM, 18th in 2019 DTM, 4th in 2017 Macau GP, 7th in ’17 FIA European F3, 2nd in 2016 Euroformula, 4th in ’16 TRS
After R-Motorsport pulled its self-developed Aston Martins out of the DTM at the start of 2020, Ferdinand Habsburg had to find a seat elsewhere to secure a second season in the series. He found an additional berth at Audi customer W Racing Team. But with Audi set to leave the German touring car series at the end of 2020, it seems likely an Audi debut for Habsburg either won’t happen or will be short-lived. Perhaps his long-term future could be switched to a Formula E instead?
Up until the start of 2019, the Austrian’s motorsport career had been focused on single-seaters. He raced with Carlin in European F3 in 2017 and ’18, securing a handful of podium finishes and a victory at Spa-Francorchamps as a rookie. However, he lacked the consistency of his team-mates, and in 2018 the team struggled as a whole with the Hankook tyres. He was third best of the Carlin drivers again in the standings, 34 points behind rookie team-mate Sacha Fenestraz.
Perhaps because of this, he followed Fenestraz in not progressing to F2 in 2019. And while he did move to the DTM, it was clear a return to single-seaters was not off the cards. He raced in the Macau Grand Prix, after losing victory at the final corner in ’17, and he did shine – qualifying eighth on the toughest street circuit – even though it went far from planned.
If Habsburg were to get the FE seat, he would need the consistency he lacked in single-seaters. And it seems he has already made progress.
Consistency was actually one of Habsburg’s biggest strengths in 2019, and one of the aspects of his driving that convinced Audi to run him this year in the first place. He placed consistently just outside the top 10 and arguably had a more solid year than team-mate Paul di Resta, though he lacked the stand-out performances that earned points. A tally of just three points was not a fair representation of his rookie campaign, proven in that he was the only R-Motorsport driver to secure a 2020 seat.
Habsburg would be faced with a steep learning curve and a lot to prove as di Grassi’s team-mate, but Audi had the confidence he would step up for the 2020 DTM campaign. He could do the same in Formula E.
Joel Eriksson SWEDEN 21y/o
2020 ADAC GT Masters, 11th in ’19 DTM, 2nd in 2018 Macau GP, 2nd in 2017 FIA European F3, 2016 Masters of F3 winner
While BMW will be desperate to keep hold of Gunther, another one of its young stars has fallen out of favour with the German manufacturer over the past year and may prove to be a more realistic target for Audi.
After serving as Norris’s biggest rival in European F3 through 2017, BMW tempted Eriksson away from single-seaters and into its DTM line-up for 2018. He earned three podiums, including a win in a bizarre Misano night race in mixed conditions.
However, his two years in the DTM were littered with incidents and inconsistencies. He was somewhat unfairly shuffled out of his seat at the end of 2019 and moved into ADAC GT Masters, where his older brother and GP3 race-winner Jimmy also races.
While the series is a competitive and respectable GT championship, it’s easy to feel as if Eriksson’s full potential has not been shown and that he has unfinished business in single-seaters. His last race in a single-seater was when he finished second to runaway winner Dan Ticktum at the 2018 Macau GP.
At just 21 years old, Eriksson could be a long-term investment for Audi, who will be fully aware di Grassi is 35 years old. There’s the potential for Audi to mould Eriksson – who was powered by sister company Volkswagen in F3 – into a more complete, consistent driver in the same way BMW has been able to achieve with Gunther.
He’s also acting as Dragon’s test and reserve driver for the 2019-20 season so has FE experience and showed great adaptability when he graduated from F3 and finished fourth on his debut DTM weekend. At the very least, Dragon should consider promoting him to a race seat should Audi call on the services of Muller.
Sacha Fenestraz FRANCE/ARGENTINA 20y/o
2020 Super Formula, 2019 Japanese F3 champion, 6th in ’19 Super GT300, 3rd in 2018 Macau GP, 2017 FR Eurocup champion
Former Renault junior Fenestraz hasn’t stopped bouncing back in style after his disappointing rookie European F3 season, which featured one win and 11th in the points after an early win on the streets of Pau. The street-based challenge of the end-of-year Macau GP provided the first opportunity to remind everyone of the talent he’d shown en route to the 2017 Formula Renault Eurocup title, and two Monaco wins, beating the likes of F1 juniors Robert Shwartzman and Dan Ticktum.
He finished seventh on his Macau debut in 2017, with little F3 experience, and his second effort with (then-struggling) Carlin resulted third place behind the dominant Ticktum and Eriksson. He sampled GP3, but a lack of funds following the loss of Renault’s support meant he made the bold switch to Japan. Despite considering quitting racing during the off-season, and facing all-new circuits, he won eight races on the way to a dominant Super Formula Lights title.
That title campaign was dovetailed with a step into sportscars in Super GT300. Again he impressed, and it earned him seats in Super Formula and Super GT’s top GT500 class for 2020 as a Toyota driver. Fenestraz may be considered crazy to walk away from such an opportunity, but FE has already come knocking and Audi may make an offer the Frenchman can’t refuse.
As with Eriksson, the 20-years-old is a potential long-term asset for Audi and one that Renault may regret letting go after one poor F3 season in which all of his team-mates also struggled. But Toyota will be keen to hold onto his services, especially with its reigning SF champion Nick Cassidy edging closer and closer to a FE switch of his own.
Jaguar was the first FE team to approach Fenestraz, offering him the chance to drive in Marrakech earlier this year in the rookie test, in which he was 10th fastest.
A lot will depend on when the SF and Super GT seasons begin and how many rounds they will feature. Fenestraz may prove too difficult for Audi to pry from Toyota for 2020, but don’t rule him out making it to FE in the near future.
Jake Dennis ENGLAND 24y/o
Currently 10th in 2020 IGTC, 17th in 2019 DTM, 4th in 2016 GP3, 3rd in 2015 FIA European F3, 4th in 2013 FR Eurocup
The start of Jake Dennis’s car racing career was heavy with silverware, with titles in InterSteps and the Formula Renault Northern European Cup in successive years. This was bookended by Dennis winning the 2012 Aston Martin Autosport BRDC Young Driver of the Year Award.
At the time, the award was McLaren-backed and Dennis got his first taste of F1 in the manufacturer’s 2011 machine at Silverstone a year later. While he said the car was out to kill him at first, his run was remembered for how quickly he started to push the limits, and his aggressive attacking of the National layout’s kerbs.
While that may have been over six years ago, it points to skills that are useful for the one-day, street-based format that most FE events tend to be. And what of Dennis’s street circuit form?
In 2015 he raced in European F3 and totally dominated the Pau Grand Prix weekend. He topped his qualifying group by over three-quarters of a second in the wet and converted race one pole into victory in a style that had previously eluded him in the nimble F3 cars. The feat was repeated in race two.
Pole position for the grand prix itself came by almost half a second, and Dennis led 23 of the 28 laps with damaged left-front suspension. With five to go, Antonio Giovinazzi broke through Dennis’ defence and he lost further places before a last-lap crash left him in 23rd. The experience Dennis has gathered in the five years since would suggest if he was in the same predicament in an FE race now, it would end far better.
In 2016 he took two wins and fourth in the GP3 standings with Arden, before a switch to sportscars with WRT. He impressed immediately, and his Arden links enabled a move to Aston Martin customer R-Motorsport for 2018. Stronger results and then a DTM seat with the brand followed (as well as a Red Bull F1 test role). Dennis made the most of his DTM drive and by the end of the year, he was only a few points off his more experienced team-mates 2010 champion di Resta and Daniel Juncadella.
Dennis has experience of representing a manufacturer at the top-level of motorsport and is thoroughly deserving of a return to single-seaters and could feasibly be lured from Aston Martin’s stable. Although his lack of any FE experience will hurt him, he’s demonstrated that’s he’s a highly-adaptable driver.
And one that missed the boat…
Ed Jones UAE 25y/o
2020 DTM, 13th in 2018 IndyCar, 14th in 2017 IndyCar, 2016 Indy Lights champion, 2013 Euroformula champion
One year too old to make our list, but we deemed it wrong not mention one of Audi’s newest recruits Ed Jones. Audi’s somewhat left-field signing of the former IndyCar star to its DTM line-up was a testament to the 25-year-old’s ability.
He mirrored Dennis in racing in the Intersteps and FR NEC championship in 2011 and ’12, albeit with less success. Jones switched to F3 in Euroformula for 2013, where he skipped the opening round but still won the title.
For 2014 he moved to the FIA’s European championship, but struggled to shine against the likes of Giovinazzi, Esteban Ocon and Max Verstappen. He worked with Carlin to cross over to America together for 2015 and tackle Indy Lights, where he won his firs three races but had to wait until his second season to win the title – with a little assistance from team orders.
Jones had two solid years in IndyCar with Dale Coyne Racing then Chip Ganassi Racing, but could only find a part-time deal for 2019 and eventually settled on to return to racing in Europe for 2020. Audi was evidently aware that Jones hadn’t shown the extent of his true potential during his three years in a stacked IndyCar field, where he was quickly usurped by the new youngsters on the block like Colton Herta, Patricio O’Ward and Oliver Askew.
With no FE experience, Jones is an outside contender, but one which could be easily slotted in for the remainder of the season with minimal financial expense before a long-term option is signed for the 2020-21 season.
Written by Josh Suttill, Bethonie Waring, Craig Woollard and Elliot Wood