Champion in karts, F3 and now GT racing, this rising Belgian star tells Simon Arron that he doesn’t regret abandoning his F1 dreams
There was a sense of inevitability that Laurens Vanthoor would become involved in motor racing sooner rather than later. “My grandfather and father both competed for fun,” he says, “and my mother grew up across the road from Zolder, so you could say our family has a racing spirit.”
He was “five or six” when first he tried a kart, although he didn’t begin to take racing seriously until he was nudging his teens, competing locally at first before graduating one step at a time towards international events. “My best season was probably 2005,” he says, “when I won the French and Belgian JICA titles.”
At that stage his mentor – and kart preparer – was Jan Heylen, winner of the 2002 Formula Ford Festival. “Jan suggested that F3 might be the right place to start in cars,” Vanthoor says, “simply because it was such a good place to learn. There was more technical freedom then than there is now. I did a Formula Renault test with Van Amersfoort Racing and that went pretty well, but then I tried one of its F3 cars and that went even better, so…
“F3 was a big change for me. I was on the pace pretty quickly, but my lack of experience told. I was only 16 and made lots of mistakes. Van Amersfoort had confidence in me, though, and accepted that it was part of the learning process. I had a very good relationship with them, won a couple of races in my first year and took the German title in my second. Switching to the European series in 2010, I was with a different team [Signature] and took a while getting used to unfamiliar tyres. Things started OK, but then I had a few problems and it took time to recover my confidence. The year ended well, though, with a run of podiums. I was in a good position to win the Macau GP, but then the safety car came out and Edoardo Mortara got past me at the restart.”
That appeared to give him a strong platform from which to challenge for the 2011 Euro F3 title but, despite a few top-three finishes, “Almost everything seemed to go wrong and I got into a bit of a downward spiral, having rows with my engineer and so on.
“I wanted to build a career and at that stage could have searched for sponsorship to do Formula Renault 3.5 or GP2, but if I’d managed that and done well I’d have needed to find much more money to secure a seat in F1. That’s when I started to look seriously at sports cars. I’d built a good relationship with VW during my time in F3, which I thought might help open doors with Audi, and the World Racing Team (WRT) had a seat available for FIA GT1 and Blancpain races.
I had to find some sponsorship, but things went well – it helped that I shared with somebody as experienced as Stéphane Ortelli, because he offered lots of advice – and at the end of that first season I was awarded a contract as an Audi factory driver. In some ways it was a bit like being back at Van Amersfoort, with a lovely family atmosphere. I count WRT team principal Vincent Vosse as one of my best friends and I seem to thrive in an environment where I feel appreciated.”
Since then things have become ever better. He won the FIA GT Championship in 2013, the Blancpain Endurance crown in 2014, shared victory in this year’s Nürburgring 24 Hours, made his Le Mans debut recently in one of Oak Racing’s Ligier-Hondas and at the time of writing is challenging for a Blancpain Endurance/Sprint title double.
“I love the team spirit in sports cars and enjoy my racing a lot more than I did in single-seaters,” he says. “My goal is to race one of the Audi LMP1 cars at Le Mans, but that’s out of my hands. All I can do is continue to try my best.”
Career in brief
Born: 8/5/1991, Hasselt, Belgium
2005 French & Belgian kart champion, JICA
2007 Works CFG driver, KF2
2008 German F3, 4th
2009 German F3 champion
2010-11 European F3
2012 WRT Audi. FIA GT1, 4th
2013 FIA GT champion
2014 Blancpain Sprint Series, 4th; Blancpain Endurance Series, 1st
2015 Nürburgring 24 Hours winner