Why sports car racing is now a young man’s game…
It’s often underestimated how much work goes in to building an LMP1 car. The design process starts months, and in some cases years, before the first laps are eventually turned. This is what makes pre-season testing so important and, at the same time, so exciting. It’s then that team and driver get the first impression of the car and ultimately how competitive their season could be. While a good first impression is a great start, it is no guarantee of success, as no amount of analysis can effectively predict the improvements your competitors have made.
I race at Silverstone this month, in the opening round of this year’s FIA World Endurance Championship, but the journey for our optimised 2015 Audi R18 e-tron quattro has already been long. Already this year we’ve clocked up testing miles at Aragón, Sebring and Paul Ricard – and Sebring is one of the most demanding circuits in the world for a car. It was my first time back at the Florida track since I won the 12 Hours with Benoît Tréluyer and Marcel Fässler in 2013. The bumpy nature of the surface is incredibly tough, and ultimately it’s this that makes it perfect to test and develop a car for endurance racing. At Sebring you encounter potential problems that might not show at other tracks, such as ultra-smooth Silverstone.
Looking around the paddock at Paul Ricard for the recent WEC Prologue event, it hit me just how many ex-single seater drivers there are in sports car racing. The perception of sports cars has changed so significantly in the past few years. It has been incredible to see the influx of younger drivers forsaking the traditional single-seater route and instead making the step across to sports cars at a much earlier age. With current GP2 budgets being around the €2m mark for a competitive team, it is no surprise to see drivers looking at GTs and sports cars as viable alternatives. It’s been great to see Audi and Porsche promote their respective GT drivers into LMP1 seats. As well as this, Nissan and Toyota have promoted the top LMP2 drivers in recent years, showing future generations that single-seaters might no longer be the best route if you want to become a professional racing driver.
My career path was slightly different, as I had the fantastic opportunity to continue my single-seater career in Japanese F3. At the time I didn’t even give it a second thought, it was the easiest decision I’ve ever had to make. I was going to be paid to drive for one of the best teams in the world, at a time when it was unlikely I would have been able to progress further in Europe due to a lack of funding.
For me it is no surprise that four of Audi Sport’s six full-time WEC drivers also learnt their trade in Japan – not forgetting the recently retired ‘Mr Le Mans’ Tom Kristensen, who raced there from 1992-95. Japan is not only a fantastic place to develop as a driver and a person, but it’s also possible to have a long-term career there.
As a foreign driver in Japan you are expected to perform immediately, but for this reason you are treated as a professional – even in F3. You soon learn how to communicate and this has been very useful as I have progressed. The majority of overseas drivers spend time together away from the track and there is a real sense of community.
I loved my time in Japan and was delighted when I had the opportunity to return there last year in GT500, which I felt would benefit me as a driver. You’ll not be surprised to learn that, along with racing at Silverstone this year, I’m also really looking forward to the WEC event at Fuji in October.