When asked why COOL Racing has chosen the ELMS over the WEC this year, Lapierre says: “Basically I’m going to be involved as a driver with another team in the WEC this year, so it was going to be tricky for me to do both. To have my team on the track and racing with another would have been complicated. Alex wanted me to do Le Mans with him this year but I couldn’t, so we decided it was probably best to wait for one year while I do WEC with someone else. In my head, it is better to be free as a driver rather than thinking about my team running on the side, to be sure I can deliver on the track.”
He stops short of saying who he’s signed for, but it’s not going to be another LMP2 squad. So presumably the top class? “Probably!” he says with a laugh. “It’s a good project.”
Toyota announces its Hypercar line-up on Friday, but another return to the Japanese manufacturer seems unlikely. Instead, our money is on Lapierre joining Alpine in its ‘grandfathered’ LMP1 Rebellion squad, given that he also has previous form with the French brand, having won the LMP2 class at Le Mans with Signatech Alpine in 2018 and ’19.
As his new deal indicates, Lapierre is far too young to stop driving and concentrate on team management. “Especially right now,” he says. “The endurance world is getting crazy and there is a lot of interest in the top class, which is fantastic. The last few years I was so sad seeing only one manufacturer – Toyota – racing and winning at Le Mans. It was sad for the fans, for the drivers, for everybody.
“The LMP2 category was really crowded with amazing drivers – people like [Jean-Eric] Vergne and [Antonio Felix] da Costa, and the likes of [Juan Pablo] Montoya coming to LMP2. But we knew we were not fighting for the overall win. Now it is back to normal that manufacturers are coming with big numbers of cars and there will be a lot of professional driver seats available, which is the best news ever.
“So of course I want to keep active. I know I’m not the youngest one any more, but I also know I have good experience, which is quite important in endurance racing. I want to stay active for a few more years. And if I can do it together with COOL Racing it would be fantastic.”
What’s really capturing the imagination of everyone right now is the prospect of incoming manufacturers selling customer cars, certainly in LMDh but possibly in Hypercar, too. That will allow privateers a genuine shot at beating the factories and winning WEC rounds and Le Mans overall – as long as genuine equality is guaranteed, which it should be given Balance of Performance and the standardisation of the LMDh hybrid system, electronics and gearboxes.
“It’s very exciting, especially for a team like ours,” says Lapierre. “When we pushed the green button a few weeks ago it was super-scary because right now there are big question marks everywhere [thanks to Covid] and we don’t know whether we can travel. It was very risky to say we will go for it with a lot of investment because we can’t ensure the races are going to happen and the world is moving very fast right now with this health crisis.
“On the other hand, LMDh is going crazy, there are a lot of manufacturers interested, four are confirmed now [Audi and Porsche in LMDh, Toyota and Peugeot in Hypercar] and they are also open to selling cars to customers. If we don’t start now the team will not be ready in two or three years to take this challenge. If there is an opportunity we have to start now to build up this team in the next couple of years and try to be ready. Of course, it’s scary but I had to take the shot.”
Lapierre’s enthusiasm is infectious – and he’s far from alone in feeling so upbeat. Top-line sports car racing has drifted into the doldrums in recent years, but following what Nicolas admits will be a “transitional” year in 2021, a fresh wind is about to blow through its sails. Brace yourselves. It’s going to be a great ride.