Andre Lotterer’s Journey to Formula 1

lotterer_618x412_Normal

He is the most accomplished driver under the age of 35 that has never started a Formula 1 race.

Until this weekend.

The news that Andre Lotterer, the ace driver of the Audi Sport Le Mans Prototype program(me), and who is also driving for legendary Toyota factory racing team TOM’s in the Super Formula championship in Japan, would be making his Formula 1 debut at this weekend’s Belgian Grand Prix – at age 32 – was first reported on Monday, and came as even more of a shock as the news that broke later in the afternoon (or evening) that Toro Rosso will be making Max Verstappen the youngest driver in Formula 1 history next year, at age 17. Which is almost half of Lotterer’s current age.

At 32 years old, Lotterer is only a few months older than when former Audi teammate Allan McNish made his F1 debut for Toyota in 2002. He lasted just one year before going back to endurance racing. He is one year older than the last driver to make his Formula 1 debut past the age of 30 – Yuji Ide. In fact, those three men – Lotterer, McNish, and Ide, account for all of the Formula 1 rookies to have made their F1 debuts past the age of 30 since 1997. By the time fellow German Michael Schumacher turned 32, he had already won his third World Championship, and had passed Ayrton Senna for second on the all-time Grand Prix wins list. And by the time Senna himself was 32, he was already a three-time champion with McLaren after his legendary and controversial championship duels with Alain Prost, who at age 32, had won the first two of his four World Championships with McLaren, and was running down the all-time wins record of Sir Jackie Stewart, who himself was a two-time champion by age 32. By the time Stewart retired in 1973, he had passed the all-time wins record of Jim Clark, who himself had planned to retire after the 1968 season as the winningest driver in Formula 1 World Championship history at the time, before the tragic Formula 2 accident at the Hockenheimring that claimed his life…at the age of 32.

Yet also, at age 32, Damon Hill had just won his first Grand Prix for Williams a month shy of his 33rd birthday, and only one year after his Formula 1 debut for Brabham. The man who founded the team, the late Sir Jack Brabham, won both his first race and first World Championship in 1959 at the age of 33. Nigel Mansell, the man who former Lotus team director Peter Warr said would never win a Grand Prix “so long as he had a hole in his arse”, finally proved his old boss wrong when he won the 1985 European Grand Prix at Brands Hatch in a Williams-Honda, just two months after he had turned…32.

Lotterer driving at Fuji Speedway earlier this year. His pole time for this event was only four seconds slower than the Formula 1 lap record set in 2008.

However, in a sport which is favoring young, fast-rising talent above all else, a sport where Jolyon Palmer, the GP2 Series championship leader at age 23, is considered a dinosaur in the junior ladder compered to the likes of Max Verstappen – the idea of a rookie driver making his debut past the age of 30 in 2014 seems as crazy as the idea of Formula 1 moving the United States Grand Prix to Bowman-Gray Stadium, or moving the British Grand Prix to the Lydden Hill rallycross track. A driver like Damon Hill or Nigel Mansell would probably never get so much as a sniff of a secondary testing role with a top Formula 1 team nowadays. To say nothing of a current driver like Will Power, who despite being the single most dominant road course racer in the IndyCar Series over the last five seasons, is considered way too old for a switch to F1 now, at age 33.

But Lotterer has earned his chance at Formula 1 on merit just as Verstappen has. They’ve just done it in a different manner. Verstappen won his drive at Toro Rosso based on his superhuman record in karting, the fact that he had set new lap records in every car he drove in winter testing as he prepared for his single-seater debut just this year, before settling on the European Formula 3 Championship and winning eight races so far from 26 starts, including a six-race winning streak that encompassed clean sweeps at the Norisring and Spa-Francorchamps. In terms of how quickly he got there, Verstappen’s ascent to Formula 1 rivals that of Senna, or of former British F3 star Jenson Button, or of another teenaged who made his debut driving for the Faenza-based team, Fernando Alonso – or most famously, Kimi Raikkonen, whose single-seater career was only 23 races long – all of them in what is now Formula Renault 2.0 – but he won over half of them. There is statistical and anecdotal evidence to suggest that Max Verstappen will soon join this group of champions.

Lotterer, on the other hand, has compiled one of the finest racing resumes of any driver still in his early 30s that has, until now, never taken part in a Grand Prix weekend.

In the last four years, he and co-drivers Benoit Treluyer and Marcel Fassler have won the 24 Hours of Le Mans three times, establishing themselves as the current dominant trio in endurance racing. The first win in 2011 was canonized in the documentary Truth in 24 II (and yes, dear reader, that is an officially authorized, full YouTube upload of the documentary that you can watch when you click that link), and their victory this year should honestly be made into another Jason Statham-narrated documentary as well – as Audi came into the weekend slower than the favored Toyota and Porsche squads, but survived the race around the clock as their quicker rivals stumbled one by one. As a trio, they were the inaugural champions of the FIA World Endurance Championship, the first true World Championship for sports car endurance racing in almost 20 years.

Lotterer (center) celebrates with Treluyer and Fassler – their third Le Mans victory in four years, tying the record for the most victories by the same three drivers at the race.

In Japan, Lotterer is to auto racing what someone like Stan Hansen or Big Van Vader was to professional wrestling in that country – a foreign-born legend in his time. He’s a former two-time champion of the Super GT series for Toyota Team TOM’s, for whom Lotterer also won the 2011 Formula Nippon championship. In ninety-five starts over twelve seasons in Japan’s top formula, operating as either Super Formula or Formula Nippon, Lotterer has claimed nineteen victories. Ten of which have come in the last five seasons. In those twelve seasons, he has never finished outside of the top five in the championship standings. Even as his increased commitments for Audi have meant that he has had to miss races. Essentially, Lotterer has gotten even better at what is now his secondary racing job.

When he won the title in 2011, he started just six of a possible seven races, but won five of his six starts to win the title by a margin of 14 points over his closest rival and teammate, Kazuki Nakajima. He missed the second round of the championship due to the fact that he was busy practicing for Le Mans.

Last year, he finished in a tie on points with the series champion, Naoki Yamamoto. Evidentally, the tie-breaker had to have been race starts, because Lotterer won two races to Yamamoto’s one win, and recorded an average finish of 1.5 over four races to finish level on points with the champion despite the fact that he had missed three points-paying races because he had to drive for Audi at the WEC races in Silverstone and Shanghai. So the only thing keeping him from having as many Super Formula titles as Super GT titles is a dumb tie-breaker method.

It should not be a surprise that, even if it is by mere coincidence, Audi has looked to Japan to find its star talents, like Lotterer. Nine-time Le Mans winner Tom Kristensen used to race in the JGTC and Japanese Formula 3000 championships, the forerunners to the current Super GT and Super Formula series. Treluyer and Loic Duval were also former champions of both series. Oliver Jarvis currently races in Super GT for Toyota Team SARD.

Lotterer driving at night, in his Audi R18, at Le Mans this year.
Lotterer driving at night, in his Audi R18, at Le Mans this year.

Andre Lotterer is at the height of his powers in the year 2014 – a successful open-wheel racer in a nation that is passionate about cars and auto racing, and currently making a bona fide case to be the greatest endurance racing driver of his generation. All of this before his Formula 1 debut.

But things could have been much different. We could be talking about Lotterer as an ex-Formula 1 driver today, or even still a Formula 1 driver if things had gone differently over a decade ago.

He tore up the Formula BMW ADAC series in 1999, winning 15 of his 18 races – a feat only bettered five years later by another German champion, Sebastian Vettel, who won an astonishing 18 of 20 in 2004. As an 18-year-old rookie in German Formula 3, he competed against the likes of Giorgio Pantano, as well as his future rivals in endurance racing such as Stefan Mucke and Pierre Kaffer, and future Super GT rivals Bjorn Wirdheim and  Toshihiro Kaneishi, to finish 4th in the championship with 3 wins. When he was signed as Jaguar Racing’s junior driver and moved up to British Formula 3, in a year where Takuma Sato became champion, he would once again compete against future endurance racing stars like Anthony Davidson and Gianmaria Bruni, and future Super GT driver James Courtney – who, like Lotterer, was a junior prospect of the Jaguar team, before injuries put an end to his F1 aspirations. By God, Lotterer even beat The Stig himself, Ben Collins. It seemed as if Lotterer was going to be one of those young, fast-rising talents to reach Formula 1, not in the manner of a Raikkonen or a Senna or a Max Verstappen, but he was still a multiple race winner in Formula 3, and well-regarded by Jaguar as he continued to test for the team through the 2002 season.

Lotterer was caught napping in this photo, but as a Jaguar prospect, he had legitimate claims to Formula 1 stardom.

It was at that point, actually, when I first got acquainted with Andre Lotterer. But not as a Jaguar tester or a Formula 3 race winner, no. It was during the CART Championship Series finale at Mexico City, in 2002. As the imminent defections of teams like Chip Ganassi Racing, engine suppliers Honda and Toyota, and drivers such as Scott DixonDario Franchitti, Tony Kanaan, and Michael Andretti dominated most of the narrative of the race – to say nothing about the swan song of Formula 1-bound champion Cristiano da Matta and, of course, the success of Mexican heroes like Adrian Fernandez and Michel Jourdain Jr., Lotterer just happened to turn up at Mexico City for the final race of the season, two days before turning 21, as a one-off entrant for Dale Coyne Racing. He started 18th in a field of 19 cars, but in his debut in top-level single-seater racing, finished 12th, and on the lead lap. For a 20-year-old rookie in a one-off appearance with an under-funded team, at a track he had never raced on before, this was a pretty good result.

And as CART, later Champ Car, went into 2003 looking for new talent and new teams to fill the void left by the likes of Ganassi, and Andretti, and also Dixon, Franchitti, Kanaan, and Da Matta, it seemed certain that Lotterer would become a fixture in the series the way that 2003 rookies Sebastien Bourdais and Ryan Hunter-Reay did. Instead, Coyne ran a cavalcade of underwhelming pay-drivers just to keep his two-car operation solvent, from Joel Camathias and Roberto Gonzalez, to Alex Yoong, Gualter Salles, and Geoff Boss. Geoff. Boss. And thus, with no other offers from other teams – Lotterer, who clearly had all the tools and all the talent to be a top talent in the rebuilding Champ Car World Series, was inexplicably left out in the cold, and never seen in North American open-wheel racing ever again.

A rare picture of Lotterer's lone CART appearance - running ahead of Tony Kanaan in Mexico City.
A rare picture of Lotterer’s lone CART appearance – he is seen running ahead of Tony Kanaan in Mexico City.

And even though Jaguar Racing had kept Lotterer as a junior talent and a test driver from 2000 to 2002, he would once again be left out of a massive opportunity in 2003. The team had already signed Minardi’s Mark Webber to replace the retiring Eddie Irvine, and with Pedro de la Rosa not being retained by the team either, it seemed as if Lotterer would become a favorite for the vacant seat. Until Brazilian Antonio Pizzonia, then a highly-rated Formula 3000 prospect of the Williams organization, showed up and took the seat – with a little assist to the money he brought from national petrol giant Petrobras. Pizzonia would do poorly, and would be replaced after the British Grand Prix by another future star of North American open-wheel racing, Justin Wilson. But swirl this around in your head for a bit: In 2014, the racing world got the privilege of seeing Mark Webber and Andre Lotterer represent Porsche and Audi and battle for overall victory at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. In 2003, Mark Webber and Andre Lotterer could have, and arguably, should have had the honors of carrying the underachieving Jaguar Racing team up into the midfield in 2003. It could have altered the team’s future, and thus, the future of Formula 1 itself, when you consider the success the team enjoys now, a decade later, as Red Bull Racing.

Left out in the cold by Jaguar in F1, and by at least one team owner in Champ Car, Lotterer had to move to Japan to make a name for himself. And boy, did he ever. And by 2009, by which point he was already a Super GT champion and about to win his 2nd title with co-driver Juichi Wakisaka, he was scouted by a former F1 team principal to drive a privately-run Audi R10 at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. One of his co-drivers was one of the principal’s former F1 drivers just a few years ago. They were the highest-ranked privateer entry at Le Mans that year, behind the Peugeots and the factory Audis and one of the Aston Martin prototypes, and by the end of the race, Audi principal Wolfgang Ulrich was keen to have him on board as a factory Audi driver in the 2010 race because he was that impressive on his debut. The principal of that privateer team was Colin Kolles, one of the new principal investors of Caterham F1 Team, now directed since July by the co-driver of that Audi R10, Christjian Albers.

The cynic’s take is that these connections with Kolles and Albers are the only reason why Lotterer has displaced Kamui Kobayashi for the Belgian Grand Prix weekend. Similar to the other #HotTakes I’ve heard – that Marcus Ericsson should be the driver being replaced, that if anyone is going to be replacing anyone at Caterham, it should be their test driver Robin Frijns, that the 12-year layoff between F1 starts will mean that this will play out as Luca Badoer Part II, even though Lotterer last raced a month ago compared to Badoer, who had gone ten entire years between competitive racing starts – I may have written a few words about that saga earlier this week, for which I am thankful for the outpouring of positive feedback, especially from Will Buxton and Formula One Rejects. And the most popular, glass-half-empty viewpoint of all – that no matter how many Le Mans victories he’s claimed or how dominant he’s been in Japan, he cannot make the Caterham CT05 go from being the 11th fastest car out of 11, to a competitive points-scorer, so what’s the point of him even driving for Caterham? He might even be faster in his Dallara-Toyota from Super Formula or his Audi R18.

Before Lotterer became a fixture at Le Mans, he was a two-time Super GT champion, driving this Petronas-liveried Lexus SC for TOM's.
Before Lotterer became a fixture at Le Mans, he was a two-time Super GT champion, driving this Petronas-liveried Lexus SC for TOM’s.

Caterham themselves said that Lotterer is one of the best wet-weather drivers in racing, which is true. Caterham are also rolling out much-needed upgrades to the CT05, and Lotterer is a phenomenal driver when it comes to offering feedback and helping to develop a car – something that the Leafield-based squad desperately needs. There is also the potential angle that, in a similar manner to how Mercedes-Benz paid first year team boss Eddie Jordan a six-figure check to put their own German sports car and single-seater ace in one of his very green cars at Spa-Francorchamps in 1991, that Audi may be funding some of Lotterer’s debut appearance, at Spa, driving a very green car also being fielded by a first-year team boss. They certainly had to sign off on it beforehand, as Lotterer is the lead driver of the Le Mans-winning team. And if the innuendo that Audi has paid for even a portion of Lotterer’s drive in the same way that Mercedes paid for Michael Schumacher’s F1 debut is revealed to be true, all of a sudden, the conversation shifts back to the oft-rejected rumors that the Volkswagen Audi Group will be coming to Formula 1 in the very near future, just as Mercedes did three years after Schumacher’s debut.

But for this weekend, the focus is on Lotterer. I’m not going to make any unrealistic predictions about his results this weekend. A successful weekend for Lotterer will probably just be if he can out-qualify and out-race Ericsson, or even just to see the checkered flag. To replicate Jules Bianchi‘s amazing 9th place drive at Monaco will require a lot of attrition, maybe on par with the 1998 Belgian Grand Prix, or the 2012 edition of the race. And it may be the only time we ever see Lotterer in Formula 1, just as Markus Winkelhock stormed to the lead in the 2007 European Grand Prix for a brief moment on his Grand Prix debut, and then never drove again. Kobayashi is expected to return for the Italian Grand Prix, after all. Then again, he could also use this drive to springboard into a permanent Formula 1 presence over the next five years, the way that Damon Hill did in the 1990s.

I am so, so happy that he’s getting this chance. Sebastien Loeb and Valentino Rossi dominated the worlds of rallying and motorcycle racing in their primes, and had a shot at coming to F1 in their 30s. Neither one made it in. A decade after he should have gotten his chance in Formula 1 the first time, Andre Lotterer has finally arrived, as the dominant driver in sports car racing.

You know, in a sense, Lotterer reminds me of another driver who came to F1 in his thirties. Like Lotterer, he was an accomplished driver in Japan for Toyota, like Lotterer, he was a regular at Le Mans before his F1 debut, and like Lotterer, he too had a pedigree of success in Formula Ford and British Formula 3. And even though he was debuting at a new and fairly uncompetitive team, he was simply happy to have finally reached Formula 1 after years of paying dues and struggling to be noticed by teams, and was instantly recieved as a popular and well-liked driver, which is still the reputation that he has in Formula 1, over twenty years since he perished, at the age of 33, one year younger than Lotterer will be when he makes his F1 debut. You may have heard of this young man before – his name was Roland Ratzenberger.

You can bet your ass that I will be rooting for Andre to drive the wheels off that damn Caterham this weekend. And hopefully, this time, even if this story is told over just one weekend in Belgium, the story will have a happy ending.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s