Toyota works driver Nicolas Lapierre is not sitting idle during the long break between the Le Mans 24 Hours in mid-June and the Austin WEC round in September. He’s signed up with ART Grand Prix in the #98 McLaren 12C to do the Spa 24 Hours – a race he’s competed in twice before alongside his LMP1 commitments. Lapierre’s former single-seater team-mate Alex Premat was in the car for the first two Blancpain Endurance Series rounds at Monza and Silverstone, but Lapierre took the wheel at the recent Paul Ricard evening race in order to warm up for Spa. We caught up with him in the paddock there to discuss his GT3 racing and look back on an eventful Le Mans for Toyota.
You have two Spa 24 appearances under your belt now – one in a Graff Racing Mercedes SLS in 2011 and one in a Pro GT by Almeras Porsche in 2013. How did you find them?
“Yes, they were good – I like GT races, there are more cars fighting together than in prototypes, so it’s quite exciting. What I really like is the Spa 24 Hours, which is one of my targets this year. Doing [the Paul Ricard Blancpain Endurance round] before is a good preparation for it – the best preparation you can have. In 2011 and 2013, I just went for Spa and I felt like I could have been better prepared, so that’s why this year I’m doing this race before. I’m very happy with the team job, they’ve done very well since the beginning of the season and the McLaren seems competitive as well, so it’s quite good. There’s still a bit of a question mark over its reliability over 24 hours – we’ve seen some problems on these cars so far – but it’s improved a lot and I’m looking forward to the race.”
Is the McLaren significantly different to drive than the Mercedes and the Porsche?
“All the GTs have their own advantages and disadvantages, but the McLaren is a very nice car to drive. The seating position inside looks more like a prototype than a GT and it’s quite a neutral car, so it’s very easy to drive. I had two hours of testing before coming to Paul Ricard and I felt good in the car straight away We struggled a lot with the Porsche last year at Spa – we had a problem from the beginning of the week. It was a strong driver line-up and I was looking forward to the event, but in the end the car was just not fast enough.”
How do you compare the Spa 24 Hours with Le Mans?
“Le Mans is the most important – there’s much more pressure and tougher competition, so Spa doesn’t have the same level of pressure, but in the end they’re both 24 hour races. It’s the same way of thinking: you need to make it to the end and be careful with the car, tyres and engine. It’s the same kind of driving, just with a bit less pressure.”
You did thousands of laps of Paul Ricard in prototypes – how did you find it in a GT?
“The lines were different in many corners, so I needed to get used to it – in some corners I was taking completely the wrong line at first! As you say, I had tested a lot with Peugeot and Toyota here, so I’d done many laps, but this is my first time driving a GT here, so it’s like I’m learning it again. It’s a good process for me to get back into this situation of learning and having to find lines or take a kerb that I wouldn’t take in a prototype – it’s quite exciting to feel like I’m starting again.”
Lots of young single-seater drivers are finding good seats in GT3 cars these days – what advice would you give to someone making the transition?
“Two things – the weight of the car is very different and the ABS is very different – I think those are the main factors. After that, a steering wheel is a steering wheel! The weight of the car puts the emphasis on tyre management – as the car is heavier, it’s much tougher on tyres. For example in Le Mans we do three to four stints on a set, but with a GT3 it’s impossible, the most you could do would be a double.”
Looking back at Le Mans, how did the #8 Toyota’s early crash unfold from your point of view?
“It was a very tough situation. I went through Tertre Rouge and it was completely dry, so I acclerated as normal. Coming into the first totally straight bit of the Mulsanne, I had this Ferrari maybe 200 metres behind me. Then suddenly there was massive rain – a Porsche spun in front of me and stopped on the right side of the track so I had to slow down, but not too much, as the Ferrari was still coming very quickly. I tried to find a space, but of course I was still on slicks and I had to steer to avoid the Porsche and I couldn’t make it – I just aquaplaned. I crashed into the barrier and the Ferrari came just behind me. I’m not sure if he touched me or not but it was big mess.”
Getting the car back to the pits after that was some feat – talk us through it…
“In the end we were very lucky to restart, because the car was so badly damaged. I had to get out because the car was stuck and I had to push it back on the track, then return to the pits at very low speed. Two tyres had deflated and the engine wasn’t running well due to a radiator leak, so it was a big challenge to get back, yes. It was a big challenge for the mechanics to repair as well – the front left suspension was damaged and much of the bodywork was destroyed. It took us a bit of time, but we were fortunate to only lose nine laps due to the safety car still being out.”
How was the car for the rest of the race? Was your first Le Mans podium any consolation?
“During the night, the floor detached because of the earlier damage and we lost another lap and a half – the car was never perfect after the initial crash. Considering that, it was good to finish the race and get on the podium. That was not at all what we expected, as we were very strong coming in to the race, but the team ended with a poorer result than last year. So it was very disappointing. It’s positive to be leading the WEC standings after our good start to the season, but Le Mans was our main target and it’s difficult to accept that we missed it with the fastest car. It’s always good for any driver, especially a French one, to be on the podium there, but when you know you could have been on the middle step it’s difficult to get excited.”
Preusmably you’rec confident for the rest of the season’s six-hour WEC races?
“Yes – the car is very strong, I have a good relationship with my team-mates, we’re fast and the strategy has been good from the team. We should be okay, we have a 20-point lead and we just need to make sure we keep it.”
Have you any more GT outings planned post-Spa?
“This year there’s a big gap in calendar with Sao Paulo being moved to the end of the season, so we had almost three months free. For me it was good as a driver to be racing in that time and Toyota understood this, but then when the WEC season restarts it’s tough to jump from one car to another, so I’ll be fully focused on Toyota.”