It’s been a strange start to the new year for Audi factory driver Filipe Albuquerque. In the wake of the VW emissions scandal, Audi (like its sister brand Porsche) scaled back its LMP1 programme for Le Mans to two cars, leaving Albuquerque and his teammates René Rast and Marco Bonanomi out of LMP1 drives for the big race.
Albuquerque can safely say he’s landed on his feet though, by securing a drive with RGR by Morand for the full WEC season alongside Bruno Senna and Ricardo Gonzalez. Despite being a new trio, it would wrong to discount them as a favourite for the LMP2 title as all three drivers are more than capable of winning races. The Ligier chassis too, is a more than proven package in the class.
Fresh off being signed by the Mexican squad, Albuquerque spoke to DSC about his thoughts ahead of the new season:
Tell me about how this deal with RGR by Morand came about?
“So basically in December I got the call from them and I spoke with Philippe Dumas. This is a Mexican team, but we have a bit of support from Onroak because it’s a Ligier. We kept on talking and they told me about the project, and I felt straight away that it was going to be a strong team.
“It’s a team that’s going for the title, I thought: “let’s do it!”
And how about the other drivers? Were you the first to sign up, or was having Bruno (Senna) in the car a big draw?
“Basically the team was set up before me, I was the third guy coming in so Ricardo and Bruno were searching for the third driver and contacted me.”
Does this lineup excite you? It seems like you’ll be a formidable force in LMP2 going into the season?
“Yeah. We can’t underestimate the other guys in the WEC, but we can count on our own experience. It’s a new team but everyone has done it before, the drivers, engineers etc… I’m familiar with the guys and this type of racing. We should be fine.”
You must feel that without a drive in Audi’s third R18 this year, that it’s really important for you to just be on the grid at Le Mans?
“It’s important yes. It was a shame for everyone, for Audi, for me, for the other drivers, for the fans. To have one less car on the grid is always a shame because we wanted to be more competitive this year.
“When I first heard about it, I talked with the Audi guys about what their plans were and what I could do. I wanted to know if I could still race at Le Mans because that’s my main goal and I would be free. They said ‘yes’ then the news came out, that’s why RGR contacted me, to know if I was available to join the team.
“Before that they didn’t because they thought I would be with Audi at Spa and Le Mans. I was really happy to be called to join such a strong team.”
Have you driven the Ligier yet?
“No time at all, I have had no time with the Ligier or one of the new closed-top LMP2 cars. I drove the Gibson for Jota Sport and that’s it pretty much.”
Are you looking forward to the challenge of learning a new car?
“Yes, but I think it will be just fine. Getting used to the power, it will be the same as the Gibson, and in terms of a roof, it’s the same as LMP1, maybe with fewer buttons and less to do.
“I’m completely comfortable with it. I think I can add my experience to this team well.”
Where does this leave you with Audi going forward?
“They were and are really supportive. I’m still an Audi driver first, so the idea is that I keep in touch to get the maximum experience, and at the moment part of that is making sure I’m still going to drive fast cars. They really helped me and we keep in touch, we’re still linked and I still need to see what races I will do with them this year.”
Is there a plan in place for you to be in a factory car at Le Mans next year?
“We cannot assume that. We never know what’s going to happen each year, for example this call-up, it was a shock. Dr Ullrich was shocked about all this because everything was settled, I’d driven the new car and Me, Marco (Bonanomi) and René (Rast) were all ready to do Le Mans. And then he got the call to say my car wouldn’t be racing.
“I don’t think anyone knows what’s going to happen during 2017, or at least I don’t know.
“Basically the focus now is with the WEC, and then we will see in September or November what the plans are, if they’ll take a third car next year.”