Top gun driver with Team ORECA Matmut in the past few season, including an overall victory at the 12 Hours of Sebring in 2011, Nicolas Lapierre joined the Toyota Racing ranks this year leading to a success that is now well-known in the World Endurance Championship: six races, three wins! Difficult to do better for a first year of competition for the TS030 HYBRID facing the Audi juggernaut.
Through the years, Nico Lapierre has distinguished himself as one of the best endurance racing drivers on the planet. His battle for the lead against friend Benoit Tréluyer in the Audi remains one of the high points in the 2012 Le Mans 24 Hours. Alongside teammates Alexander Wurz and Kazuki Nakajima, the Frenchman made himself a home at Toyota Racing. We sat down with him to review a satisfying 2012 campaign and to look forward to a positive 2013.
We knew right from the first tests at Paul Ricard that it would be competitive.
Laurent Mercier: Nico, how do you rate this season?
Nicolas Lapierre: "It was very positive, even if the beginning was difficult. We knew the performance was there, but not necessarily the reliability. On top of that, we had an accident during testing and the program got behind leading us to delay our competition debut to start literally with the 24 Hours of Le Mans. We retired sooner than we thought, and the other car had the major accident that we have all seen. At Le Mans, the team was in a rush. The preparations for the race finished shortly before and to race a car for the first time, especially a completely new car, at Le Mans is not easy."
The second part of the season was much more in Toyota Racing's favor…
"I'd divide our year in two. There was a click that opened up our second half of the season. To take three wins ahead of the Audis is not something small. The performance was there, but also the reliability. No one expected us to be at such a level. The 24 Hours of Le Mans gave us experience for 2013. After Le Mans we debriefed very well and took part in testing. Afterward, we were much better in the reliability department. The aero package always needs a few adjustments and the fuel consumption was a little worse than the competition. The team fixed the problem after Silverstone and the progress was immediately evident on this subject. Also, our refueling was improved because we were losing about 6 seconds at Silverstone compared to Audi."
Starting at Silverstone, the TS030 HYBRID showed that it could run equal with the Audis…
"Sao Paulo was a game-changer for the team and a great satisfaction for all the work done. That first victory won't soon be forgotten. The Bahrain circuit corresponded well with the car despite a few electric problems. We lost seven minutes and then there was the contact that took us out of podium contention. That was the biggest personal disappointment of the year for me. That was the first time in my endurance career that such an accident happened to me. Without that, I think we could have finished on the podium."
The pressure went up for Fuji?
"Yes, because everyone was waiting to see what Toyota Racing would do. Since the start of the season we were hearing a lot about this very important race for Toyota, where a lot of work was done. The future of the program was even in the balance depending on the result. There was the success on the track, but also the fan success, with many passionate people. Kaz (Nakajima) had a superb race and the battle against Audi was very tight. At Shanghai, everyone had a flawless race. The team showed an exemplary amount of maturity. In China, the gap to Audi was quite big considering they were giving it their all."
Are you surprised by the Toyota's potential starting in its first year?
"We knew right from the first tests at Paul Ricard that it would be competitive. We knew were we stood. To be good with our position is one thing, but to win three races is another, and it's something we couldn't have imagined - especially one car against two."
The combination of Japan-Germany-France worked well?
"It's true that we are a real melting pot. The French part of the operation is ORECA and their know-how. The Japanese element brings their experience of the hybrid system and TMG (Germany) bring their conception and design expertise. The three cultures are different and it took some time so that everyone was on the same page. ORECA brought its experience on the strategic and team management front while TMG perfectly masters the aero package and everything conceptual about the chassis. And the Japanese are unparalleled when it comes to the hybrid systems, so each party brought their own mix to the fold."
You also took part in the development of the car. A new learning experience?
"When I signed with Toyota, I wasn't quite sure what to expect since the program wasn't yet fully defined. I took part in the development with Alex (Wurz) and I'm very proud of that. On paper, I'm not the most experienced of drivers. Whereas for Kazuki, he was making his debut in the endurance world, and was under a lot of pressure. He committed a small error at Le Mans under extreme conditions. However, at Silverstone, he drove without mistake and at Fuji he practically drove half the race and took pole. I knew Alex a little from the Peugeot days and our relationship became closer during the season and we work well together. He's a very open person and the mix between the three of us is very good. It looks good for 2013."
Your on-track battle with Benoit Tréluyer at the 24 Hours of Le Mans will stay in the minds of many. A great memory?
"People still talk to me about that and I can tell that it really made an impression. It's one of the highlights of my season. I was in my fifth stint and the Toyota was getting better and better. I had to close a 40 second gap but I was able to catch Ben. We were only able to have such a great fight because it's him. I knew it would all go well and he's someone I have a tremendous amount of respect for and we're friends. It was important to take the lead of the 24 Hours of Le Mans and I knew he wouldn't try anything."
In your opinion, the braking zones established on certain points on the track to recuperate energy is a good idea?
"I think we have the most efficient hybrid system. These zones complicate things. If there weren't these zones, it wouldn't really change anything and it would be simpler for the fans. The batteries can save 500kilojoules so it's not like we could save more energy."
Driving a hybrid car is different?
"We had to set the system up correctly and manage the power. The team worked hard to figure out how to balance everything. You have to be able to manage the saved energy and redistribute it in a progressive manner as not to destroy the rear tires. You can really feel the boost of power upon acceleration and there's nothing different about the braking feeling. The system is very much appreciated in traffic to compensate for the Audi torque in short straights. It's an advantage for overtaking."
What do you think of this first year of the World Endurance Championship?
"It was a good first season: the organization, the tracks, the race direction. It's really worthy of the World Championship label. Of course, we'd like to have more media presence and a bigger grid, notably in LMP1. There needs to be more media and it's essential for the championship to have a television package."
And the 2013 calendar is good?
"For me, it's a disappointment that Sebring was replaced by Austin. The 12 Hours of Sebring is the best race after the 24 Hours of Le Mans and on top of that it lasts 12 hours. Austin has no history in endurance racing. That doesn't go in the right direction to grow the championship. The first corner at Austin looks complicated when there's traffic but it will be the same for everyone. The track is modern and bland. The rest of the calendar looks to make sense, even if it's risky to go to Silverstone in April. On the other hand, it's good that Bahrain was pushed back."
Is it possible we'll see Toyota Racing at the 12 Hours of Sebring?
"To be honest, I don't think so. It's risky to go to a race that's outside the championship. You have to mobilize the equipment and the personnel for a long time. And during this time, we're unable to test. On the other hand it would be good for reliability testing. If it were in Europe, why not. But it's too complicated and too close to the first round of the World Endurance Championship."
Speaking of, what's the plan for Toyota Racing in 2013?
"Toyota wishes to continue in the same direction. The driving squads will likely remain the same, knowing there's a bit of uncertainty with Seb (Buemi) with his F1 contacts. A second car for the entire championship isn't 100% confirmed yet. We also have to prepare for 2014 according to what Toyota wants to do and see if we must develop a new car. We have to look where we need to concentrate our energy. And having two cars at Le Mans would continue what we started there, and we shouldn't break the momentum. Organization-wise, it should be the same with ORECA making up a good portion of the team."
Could we see you with other programs?
"It's not in the plans today. When I signed on with Toyota, I devoted myself to the program fully. There are lots of simulator sessions and testing, and it's not good to spread yourself thin."
Translation: Rainier Ehrhardt
Original story: Laurent Mercier/Endurance-Info.com