Everyone was caught off guard by the news that André Lotterer would be making his F1 debut this weekend.
The casual observer, for whom André Lotterer is unlikely to be a familiar name, would be forgiven for having trouble seeing how the sportscar ace signing to join Caterham for this weekend’s Belgian Grand Prix would be likely to benefit either party.
Caterham’s (rather ambitious) stated goal for this year is to haul itself back inside the top 10 in the constructors’ standings, a target which will only be reached if the team is able to benefit from extreme attrition and/or bizarre weather conditions in one of the remaining eight races of the year.
In such circumstances, a team needs a safe pair of hands on whom it can rely to bring home the car and take advantage of the opportunity presented to it.
Kamui Kobayashi, who now may well have driven in his final race as a Grand Prix driver, has proven nothing if not a reliable finisher this season, his four retirements all having come as a result of mechanical gremlins of one kind or another.
In the unlikely event Caterham were to find itself in a point-scoring situation, the Japanese driver could be trusted to bring the car home.
Therefore, by jettisoning Kobayashi, it might seem that Caterham has sacrificed its only real chance of achieving its aims for the year and recovering the crucial prize money it is set to lose in its current position of 11th and last in the constructors’ table.
Meanwhile, from Lotterer’s perspective, the decision to join the Leafield-based outfit seems equally bizarre on the face of it.
What does Lotterer bring to the table?
The German already has three 24 Hours of Le Mans wins and a WEC title with Audi to his credit, and, at 32 years of age, the prospects of him forging a serious career in F1 at this stage are virtually nil.
But, while Lotterer is undoubtedly best known for his considerable endurance racing achievements, it’s easy to forget he has plenty of recent experience in high-powered single-seaters thanks to his exploits in the Japanese-based Super Formula (formerly Formula Nippon) series.
Indeed, Lotterer had been due to race in the championship at Motegi this weekend before the opportunity to compete at Spa arose, Andrea Caldarelli being called up to replace him at TOM’S.
The Dallara SF14 chassis used in Super Formula is a seriously quick piece of kit. Lotterer’s pole position time at Suzuka earlier this year would have been good enough to qualify for the 2013 Japanese Grand Prix (albeit last, but well within the 107% cut-off).
His experience of such potent machinery should ensure that Lotterer is able to get up to speed quickly at Spa, a track he is familiar with thanks to its inclusion in the WEC calendar.
What’s more, it should come as little surprise that Lotterer was high up on Caterham team principal Christijan Albers’s list of potential replacements for Kobayashi, who had known since the team’s change of ownership that his place in its line-up was in danger.
The mighty dollar always plays a role
Financial considerations have clearly played a part, but there would have been many far more obvious candidates if cash was the sole determining factor.
Both Lotterer and Albers drove for Colin Kolles – advisor to the group of Arab investors who purchased Caterham from Tony Fernandes – at Le Mans in 2009, when Lotterer grabbed the attention of his current employers Audi with a sparkling performance in his La Sarthe debut.
Since then, Lotterer has established himself as the outstanding talent in contemporary sportscar racing, his prowess indicated by the fact he ranked no lower than sixth in Autosport’s list of the 50 best drivers across all of motorsport in 2013.
In short, his speed is not in question. In fact, it would be a surprise if he was not immediately on the pace of Marcus Ericsson, who has been largely shaded by Kobayashi so far this season.
Despite that, because of his advanced years, it’s highly unlikely this opportunity of Lotterer’s will lead to any further opportunities to develop his F1 career, even if he excels in the Caterham cockpit. André himself will be more aware of this fact than anyone.
How he fares is irrelevant
But, having been denied the chance to race in F1 by Jaguar, whose junior scheme Lotterer was a part of early last decade, it’s not hard to see why he would be so eager to try his hand at the pinnacle of motorsport – even if for only a single race and in the least competitive car in the field.
How he fares is irrelevant. His mere presence at the team is sufficient to satisfy Caterham’s immediate needs – otherwise, Kobayashi would still be in the saddle – while, for Lotterer himself, just being on the F1 grid is enough to tick the one obvious remaining box in an illustrious CV.
And who knows – if he does exceed expectations at Spa, perhaps Lotterer will make a few more appearances in the F1 paddock wearing green overalls this season.