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Special feature

How a determined Brazilian traded Uber for racing in the WEC

His career threatened to hit the buffers on no less than three occasions. But the story of Nicolas Costa’s journey to the World Endurance Championship grid is an unconventional one that has taken in racing on four continents – and a spell working for Uber too

#59 UNITED AUTOSPORT McLaren 720S LMGT3 EVO of James Cottingham, Nicolas Costa and Gregoire Saucy

Photo by: Mike Hoyer / Motorsport Images

Motorsport.com has occasionally ridden in an Uber with a driver who believed they had missed their calling as a racing driver. But it’s not often that the individuals in question had a valid case. Rewind back to 2015 however, and that was the scenario facing Nicolas Costa, now racing for McLaren partner team United Autosports in the World Endurance Championship.
The Brazilian was – for a second time – facing the prospect of his racing dreams hitting a dead end. He’d rebounded from losing his biggest sponsor after winning the 2012 Formula Abarth championship to get back in a single-seater and in 2014 won a race in Pro Mazdas (now called USF Pro 2000) one rung below Indy Lights on the Road To Indy ladder. But hopes of building on that momentum in a second full season came to naught.
“I had a seat [for 2015] but I lost it because a driver with a lot of budget came in,” Costa tells Motorsport.com in United’s smart hospitality unit. “The deal I had went down the toilet and I found myself not racing again. I was an Uber driver in Brazil, because I didn’t want to work with my dad. I wanted to do something myself.”
He’d already had a stint working for his father, a window and door salesman, in 2012. Costa recalls: “It was really tough for me especially because I was quite young, I went into depression”. But salvation was to come in the form of Vincenzo Sospiri, whose Euronova team had run him in 2012 on what Costa reckons was a fourth of the budget.
The 1988 Formula Ford Festival winner was setting up a Japanese Formula 4 team for 2015 and wanted to get the band back together. Costa duly followed him out East and so began a chapter of his career that was just starting to gather momentum towards Super GT when the COVID pandemic forced him to return home, once again facing a crossroads. His is a story full of fits and starts.
But drivers don’t continue to get opportunities unless they can prove their mettle. And Costa earned his move to the WEC, at a point when competition for seats is at a premium amid its current manufacturer boom, following a title-winning season in Brazil’s Porsche Carrera Cup in 2023 that justified his conviction not to give up despite considerable odds.
An impressive test for United at Estoril ultimately secured his place on its driver roster and means the silver-graded 32-year-old will be on the grid in July for his country’s first WEC round since 2014. It’s little surprise that he describes reaching the pinnacle of sportscar racing as “a dream come true”.
Costa says it's a dream come true to race in the WEC

Costa says it's a dream come true to race in the WEC

Photo by: JEP/United Autosports

“It’s an opportunity that I’m really cherishing every day,” says Costa. “For me to be able to represent my country in a world championship, having a home race, it’s a very rare opportunity. For sure that was one of the arguments that made it a little bit easier to find sponsorship. It’s an honour to be representing McLaren.”
Costa’s car racing story starts with a one-off Formula Ford outing at Snetterton in July 2009, at the age of 17, which he points out “for today’s standards is quite old for starting in racing cars”. He describes the triple-header meeting in the “experimental” Danish-built Aquila chassis as “one of those unforgettable moments in your life”.
“I was supposed to just test,” he remembers. “We were the only [Aquila] car on the grid. We did a two-day test at Snetterton and then the team was like ‘why don’t you race?’
"Winning a European title with Vincenzo I think is the most special moment of my life so far"
Nicolas Costa
“We used probably 500-kilometre tyres. I had £80 in my pocket for crash damage, so I was freaking out about crashing. But it was so much fun. We had a nice race for what we could do.”
It was a world away from the success he enjoyed when he came back to Europe properly in 2011, before beating recent IndyCar debutant Luca Ghiotto to the 2012 Abarth title. While the Italian was with the crack Prema team, Costa reckons he and Euronova managed just two test days all season, which made their eventual success all the more special. Ghiotto’s tally of seven wins was one more than his rival’s six, but Costa points out that he finished in the points at every race bar one.
“We were always there,” he smiles. “It was really special and honestly up to this point winning a European title with Vincenzo I think is the most special moment of my life so far.”
Costa stresses that his career would certainly not have progressed as far as it has without Sospiri’s willing assistance when the budget wasn’t in place.
Beating Ghiotto to the 2012 Formula Abarth title with underdog Euronova team cemented Costa's relationship with Sospiri

Beating Ghiotto to the 2012 Formula Abarth title with underdog Euronova team cemented Costa's relationship with Sospiri

“Sometimes two days before the start of practice, he would call me in Brazil and say ‘just come and race, let’s see what happens’ and we would go and win,” he says. “Me and Vincenzo, we bonded right away. The first race I did with him was in 2010, the Formula Abarth Winter Trophy in Varano, which we won, so we started off with the right foot.
“He gave me so many opportunities in motorsport. If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t have the experience I have today. He made me a part of his family and he helped me to race most importantly. He taught me so much. He’s very tough on the drivers and I feel like he was very tough with me especially, but that made me so much better as an athlete.”
Costa describes his US chapter as “an unbelievable experience for me”. Third on his debut on the tricky Toronto street course midway through 2013, his limited programme also took in Mosport, Mid-Ohio and Houston, taking a best result of second at the latter. He returned for a full season in 2014, which included a first experience of ovals at Indianapolis Raceway Park and the Milwaukee Mile, but only started contending for results after a mid-year switch from M1 Racing to the Team Pelfrey outfit he’d started out with in 2013.
Racing on ovals was “a blast” for Costa and his exposure to different experiences was only increased by his switch to Japan, fulfilling a long-held ambition for a driver whose passion for Japanese culture was fostered by playing Gran Turismo in his youth. At Sospiri’s invitation, he finished fourth in the first round of Japanese F4 and contested the first four rounds before racing with his team in Italian GT, Lamborghini Super Trofeo, Blancpain Asia and GT Open over the next three seasons.
By 2019, Costa was just starting to get settled on the Japanese scene in Super Taikyu with a Nissan GT-R GT3 and had an eye on Super GT when the pandemic derailed his momentum.
“I stopped racing completely,” he says. “When COVID struck, all the foreign drivers basically lost their seats. I came back to Brazil and since I had done so much international racing, not many people knew me in Brazil, so I just focused on work. I didn’t even go to a track for two full years.”
He busied himself selling cars and didn’t complete a full season of racing until 2023, which he says was “to have an idea if I’m up for the challenge again”. Costa admits that the result, beating former NASCAR racer Miguel Paludo to the Carrera Cup title, “was so much better than I anticipated” and it ultimately opened the door to joining Zak Brown and Richard Dean’s team following its switch to LMGT3 from LMP2.
Racing on ovals in Star Mazda added to Costa's breadth of experience before he sampled Japan

Racing on ovals in Star Mazda added to Costa's breadth of experience before he sampled Japan

Reliability problems thwarted any chance of a result in Qatar, but at Imola the McLaren was more competitive in race trim. James Cottingham was set back by a right-rear puncture, yet their #59 car shared with Gregoire Saucy was in the mix for points until the rain hit. Things went better still at Spa, where Cottingham ran second in his opening double stint and Costa hit the front during the middle phase of the race.
Saucy was the leader with eight laps to go, but the Swiss was critically low on energy. With no full course yellows following the eventual race restart, he was unable to recoup the difference and had to make a splash-and-dash 10 minutes from the finish. The crew was ultimately boosted one place to fourth after a penalty for the Iron Dames Lamborghini, a result that gives Costa confidence with the Le Mans 24 Hours on the horizon.
“If you said to me two years ago that I would be racing in a world championship and I would be leading a race, with the best drivers in the world driving a McLaren, I would tell you that you’re joking,” he beamed after the race.
“I stopped my career three times completely to do some other stuff, because obviously I could never count on my parents to pay for it"
Nicolas Costa
“The team is doing an amazing job, our progress I think is visible and I’m really happy to be working with them, for them to trust me as I’m not one of the known Silver drivers here in Europe. We’re going forward, and I’m pretty sure at Le Mans we’re going to be a bit stronger.
“I’m happy to be here, happy to have our first top-five. I think that’s only the beginning, we are hungry for more.”
And the same goes for the United team, in which he’s felt comfortable from the start.
“The team, I loved working with them and they liked working with me as well,” reflects Costa of the crunch Estoril test. “And a month and a half later, we had a deal. It’s actually unbelievable to be here in a world championship after everything that I lived and having no intention almost to come back to this level.
Joining Cottingham and Saucy in the United McLaren line-up, Costa has been exposed to a lot of learning

Joining Cottingham and Saucy in the United McLaren line-up, Costa has been exposed to a lot of learning

Photo by: JEP/United Autosports

“I stopped my career three times completely to do some other stuff, because obviously I could never count on my parents to pay for it. But as soon as I saw any light at the end of the tunnel, I would just run for it.”
Costa still has a dream “about maybe racing a season in Super GT, just to fulfil my inner kid’s desires”, but is for the time being “looking forward to growing inside WEC” as he indulges realising his lifelong goal of reaching motorsport’s summit. After a unique route that won’t appear on any Uber driver’s sat-nav, he’s enjoying every minute.
“I’ve been learning so much,” he grins. “Coming from a national level to a world championship is not a step, it’s a jump. I want to grow up with the championship.
“I’m a big freak about racing. If they give me a golf cart, then I’ll race it. Whatever I can do, I will!”
Costa will make his Le Mans debut next month before racing on home turf in Interlagos

Costa will make his Le Mans debut next month before racing on home turf in Interlagos

Photo by: JEP / Motorsport Images

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