Few people have as much endurance experience and success in WEC as Nicolas 'Nico' Lapierre. Fortloc had the chance to speak with the decorated racer ahead of the 2021 season finale to hear how he viewed the season. More than that, though, Nico spoke about how he's heading into another stage of his career with his recent move to be both driver and manager of the European Le Mans team, Cool Racing.
With his story (so far) taking in two LMP2 WEC championships, and four class victories in the illustrious 24 Hours of Le Mans, there is no doubt Lapierre knows what he's talking about. The Frenchman has raced for rival team, Toyota Gazoo, in their all-conquering hybrid in the past. As such, he's frank about his concerns for how the sport could've gone with electrification, but tells us how he thinks 2023 will pan out instead. You get the impression that you'd be foolish to argue against any of his predictions or opinions with Nico's impressive resume behind him.
Nico, how's it been this year managing that player-manager role?
It's a very different job, it's been very interesting. I was quite busy at the beginning of the year because we started this project very late. It was a bit of a last-minute call, but super interesting. I've always been very interested in how the team is operating outside of the track; the strategy, logistics, commercial, everything. I was always very [interested], but now I'm into it, it's nice, it's very cool, very demanding, a lot more demanding than driving the car, but it's been going good so far. I cannot complain.
What is it that made you have to become a racing driver, why not anything else?
I would have loved to be a footballer, but I was too small and not good enough... so I had to have a Plan B, you know?
No, I started very early, and my father liked it a lot. He [brought] me to the racing track. Since the day I started, I really liked it. I enjoyed it a lot more since I joined endurance racing, because racing in go-karting or single-seater was not [for me]. I didn't like to share it with my teammates, and it was not so much in my ideal, you know. So now I feel much better [since] I've joined endurance racing since 2007 or 2008. And I've had a lot more interesting types of races and I'm really enjoying it a lot.
The sport's changed, probably quite a lot, since when you started Nico. If you started now, would you do anything different with hindsight?
Now it can be very, very expensive to go karting, single-seaters, and stuff. So I'm quite happy actually. I started quite a long time ago because it was easier at that time; finding the budget and the resources to drive and run. But then, apart from that, things don't change that much. It's true that endurance racing [has] a bit more opportunity now there's a new cycle coming.
I was a bit worried with the electric championship, because a few years ago, all the manufacturers would go that way, and it was a bit scary. We were like, "what will be left for the normal engines if all manufacturers are going to electric cars?" It's going to be very disappointing for us as drivers, because this car – I had the occasion to drive it for the first time – and they're really not exciting at the moment. Maybe it's going to get better in the future, but, still, when you're in this electric car, you miss the engine sound. You need vibration, and it's completely different – it feels heavy and not so exciting to race.
So I was quite relieved and happy when I saw the manufacturers, like Audi, stopping the electric program and coming back to Le Mans because I believe we should really separate what's happening on the road, on the street, and what's happening on the track, you know? The track is made for the fan. [It] is to make a show, and it has to be exciting. Seeing manufacturers like Audi coming back; BMW coming back to Le Mans – for me was really the best news of this decade for motorsport.
So, a short WEC season is coming to an end, how are you ranking 2021 for you personally, and as a team, compared to how you thought the season would go from the start?
Personally, for sure a bit disappointed that we didn't win any races now. As a racer, you always want to win, and there are two more races to achieve this. This would be great for the team, so hopefully, we can fight here for the win. Apart from that, I would say I was very impressed by the team. It was their first season in the top class, and they did really good to adapt to this category.
It's a lot more people in the team logistically, and, in terms of operation, it's a much bigger team right now. Everything was running very smooth[ly] since the beginning of the year. We had very good performance on track, and pit stops, and strategy, as well. So this is very positive for the future. Obviously, this year is a bit more difficult with the car being a bit older than the Toyota. We are suffering a bit in terms of pace, but still, hopefully, we can fight for a win this weekend or the next one.
The year 2023 is going to be of huge interest to everybody. Are we going into the best era of sports car racing we've ever had?
Yeah, I think it's very interesting. For sure, the number of cars will be impressive and the number of drivers. Moreover, is the fact that the rules are super clever and the competition will be very tight. So this is very interesting. I was lucky enough to be part of Toyota with this new hybrid system and all the development behind this, but then, in the end, it went too far, and it was too expensive, and it was crazy, you know.
So everybody got afraid, but now with the new rules and the new implementation that will come next year, it's a lot more open, and there will be a lot of fight[ing] on track, which is the most important in the end. The fans, and us as drivers, we want cars to be close. We want to have a nice fight, and I think that will be the case. So yeah, super excited about it.
Who is the best driver you've raced against in any category?
For me, it's clearly [Lewis] Hamilton. I raced against him in Formula Renault, Formula 3, and then GP2, which is now Formula 2. He was racing a year younger than me. He was in his rookie season when I was in my second season. And in Formula Renault, he was OK, but then he came to GP2 [and] he destroyed everyone in his rookie season – he was very, very impressive. I have to say he was so much faster than anybody else at that time. He was also in the right team, for sure, but he was super strong and we had some amazing races.
I remember Turkey, for example, he had a problem, and he started last, and he won the race. At this time, there were a lot of good drivers racing there; he was really impressive. He's the driver who impressed me the most, and now we're seeing what he's doing in Formula One. Staying at the top level since more than ten years now, I think. It's pretty impressive, and I give it a big respect.
Who is the best teammate you've had?
Now it's a very tricky question. All teammates have their plus and minus. But in the end, I'm very happy with the combination we have with the three of us [at Alpine]. It's one of our strengths. I knew Andre [Negrao] for a long time because we raced together for quite a long time. But Mathieu came in the team, and he was fitting exactly to the team. And he found his place after two test days. So that was amazing, and right now, we have a very good combination for sure.
And Phillip [Sinault], the boss of the team, is really good at picking up people that will fit together, you know. In our races, this is very, very important. You don't need the top-top three drivers if they don't fit together. If drivers [...] start to fight each other, you're finished. Your season is over. And for this, Phillip is just mega. He can find the right drivers that will fit a group together, and I'm really happy with my teammates right now.
If WEC stopped tomorrow and you had to go and find another series, what would your ideal series be?
A championship I find really exciting actually... I look at the V8 supercar, for example, in Australia, that's super cool. For sure, it's difficult now to move where we don't know the tracks, [...] but I like the idea.
I was testing also Super GT in Japan. This is looking to be a very, strong championship with cool cars. And obviously, we follow Indycar quite a lot because a lot of drivers that we know go to race there. And this is also an exciting one. So, it's hard to pick at one, but many championships are nice, and I would love to compete in [them].