Carlos Sainz Jr isn’t the only son of a champion rally driver who’s trying to make it big on the track with the help of the Renault Formula 1 team.
Christian Lundgaard’s father Henrik didn’t quite match the two world titles of Carlos Sainz Sr during his own career, although he was European rally champion in 2000 and effectively part of the same Toyota team as Sainz on some events before that.
Yet while it’s still early days in his single-seater career, Christian is showing the potential to possibly go all the way to the top, after winning both Formula 4 championships he contested in 2017.
Just like Sainz, Lundgaard ended up going down the single-seater route rather than rallying following a successful career in karting. In his case, that was despite not enjoying his first experience on the track.
“Me and my brother actually started trying a go kart when we were young,” he says. “At that point, I didn’t really like it actually. My brother was way into it. Then the first time I got onto a real track driving a kart, it was just what I wanted to do. And since then, I really haven’t been questioning myself: is this what I want or not? If you don’t want it fully, you shouldn’t really be doing it. And I haven’t been to that thought where: is this what I want?”
After success in his native Denmark, Lundgaard’s rise through the karting ranks took him to the title of European champion at KF Junior level in 2015, before he was the lead driver for Daniel Ricciardo’s brand new karting project the following year.
Lundgaard then secured the backing of the Renault Sport Academy to make the step into cars last year, driving in both the Northen European Zone and Spanish F4 series with MP Motorsport. He won twice on his first weekend at Sochi (pictured below). Was the step up as straightforward as he made it look?
“The first weekend was of course very difficult – everything was new,” he counters. “The first race didn’t really go as planned: I started P2, was already P1 at Turn 1, but then made a big mistake, and learned from it and won the next two races.
“So of course, it’s a difficult thing, because in a kart, you’re just sitting there, you can move the kart with your body. In a car you’re literally just locked [in]. It was all different, but I got used to it pretty quickly, and ended up winning the two championships.”
He went on to dominate the SMP-sponsored NEZ series, particularly once his more experienced rival Xavier Lloveras switched focus to Formula Renault. He won it with a rounds to spare, in slightly unusual circumstances after accidentally serving a drive-through penalty at Moscow Raceway that had been handed down to another driver.
“It was very tight with Lloveras, and then he quit the series for some reason,” he says. “And then since that, everything just fell into place, I just pulled away in the championship, had all my wins. I knew it was that point where I really had to pull the maximum out of it, to get the biggest lead, to be able to make a mistake in the end if anything happens. And that’s what I did. I had a little mistake in Moscow which was very unfortunate, which wasn’t what I wanted, but things like this happen, and I learned from it.”
He was already the NEZ champion when round two of seven in the Spanish series – featuring the same Tatuus cars, Hankook tyres and many of the same drivers – took place at the start of September. After starting that series with a hat-trick at Aragon in June, Lundgaard’s early advantage was gradually whittled away, particularly by SMP protege Alexander Smolyar as well as Dutch team-mate Bent Viscaal, with both also in their first seasons out of karts.
Lundgaard led Smolyar by just three points going into the deciding round at Estoril, but won the final two races to finish up 36 points clear (before Smolyar later lost further points to exclusions).
“I had a big gap at the beginning, and then they caught up in the middle,” Lundgaard says. “It was like we were on standby and they were literally just getting quicker and quicker. And that wasn’t really what we wanted. Then Smolyar had a really good weekend at Jerez, he won all three races, and I didn’t really have the pace. After that weekend we sat down and asked each other: ‘what’s going on?’. We sat down and analysed like animals. Then in the end, we worked it out, and ended up winning the last round and the championship.”
Lundgaard now steps up to the Formula Renault Eurocup, sticking with MP Motorsport. He therefore makes exactly the same move as Richard Verschoor, who was even more dominant on his way to winning both NEZ and Spanish F4 in 2016, but then struggled together with the whole Dutch outfit as it returned to Formula Renault after a year away.
Believing those difficulties were due to having an all-rookie line-up, Lundgaard is more confident in the team’s chances this year. He will be the only Formula Renault newcomer in the three-driver line-up: Alex Peroni drove similar machinery in V de V before stepping up to the Eurocup last year and winning on the streets of Pau, while Max Defourny is entering his fourth year in the same category, and was arguably Lando Norris’s strongest rival in 2016.
“I think that was the mistake they did last year; putting in three rookies,” he says. “They didn’t have any experience of the series or the car. This year we have a senior driver, which I can learn from as well, and I think that’s the most important thing for us in our team.”
Lundgaard was not wholly satisfied with where he was at during his initial Formula Renault tests late last year, but has looked far stronger during the early part of 2018 since Defourny’s arrival, topping one day in the dry at Paul Ricard (scene of this weekend’s opening races) and one in the wet at the Nurburgring.
The lacklustre form of Verschoor and team-mate Jarno Opmeer raised doubts about the level of the interlinked NEZ and Spanish F4 series, but Lundgaard has been joined at the front in Eurocup tests by Smolyar, while Viscaal has set the pace in Euroformula Open’s pre-season running. Verschoor meanwhile returns to the Eurocup among the title favourites after winning twice as many races in this year’s Toyota Racing Series than his chief rivals (the highly-rated and Ferrari-backed Formula 3 rookies Robert Shwartzman and Marcus Armstrong) combined.
Verschoor is joined by the likes of Defourny, Max Fewtrell, Yifei Ye and Neil Verhagen in returning to the Eurocup this year, while Lundgaard is just one in a strong field of rookies that features leading counterparts from the F4 series in Britain (Oscar Piastri and Logan Sargeant), France (Arthur Rougier and Victor Martins) and Italy (Lorenzo Colombo).
Top results will therefore not be easy, but if he does well enough to impress them, Lundgaard will be able to count on the continued support of the Renault Sport Academy. For Lundgaard, that backing is crucial, because if there’s something that really differentiates his path to that of Sainz Jr, it’s that financial resources have been harder to come by.
That is evidenced by the plight of his brother Daniel, who made it three F4 titles in the Lundgaard household in 2017 by winning the Danish crown, and was the domestic Formula Ford champion the year before that, but has not been able to join Christian in racing at a higher level because of budget constraints.
“There were four championships in formula racing already in two years, which is quite impressive,” says Christian of the siblings’ success. “We split our ways a bit: I got up to international level, he had to stay back in Denmark, which is quite unfortunate for him, because he is a pretty good driver. He showed that in the Danish championship, he was up against Frederik Vesti and beat him, and he was driving the German championship. So there is speed in the blood.”
As well as Renault, Christian also enjoys the support of established driver manager Alex Alunni Bravi, who has looked after Stoffel Vandoorne since his move into F1, has played a part in Robert Kubica’s return and before that worked with Charles Leclerc on behalf of Nicolas Todt.
He has a long way to go yet, but if he confirms his talent this year in another highly-competitive Eurocup field, it wouldn’t then be a surprise if Lundgaard joined such names at the top of the sport in the years to come.