Home Featured The junior driver spurned by Renault’s last F1 name change

The junior driver spurned by Renault’s last F1 name change

by Elliot Wood
Boccolacci

Photo: Zak Mauger/GP3 Series Media Service

When Lotus was rebadged as Renault for 2016, its young driver support was totally overhauled. Two of its juniors in F3 were left in the cold. Both made it to F2 after starring in GP3, but only one returned to F1’s radar

Alex Albon’s journey to Formula 1 is well-documented, and his tale of Red Bull rejection to AlphaTauri driver after a title-fighting season in Formula 2 is what contributed to him being such a popular addition to the 2019 F1 grid. His spell in Lotus’s junior ranks if often forgotten though, possibly because the man guiding it – Gravity Sports Management’s Gwen Lagrue – continued to support his career afterwards despite following protege Esteban Ocon to Mercedes-Benz’s junior team.

Lagrue was in the FIA European Formula 3 paddock in 2015 with Lotus-backed Signature drivers Albon and Dorian Boccolacci, and was seriously impressed by the performances of George Russell – which led to the Briton joining Mercedes.

Signature was a returning team with a point to prove, having dominated with full Volkswagen support when racing in the preceding F3 Euro Series, but its planned return to the category with Renault engines in 2014 had fallen apart and it ended up putting a team together for 2015 instead with VW power and a relatively inexperienced crew as its top personnel were responsible for running the Venturi Formula E team and Alpine’s World Endurance Championship efforts.

Both Albon and Boccolacci had a tricky year in F3, but still impressed, and Albon’s three years in Formula Renault 2.0 unsurprisingly prepared him better for the move than Boccolacci, who had a single season in French Formula 4 to his name.

Boccolacci had finished second in the points in F4, as well as Junior champion for being the best driver under 16 years old, and like most drivers there he was part of the FFSA Academy programme. He’d also been part of the Gravity-run Lotus junior line-up since karting, where a surprise win in the KZ2 Super Cup on debut led him to graduate to cars earlier than originally planned.

Dorian BoccolacciBut going straight from a centrally-run entry-level series to the most competitive junior single-seater series in the world at the time is something Boccolacci now regrets.

“I stepped up to Formula 3 but this I think was not a good decision for me, because at this time, I was not prepared for the high level of Formula 3,” Boccolacci tells Formula Scout.

“[There] were like 46 drivers and I think it was one of the most difficult categories at that time. Before GP2 and GP3, you could go to F1 from F3 without doing the others. So a lot of the academy drivers were not doing GP2 because it was much more expensive for the academies, like Ferrari or Renault, so they were doing F3 or DTM or directly GP3 and F1.”

Boccolacci’s point is, as a money-saving operation for F1 teams and personal backers, the 2015 European F3 grid had been packed with talent. And he was not prepared for it.

“At this time the championship was very strong. Charles Leclerc was in F3, Russell, Antonio Giovinazzi, Felix Rosenqvist, all these guys and I didn’t know any tracks except for one during the season. The step up was too big. I was driving with some drivers who already had three, four, five years of single-seaters, this was only my second one. The academy is good but you don’t learn any of the tracks of the championship. I probably needed to go into Formula Renault before F3 I think.

“This was a big mistake in my career, but I didn’t make this mistake. I was part of Gravity Management and they had some problems to continue with the academy and they did this choice because it was better for them to find sponsors. So it’s only about budget and they couldn’t do anything except for F3 at this time. In the end, it was a mistake but we couldn’t do too much.”

Five points finishes in 33 races left Boccolacci 19th in the points, but the list of names ahead of him is mouth-watering. In addition to the drivers Boccolacci mentioned himself, there was also future single-seater pros Lance Stroll, Maximilian Gunther, Santino Ferrucci and Nick Cassidy, and F1 testers Callum Ilott, Sergio Sette Camara and Pietro Fittipaldi.

“I think this year was really hard for me mentally, and that the only thing I really learned was that I was strong in the head. But otherwise, no, because you are always fighting for the top positions in go karting early in your career. I was fighting with Charles, Max [Verstappen], with George Russell, all these drivers who are in F1 and when you are not prepared enough for this step, you don’t understand why you’re not performing. There are so many questions in the head, so it was not quite a good year for me, for sure.”

It was made all the worse at the end of the year when ‘Team Enstone’ was bought back out by Renault and Gravity’s services were no longer required for its young driver programme, and neither were the young drivers on it.

This is a tale of caution to Renault’s juniors now, as the F1 team they intend to progress to is being renamed as Alpine for 2021 and has already filled its two seats. While this is more of a Toro Rosso to AlphaTauri rebrand than a change in ownership, a new name above the door is still an excuse to restructure, including the Renault Sport Academy. Since its 2016 inception it hasn’t produced a single F1 driver, with FE race-winner Oliver Rowland its most successful graduate.

Alpine still has its WEC LMP2 programme, and it may be inclined to reward its 22-year-old sportscar star Thomas Laurent with an F1 test or more if it retains the highly-rated Frenchman’s services into 2021 and wants to create some synergy between the two projects.

Dorian BoccolacciThere was a strong chance Boccolacci and Albon would have remained with Lotus had it stayed in F1, and moved on together to GP3 or even GP2. But its departure left both with a major budget deficit. Lagrue secured Albon a top GP3 seat with ART Grand Prix and he challenged Leclerc for the 2016, while Boccolacci stepped down to Formula Renault before echoing Albon’s GP3 heroics and follow-up underfunded F2 performances.

“Last year I did only a half season in Formula 2. It was quite a big difference to Formula 3 and GP3,” Boccolacci says.

“I had two chances, the first one I missed was when I was with Lotus, the junior team. They stopped so of course to find the budget was complicated so this, I had a bit of bad lack. Then I went into Formula Renault, was vice-champion behind Lando Norris, we were fighting all the season together and yeah, it was something that was… now we know that Lando was not a bad driver, so I think it was a good season.

“Then I stepped into GP3 and I think I did a good job. I was the second [driver] behind the top four who were all from ART.”

ART’s quartet of drivers dominated the season, with Boccolacci’s Trident team-mate Giuliano Alesi often picking up sprint race spoils. Those wins meant he bettered Boccolacci, who got his own win in the season finale, for fifth in the points.

“I think that was a good season overall and I had a chance to go with ART for the next year. But the problem was the budget again, we finally found the budget late in the season and ART, they are of course one of the best teams, they had already their four drivers. There was no space for me so that was quite a big chance missed there.

“We know that with ART, they give you a chance to fight for the title. Teams like ART, Prema, DAMS, they are really good teams and they also had many, many good drivers and a lot of good information. They know what is working and what is not working, so it’s easier for a driver to have all the questions answered and you are clearer in your idea in how to drive the car.

Boccolacci

Photo: Sam Bloxham/GP3 Series Media Service

“This is probably what makes the difference, more than just the set-up. So, I think we missed two chances to arrive to the top, to F1 and then yeah, as soon as you lose two chances, it’s almost impossible.”

A DAMS seat wasn’t free either for 2018 as the team had left GP3, and Boccolacci landed a drive at MP Motorsport, which had taken its place in the series. He won twice (although one was lost to a disqualification for failing to supply an adequate fuel sample), and after round five of nine he was called up by MP to fill in a place in its F2 line-up where with little preparation he scored three points in eight races. Not great, but in the first year of the current F2 2018 car and when the competitive order was set very much on which teams got over the technical gremlins quickest, it was no embarrassment. And while he ended the GP3 season 10th in the points, his scoring rate probably would have put him in sixth again.

“I did F2 after but again I had no budget to do a full season so it was a bit disappointing to know that I wouldn’t be able to drive all year, I would only do five rounds. We had some good results like in Monaco, I was P4 and the first rookie. So in the end there were some good results, but in single-seaters, you need money or be part of a junior programme.”

Boccolacci’s five-round spell with Campos Racing in 2019 earned him a decent haul of points, and while bettered by team-mate Jack Aitken his qualifying and race pace was still impressive at a team on the rise. But aside from a one-off call-up by Trident at Silverstone, that was Boccolacci’s last single-seater opportunity. Even being signed up alongside Arthur Leclerc as a Venturi junior at the start of 2018 has led to nothing.

While Boccolacci undeniably deserves a full season in F2 (which incidentally the developers of the official F1 game series seem to agree on after giving him one of the highest values on the F2 grid for the pace attribute in F1 2020), the Frenchman’s opportunities now lie elsewhere. Which includes going up against Valtteri Bottas in rallying.

“[That] was my first experience in rallying and it was really enjoyable. It wasn’t really a ‘rally’ rally, it was circuit rally, so it was kind of halfway there,” Boccolacci clarifies.

Photo: Sebastiaan Rozendaal / Dutch Photo Agency

Based at French Grand Prix venue Paul Ricard and the surrounding roads, Rallycircuit Côte d’Azur ran last December and attracted a diverse entry list. Bottas predictably won in a more powerful World Rally Car, but Boccolacci was a clear second place in the class for the second-tier R5 cars before he received a 20-second penalty.

“Honestly, it was really interesting to drive with this kind of car, it was nice to drive not on the track, because we had some portions which were not on the circuit. I drove the Paul Ricard circuit so many times, and honestly, nothing is better than a F3 or F2 car but all the interior of the circuit, around the track there are some really tight parts, some junctions, some jumps, you need to use the handbrake and all of these sections which this car was really interesting.

“And in the end I was quite quick as well which was nice. Having the co-driver too was also difficult because you need to focus on what he is saying and you need to know what notes to put in order to anticipate the corners. But after the first day, we did a lot of repeat stages so I got to know the corners quite well actually, so it was fine. I knew almost 95% of the stage.

“But at the end of the first day, I had to focus on what he was saying, and also what is different between rallying and circuit is that if you do a mistake, it has a big consequence and you keep it for the rest of the rally. And from the first kilometre, if you crash, that’s it and your rally is finished. So, this was a bit different. It’s not like you have a race two, or qualifying two to do things again. If you crash, you crash and that’s it finished.”

Boccolacci was arguably more prepared for the off-road element of his first rally than he was for F2, having already starred in the Andros Trophy. Little known outside of France – but massively appreciated within it – the ice racing series has been around since 1990, raced in Paris and held regular rounds abroad in Andorra (which is south of France in the Pyrenees) and Canada. Champions in the top class include Alain Prost and touring car legend Yvan Muller, whose rivals included Romain Grosjean, Olivier Panis and Jacques Villeneuve, and the series was an early adopter of electric power.

After a victorious cameo in the electric category in 2018, he moved up to the secondary Elite category for the 2018-19 season and claimed a convincing title win. His performances in the rear-wheel-drive BMW M2 impressed ice paddock rival Sainteloc Racing, and when Boccolacci’s money ran out for F2 he was granted an “emotional” opportunity to drive in GT World Challenge Europe in one of the team’s Audi R8 LMS Evo GT3 cars as team-mate to Stephane Ortelli.

Suffice to say, Boccolacci – who turns 22 today (September 9) – had impressed one of sportscars’ best in the same car and for the first time since he entered cars gone into the next year feeling confident of a full racing season in a decent car.

Little did he know that he’d end up with three times what he was asking for.

The first of these is a drive with Oregon Racing – which was the launching pad for Albert Costa and Mirko Bortolotti‘s professional careers after they dropped off the single-seater ladder at the final step – in Lamborghini Super Trofeo Europe as an official young driver of the manufacturer.

“When you look at GT racing, there is a lot of manufacturer involvement across many teams, and Lamborghini is one of them which has a lot of opportunity to progress.

“And with the Super Trofeo, it is all Lamborghinis so you know that they are watching everyone. This is a good opportunity for me to become a factory driver and my overall ambition to be a professional driver and be paid to race.

“Lamborghini is known to have a good system and the chance for young drivers like me to build a career in motorsport. Quite a lot will change for me moving from single-seaters to GT this year. First, we have the traction control, everyone has ABS and then there is the driver change during the race. So, it will take some getting used to of course, but you need to adapt your driving style because the car is so heavy and you don’t really use the lateral of the car like in single-seaters.

“But I am looking forward to it of course. The aim is always to do as well as we can, to win races and challenge for the title, so we will see what happens when the season starts.

“There are some differences but also some things are quite similar from F2 to GT. Like managing the tyres, that is something we used to have to do a lot of in F2 and it’s the same in the GT car.

“I don’t have a lot of experience in the GTs but for sure, controlling the tyres and being good with them helps a lot so that is maybe something I can bring from F2 into GTs.”

Boccolacci is targeting wins in Super Trofeo, and maybe even the title, and scored his first podium with co-driver Kevin Gilardoni (winner of the 2012 FR2.0 Italy title) last weekend at the Nurburgring.

He could pick up further success in Germany this year, as he’s also racing for ex-Formula 1 team Zakspeed in ADAC GT Masters.

In that championship he’s racing a Mercedes-Mercedes-AMG GT3, and is 10th in the points after two rounds. The names ahead of him could genuinely be described as a list of the greatest GT racers in the world right now, and it is a series where he could also earn a living as a factory driver for F1’s current dominant force.

There’s a third name in the frame, as he has been retained by Audi customer Sainteloc for the GTWCE Endurance Cup. He finished fifth in the season opener, and once again the names ahead are the current class acts of GT racing.

The question now is not if Boccolacci has a car racing future, but with which manufacturer it will lie.

Interview by Stephen Brunsdon

Further reading
When Leclerc, Russell and Albon stood out in F3
Giacomo Ricci: The GP2 underdog leading F2’s dark horse
The underfunded Techeetah beater who had to reset his career