Home Featured The single-seater graduates finding a new home in endurance racing

The single-seater graduates finding a new home in endurance racing

by Alejandro Alonso Lopez

Photo: FocusPackMedia – Marcel Wulf

The lack of Formula 1 opportunities is leading young up and coming drivers to look for other career paths to become professionals earlier than they used to do, and endurance racing has become a popular choice.

Not long ago it was often said that reaching F1 was not that difficult, rather that staying for more than one or two seasons was. Nowadays, it is the other way around with teams being reluctant to sign rookies to their line-ups. Then once you make it, the chances of retaining your seat seem to increase considerably. That and the ever-increasing budgets have combined to push many young drivers out of the F1 ladder early in their careers as they pursue their dream of becoming professional racing drivers.

The European Le Mans Series in particular has become a popular destination for single-seater graduates in 2024. Formula Scout visited the paddock during the opening round at Barcelona to learn about what tempted them to enter this six-round championship of four-hour races as well as what they made of their early days in endurance racing.

Felipe Drugovich was one of those who joined the series this year, and he did so with Vector Sport. The 2022 F2 champion “needed to do something” after not being able to step up to F1. The Aston Martin F1 reserve driver found the LMP2 a “fun” car to drive and ELMS “a good championship to keep you sharp”, and he is also taking part in the 24 Hours of Le Mans behind the wheel of Action Express Racing’s Cadillac V-Series.R.

F1 is still Frederik Vesti’s “focus” as well. However, without an opening in the pinnacle of motorsport for 2024, the 2023 F2 vice-champion joined Cool Racing for the ELMS campaign and Le Mans “to continue learning and building, adding bricks, to the foundation I’ve already created”.

“I’m here to do a lot of laps in a fast race car, practise qualifying, continue to work on my race pace and so on,” said the Mercedes F1 reserve driver, who labelled the ELMS field as “the strongest it’s ever been”.

While Drugovich and Vesti still keep their F1 dream alive, others have fully transitioned from the F1 world into a more relaxed but still highly competitive atmosphere. Fellow former F2 racer Clement Novalak is approaching his first endurance racing campaign with Inter Europol Competition “as calmly as I can”.

“It’s quite nice being in this paddock. It’s a lot more chilled I think than when we were in Formula 2, Formula 3. Obviously, everybody still wants to get a good result. But, you know, I think it’s been a natural step for me. I’ve always been quite good in long runs, let’s say, and then trying to keep my tyres and so on in F3 in sprint races. So, coming to endurance races, it’s kind of a natural step.”

Photo: FocusPackMedia – Jan Patrick Wagner

Arthur Leclerc also felt it was the right time for a change after a tough 2023 F2 season. Now he combines his ELMS programme with Panis Racing with competing in the Italian GT Endurance championship with Scuderia Baldini as well as his Ferrari F1 development driver duties.

“We started really well the [2023] season, and then all of a sudden we had a loss of pace after the Monaco crash, which you could not explain. Since this I think my time was about just to change the trajectory. I’m now in LMP2 and my target now is clearly to try and push to go to Hypercar.”

Not only those who have reached the last step of the F1 ladder make the switch. Many drivers opt for an early career path change, with the budget and the greater opportunities to become professional playing a key role in their decisions.

“We had the post-season test with ART. We were quite happy with how it went and it just didn’t come together,” explained Inter Europol’s Ollie Gray, who had stepped up with Carlin to F3 from British F4 in 2023. “Then when this opportunity arose, it was clear. I think you’ve seen so much success from people that have done it in the past.

“It was no chance for us to get to do another year in F3 with a big part of it being the cost coming into next year, and then staying in for F2 was even more further away. So I obviously would like to have a better year last year just to show that I can do it at a high level. But I think if you look at the grid of ELMS, you could argue that it’s even stronger than any of the feeder series.”

“If it’s clear that F1 is not going to happen, it’s definitely not a bad thing to move to this type of racing early,” affirmed Jonny Edgar. The Briton moved on after three seasons of F3, where he showed speed that never fully materialised in results. In fact, his sole podium appearance came with a victory in the 2023 feature race at Monza as he saw off his time in the championship.

“Especially LMP2, I think people are starting to realise more and more it’s a good option for a career in motorsport, especially with how popular sportscars is becoming with all the manufacturers interest in WEC and IMSA with the new rules. It’s a good time to be moving into this type of racing.”

The Briton was “really happy” when he learnt late on 2023 that he would be joining Louis Deletraz and Robert Kubica in TF Sport’s ELMS line-up for the 2024 season.

Photo: FocusPackMedia – Jan Patrick Wagner

“They’ve taught me a lot about just every aspect of the racing: full course yellows, pit-stops, advice on driver changes, what’s the best way. I mean, also just driving the car, saving tyres they’ve been really helpful, both Robert and Louis.

“Especially Robert, he has so much experience that it is very good to be teammates with. Setting up the car also, he’s really good at kind of knowing what the car needs to be faster, especially for the race stints. So that’s been good. And also just the attention to detail he has with a lot of things is something I’ve not seen before with a teammate.

“The things they ask for help [not just] them, but help everyone in the team, which is what’s important in this type of racing,” Edgar remarked.

“The opportunity to be doing IMSA was confirmed quite late,” he said about doing the enduros in Sean Creech Motorsport’s Ligier JS P217. “It’s good to be doing both of these [ELMS and IMSA enduros] because instead of having just six races I have 11. I have more chances to be in the car, more testing.”

Maceo Capietto transitioned even earlier, but for him it made “a lot of sense to go straight from FREC to LMP2”.

“It’s very difficult at the moment to go up the formula ladder. In the end, if you have the contact and the opportunity to move from single-seaters to endurance racing and you know you won’t go far in the single-seaters for budget reasons, it’s best to go as early as you can.

“You do the switch early, and then the people here they look at you, for example, other teams. Everybody’s looking at you. You’re in the spotlight here.”

Capietto expected the season to be “a learning process for everyone” due to the lack of experience of both the team and its drivers. It is Iron Lynx’s first time operating an LMP2 squad, although it doing so in association with Proton Competition. The Frenchman will also take part in the 24 Hours of Le Mans as part of Proton’s LMP2 class entry.

Although he’s in GTs, Eurocup-3’s maiden champion Esteban Masson has also joined the ELMS grid with Kessel Racing in his transition to endurance racing. He also drives in the World Endurance Championship as he aims to become a “professional driver”.

“It’s a whole new world for me,” he said. “My mentality is I’m a racing driver and I want it to be my job, and I need to adapt to every car I have.

“ELMS is a really good championship because you get quite a lot of track time honestly, which is good when you come from single-seaters because you don’t have so many chances to drive apart from the races.

“Then obviously it’s one of the top endurance racing championships, so that’s why we can see so many big names. And it’s making me really happy to be driving with all of these good drivers.”

Photo: FocusPackMedia – Marcel Wulf

Single-seater graduates also shared with Formula Scout their impressions of the car and the characteristics of this discipline.

“In terms of driving, it’s a bit more heavy, so it’s a bit more tricky in slow speed corners to rotate compared to a F2,” Leclerc explained. “There is less downforce as well, so a bit more work on the high speed as a driver. The big difference as well is this long-term race where you need to look really a lot after your tyres. One lap pace is not counting so much. It’s really a long term where you want to bring the car and bring the tyres to finish the race the best possible.”

Vesti added: “It reminds me of F2, maybe something in between F2 and F3. Even on pace, I think it’s around, yeah, in the middle between F3 and F2. And for sure in qualifying when they just put 10 litres of fuel and new tyres, it’s a really fast car, and it’s enjoyable to drive.”

The minimum weight for LMP2 cars in ELMS is 930kg and its Gibson GK428 V8 engine produces 580hp. Meanwhile, the minimum weight including the driver in F3 is 698kg with an output from the Mechachrome engine of 380hp, which contrasts with F2’s 750kg and 620hp. In terms of laptime, ELMS’ pole position time at Barcelona was a 1m28.071s. When F3 tested there the week after the fastest lap recorded was a 1m26.646s, while F2’s benchmark the following week was 1m23.139s.

“You don’t have all the cool looking wings that you would have in F2 and F3, but it surprisingly generates a huge amount of downforce,” said Novalak. “It’s been fun, and it’s generally quite an easy car to get to grips to. I’ve not had to change too much to my driving style. It fits me quite well, which is nice. It’s not been too much of an adaptation. It’s just been a progression.”

Traffic management was highlighted by single-seater graduates as one of the main challenges they were facing in its adaptation to the discipline. The other was sharing the car with other two drivers. Although those are two characteristics intrinsic to endurance racing, there has not been any major dramas in getting acquainted with them. Conversely, drivers have been welcomed those challeges positively.

“It’s always tricky because there is this such a difference of speed,” said Leclerc. “Actually, it’s not easy because it’s as well different level of drivers. There is sometimes bronze, there is sometimes silver. There can be a bit unexpected lines or unexpected brakes or whatever. So it’s quite hard. And I think you need to be quite cautious in the traffic, and I think it’s key as well to win as many times as possible in traffic to try to make the difference in the long term race.”

“Obviously, having multiple classes on track with you at the same time is a big aspect” Gray agreed. “And this is where you can probably lose the most time.”

Photo: FocusPackMedia – Marcel Wulf

Vesti also pointed out at the slower pace of LMP3 and GT3 cars as something to bear in mind during the races, especially when it comes to lapping them.

“You can win a lot of time in the race if you take a lot of risk, but you can also lose the race in one second if you make a mistake. So you need to take care and just judge that.”

“In the races, you need to be really intelligent, know where to overtake, where not to overtake. So that’s a really good thing,” claimed Drugovich, who admitted to be “excited” about sharing the car with other drivers.

“Comparing my driving style with other driving styles and see which direction we should take with the set-up and stuff like that, it’s interesting. Obviously, you need to not only think about your race and your car, you need to think about other people’s, you know, the other teammates as well and how they drive the car and how they need the car for the race. So it’s very interesting to see that.”

“You’re not working just for yourself anymore,” Gray said. “You’re working as a team. But this is something that I’ve felt that it is quite easy on my side.”

Gray’s Inter Europol car-mate Novalak described himself as a “team player” and to be enjoying the cooperation between drivers.

“You have to make compromises in terms of what each driver wants and needs and what the underlying car also needs. So it’s nice to have these discussions as a three, and rather than that, you know, having those discussions as teammates where you’re, you know, you’re trying to improve the car, but you’re also trying to beat one another. These guys are now on your team, so you’re all working towards the same shared goal. It’s quite enjoyable. I like it.”

“From my side, I try to maximise myself first, go as fast as I can, and then I try to help my teammates as well,” explained Vesti. “We speak about the car. We analyse the data together, the video. In the end, if I’m very fast and my teammates are lacking or the opposite, then the car is not the best. So all three drivers have to work together. And I think at Cool Racing we have a good mentality on how to work together and push our teammates in the right direction. All of us. So it’s a team effort and it’s about having the average fastest team.”

Meanwhile, Leclerc remarked the fact that you are never fully comfortable in the car.

“We need to have a car that is fitting for all of the three drivers,” he commented. “It’s something stupid, but the seat position, I have two small teammates, so I need to just put the legs a bit more towards me. I’m touching the throttle some times I’m braking. It’s really different. You are never feeling completely perfect with the car, but it’s a big work we are doing us three as we are a team to try to fit everyone.”

Photo: FocusPackMedia – Marcel Wulf

Edgar also touched on comfort inside the car, but conversely to Leclerc he is fully pleased with the driving position he has achieved.

“I thought I’d have to be more compromised on fitting in the car, but in both cars here and in IMSA with my seat insert I’m really comfortable, and the pedals and steering are pretty much where I’d want them.

“In terms of driving, the cars are really similar to a F3. The adjustment has been easier than I expected just because of how similar a lot of things are. So that’s been good. It only really took me a few laps each time to get used to both of the cars.

“In the Oreca, we sit on the left; in the Ligier, it is on the right. So that changes a bit the feeling,” Edgar explained as he compared both cars and championships. “Then obviously, in ELMS we have way more power, the car is a bit lighter. But one of the big differences is just the feeling in driving, the tyres.

“With Michelin in IMSA, you push quite a lot more; whereas Goodyear is a bit more about tyre saving. A little bit more like a Pirelli, what I’m used to. So it’s quite different in terms of that. Especially on tracks like here [Barcelona], we have to manage a lot of tyres for the whole stint. We have to double stint all the sets, whereas in IMSA you have tyres that don’t drop off as much and for maybe half the race, you double stint them and at the end of the race, it’s always new tyres every stop and pushing flat out kind of.

“It’s a bit different the styles of racing and just also with regulations. Different in a lot of ways, but still pretty similar in many other aspects.”

The American leg of his 2024 programme has posed Edgar the biggest challenges as he is still getting acquainted with the work ethic and culture in the United States. Nevertheless, this is “good for the future”.

“It’s just a bit different [in America] like kind of how the teams work. Also just a lot of rule differences of pit stops, different procedures between teams of like even just driver changes. Obviously the tracks are a bit different. The American tracks are a lot more old school, not much run off. So I’m enjoying them so far.

“Coming from F3, ELMS is very similar in terms of how the teams are working, the tracks, kind of how you have to drive for saving tyres.”