If one were to create a fantasy F1 grid consisting of the very best drivers who had excelled in other series, then sportscar star Andre Lotterer would surely be one of the first picks.
In an era where Formula One drivers are almost exclusively fresh-faced graduates of the junior single-seater ladder – the recent announcement that 16 year old Max Verstappen will replace Jean-Eric Vergne at Toro Rosso next season after just one season in Formula 3 being one convenient example – the surprise news that the German will make his Grand Prix debut for Caterham at this weekend’s Belgian Grand Prix, coming at the expense of Kamui Kobayashi, provides a welcome uplifting storyline to a paddock that has grown accustomed to a narrative of doom and gloom this season.
Lotterer’s is a feel-good story of hard work paying dividends. After a testing contract at Jaguar failed to materialise into a race seat when Niki Lauda took over the team in 2002, Lotterer reinvented himself in Japan before establishing himself as the headline act in Audi’s sportscar juggernaut that has yielded three Le Mans 24 Hours victories in four seasons, in addition to the inaugural FIA World Endurance Championship. Drivers of his calibre don’t just grow on trees.
Of course, it would be unfair to expect Lotterer to replicate his heroics from La Sarthe this weekend. There is no getting away from the fact that the Caterham has struggled all season from a fundamental lack of downforce, while the quirks of the Pirelli tyres and a new team environment will inevitably take some getting used to. His first priority will be to beat his younger team-mate Marcus Ericsson, who has a whole year’s experience in the car under his belt.
Lotterer’s good friend and Super Formula rival James Rossiter is intrigued to see how he gets on, having himself tested a Formula One car for Force India last season.
“I had spent a lot of time in the simulator at Force India so that helped a lot; the only real change when I drove the car was that you had to look after the tyres,” Rossiter remembers. “When I was a test driver at Honda there was a lot more grip and tyre life than there is now, so I think that will need a little bit of time to get used to as it will be different from anything he has experienced before. But he should be on top of it quickly.”
At 32, Lotterer is not completely unprepared for the task ahead of him. The German is well versed in the technological complexities of the sport from his experience in Audi’s hybrid R18 e-tron Quattro and crucially has kept his hand in single-seaters, enjoying regular success in Japan’s Super Formula (nee Nippon) series, against competitive opposition including former Williams driver Kazuki Nakajima and HRT refugees Vitantonio Liuzzi and Narian Karthikeyan.
“I think it makes me a better driver because it’s very challenging, you drive almost as fast as a tail-end F1 car,” Lotterer told this writer in 2012. “It keeps me really sharp and it’s very demanding to drive on the very high-speed tracks like Suzuka, so when I come to drive the Audi prototype there’s virtually zero adaption time.”
“Actually I believe the Super Formula is faster in corners,” adds Rossiter. “We have a lot of downforce and massive grip from the tyres. We just lack a bit in the straight compared to F1. I’m looking forward to hearingwhat Andre says after FP1 about the difference between the two.”
And of all the circuits to make his debut, Lotterer couldn’t have hoped for a better one than Spa, not far from where he grew up and where unpredictable weather conditions come as standard. Certainly a little rain wouldn’t go amiss in Caterham’s drive to leapfrog Marussia in the constructor’s championship; Lotterer will be looking to emulate Giedo van der Garde’s perfectly-judged switch to dry tyres, which saw the Dutchman take a surprise third in Q1 last season.
It may well prove a one-off, and there’s no telling where he will end up come Sunday, but at long last, Andre Lotterer can truly call himself a Formula One driver. And that can only be a good thing.
Images courtesy of Octane Photographic and Caterham F1 Team.