It’s not uncommon for Formula 1 drivers to turn their attention to sportscars, especially when they’ve been displaced from their drive by someone younger, richer or more talented. Even the most cursory glance at the World Endurance Championship entry list will yield a number of familiar names to those who have followed F1 in the past decade.
It’s much more of a rarity for drivers to drift the other way – swimming against the established current – and put a secure career with a roof over their heads for a shot in the “big time”. In recent years, endurance racers have been able to double-up by participating in Formula E, but F1’s door rarely remains open for those who depart – let alone those who wish to make belated debuts in the sport.
With that in mind, the Formula 1 fraternity was understandably tinged with confusion after it was announced that André Lotterer was to race for Caterham in the 2014 Belgian Grand Prix.
Caterham was on its last legs and, although the team had been “purchased” by the mysterious Engavest consortium, the team was devoid of income ever since erstwhile owner Tony Fernandes decided to stop bankrolling them. It was a truly left-field move, and most had assumed that Lotterer’s chance of a spell in F1 had come and gone.
But it’s not that Lotterer didn’t deserve it. If anything, he probably deserved more.
Born in the German city of Duisburg in November 1981, Lotterer moved to Nivelles at the age of two with his Belgian mother, essentially making his appearance at Spa – 33 years later – a home race. He spent a early years taking the conventional karting route, before stepping up to single-seaters in 1998.
Winning a pair of Formula BMW categories in consecutive years – beating the likes of Dirk Werner and Martin Tomczyk to the Formula BMW junior title in ’98 before dominating Formula BMW ADAC with consummate ease the year after – Lotterer elected to make the jump to German Formula 3 at the turn of the new millennium.
Lotterer more than proved his worth in 2000, taking fourth in German F3 with a year-old car and finishing behind Giorgio Pantano, Alex Müller and future WEC rival Pierre Kaffer. Instead of sticking around in the series for a second-year tilt at the title, Lotterer crossed the Channel to participate in the highly-rated British F3 championship, joining the Jaguar Junior Team along with Australia’s James Courtney. As part of Jaguar’s development program, Lotterer got his first taste of F1 machinery in the winter of 2000, piloting the recalcitrant Jaguar R1 around Barcelona.
Unfamiliar with the British racing scene and its cast of circuits, Lotterer only finished seventh overall in British F3 – a pair of poles, a win and a second place at the first visit of the championship to the Donington racetrack, forming the German’s best weekend in the 2001 series. Nonetheless, Jaguar had seen plenty of potential, and offered Lotterer an official test role for 2002 after an impressive Masters of F3 result in Zandvoort – in which Lotterer finished second behind winner Takuma Sato.
Tasked with chalking up the laps in Jaguar unsuccessful R3, Lotterer continued to impress the Jaguar team over 2002. A couple of one-offs in CART and the FIA GT championship served as his only racing experiences that year, and hopes were pinned on a full-time 2003 seat. After Ford put the majority of Jaguar’s management team to the sword and waved drivers Eddie Irvine and Pedro de la Rosa out of the factory doors, Lotterer was heavily linked to one of the now-vacant drives.
He never got the chance to show what he could do. Having signed Mark Webber after a terrific debut season with Minardi, the Big Cat decided F3000 front-runner Antonio Pizzonia was a better bet for the second car, leaving Lotterer out in the cold.
Tail firmly between his legs, Lotterer turned his attention to conquering Japan and signed up with Nakajima Racing for 2003 to dovetail Formula Nippon with Super GT. He took the nation by storm over the next few years, finishing in the top five of the standings in every single Formula Nippon (and later, Super Formula) season he raced in, winning a long-awaited series title in 2011. He also captured a pair of Super GT crowns in 2006 and 2009, winning the GT500 category with Juichi Wakisaka with the Toyota-backed Team TOM’S.
Lotterer’s successes in Japan led to a speculative call-up from dentist-turned-team owner Colin Kolles, who offered the German a return to Europe in 2009 with a 24 Hours of Le Mans drive. Partnering Narain Karthikeyan and Charles Zwolman Jr in Kolles’ #14 Audi R10, the trio placed seventh overall, nine laps and two places ahead of their sister car, the #15.
From there, Lotterer embarked on a seriously successful endurance racing career with Team Joest. Rather than dress it up with an extensive narrative, it’s perhaps easier to state the facts here: he won the 24 Hours of Le Mans three times with Marcel Fässler and Benoît Tréluyer, and the trio were podium finishers on two further occasions. They also won the inaugural World Endurance Championship together.
So, having carved out a career as one of the best endurance racers on the planet, how on earth did Lotterer end up behind the wheel of the aesthetically-challenged Caterham CT05 at Spa?
Colin Kolles was to thank once more. Having been installed as Caterham’s “troubleshooter” after an overly-complicated takeover bid, Kolles set to work on bringing in cash to keep the team ticking over. The popular Kamui Kobayashi had brought a small bit of cash to the team, but not enough to keep the Japanese driver in the team. Instead, Hype Energy – an energy-drinks brand which had built its entire business through its F1 branding in the 1990s – offered to bankroll a deal where Lotterer would assume driving duties.
Twelve years after his final appearance in a Formula 1 car, Lotterer returned to the pack, coincidentally with another team adorned in British Racing Green. Clawing after that oh-so-vital 10th place in the World Constructors’ Championship – the cut-off point in the FIA’s prize money payments – Lotterer’s knowledge of the Spa-Francorchamps circuit was another motivating factor in the deal.
Most onlookers expected Lotterer to struggle, but had very quickly established himself as a bona-fide F1-level driver. Outpacing team-mate Marcus Ericsson in the first practice session, Lotterer continued to acquit himself well as he hurled the CT05 around the seven-kilometre blast around the Ardennes.
If Lotterer had impressed some of the F1 contingent in his practice outings, he ought to have impressed the majority with his stellar qualifying performance. A rainy qualifying session brought a new challenge for Lotterer, who now had to wrestle the bulky green Caterham around in the wet.
He outqualified Ericsson by almost a full second.
Even more impressively, Lotterer was half-a-tenth slower than Sauber’s Esteban Gutiérrez; it was a fantastic result, especially given the Caterham’s colossal list of shortcomings in 2014. Sadly, that was as good as it got, and Lotterer survived just a single lap before his CT05’s electrics packed up.
Kolles offered Lotterer a reprisal of his role at the following Italian Grand Prix but, understandably, he turned it down. Needing more time to familiarise himself with the car, Lotterer was hardly enthused with the idea that the first free practice session had been farmed out to Roberto Merhi, and so politely declined the drive.
Watch: Lotterer tackles the Spa-Francorchamps circuit in the Caterham CT05.
Offered the chance to join the Caterham again at Abu Dhabi – now beset by administration, but inexplicably in the Middle East as a result of a crowdfunding project – Lotterer wisely declined once more, leaving Will Stevens to trigger the majority of blue flags in the 2014 finale.
A triple-Le Mans winner deserved more than just one lap in a Formula 1 race. Andre Lotterer had a brilliant endurance racing career – surely, he’ll go down as one of the sportscar greats – but a solitary tour in a lacklustre F1 car, no matter how impressive, was a colossal waste of a great talent.
With the withdrawals of Audi and Porsche in WEC, Lotterer will now join up with the Techeetah outfit for the 2017-18 Formula E championship, partnering fellow F1 cast-off Jean-Eric Vergne, and will hopefully be another thrilling step for a highly-versatile, highly-successful racing talent.