|Date of Birth||11th August 1984|
|Car||Virgin Racing (2010)|
|Best Result||14th (Malaysia 2010)|
Throughout Formula 1’s existence, one of the most successful countries in nurturing young racing talent has been Brazil, producing three champions as well as a whole host of brilliant racing drivers. Emerson Fittipaldi, Nelson Piquet and Ayrton Senna claimed eight Formula 1 championships between them, whilst the likes of Rubens Barrichello, Felipe Massa and Carlos Pace enjoyed wins under the Bandeira do Brasil.
For every success story, there have also been some less fruitful stints in F1 by drivers from the former Portuguese colony, some of whom were profiled on this site’s predecessor. Ricardo Rosset is one such example, having been famously slow yet wayward in his two full F1 seasons. Antonio Pizzonia was one of the later profiles of the erstwhile F1Rejects.com, and was a driver who had stepped up to the big leagues but failed to deliver on strong junior results. In this case, the subject of this article never got much of a chance to shine at all in Formula One, only managing one season in a team multiple seconds off the pace.
Before Formula 1
Lucas di Grassi was born in São Paulo in 1984, and began his career in karts thanks to support from his father Vito, the former vice-president of Brazilian heavy vehicles manufacturer Engesa. Vito gave his son his first taste of karts at age 10, and three years later in 1997 Lucas won a São Paulo karting series. Di Grassi continued to progress through the South American karting ranks, winning a number of races in his native Brazil before taking on the world’s best karters at the turn of the millennium. Placing fifth overall in the FIA Formula A karting championship, di Grassi took victory in the Pan-American Championship. After one more year in karts, di Grassi made the step up to single-seaters for 2002 to take part in the new Formula Renault 2.0 Brazil championship, which was founded and organised by former F1 driver Pedro Diniz.
It was a strong debut year in cars for di Grassi, and the Paulista collected two race victories to claim second in the championship, seven points behind eventual winner Sérgio Jimenez. It was also the first year that di Grassi would race against his future adversary Nelson Piquet Jr, who dovetailed the season with a championship-winning effort in F3 Sudamericana: di Grassi’s next destination. Joining the Avellone team, he would have his work cut out if he was to claim a championship; second-year driver Danilo Dirani had finished 2nd in the previous year’s championship and so had extra experience of the Dallara F3 car. Unsurprisingly, Dirani simply battered the rest of the field, claiming 14 wins, 13 poles and 17 fastest laps from the 18 races. Di Grassi was the next best driver, winning a race and standing on the podium eleven times en route to another 2nd place championship finish.
Perhaps preferring a change of scenery, di Grassi elected to pack his bags for Britain (perhaps following in the footsteps of Ayrton Senna somewhat) and accepted a drive from Hitech Racing in the British F3 championship. There would be familiar competition, as Dirani would also make the trip across the Atlantic. Nelson Piquet Jr would also take part, and became the eventual victor in a field brimming with talented drivers. Whilst di Grassi managed to win both races at Thruxton with consummate ease, the rest of the season was tricky for the Brazilian, and could only manage 8th in the championship. Undeterred, di Grassi would jump to the F3 Euroseries for 2005, after making a few token appearances two years prior. Renault also handed the young Brazilian a development driver role within their young driver team, despite a tricky year in British F3.
Rocking up on European shores, di Grassi joined up with the successful Manor Motorsport operation, partnering Scottish driver Paul di Resta in the team. The field was jam-packed with recognisable names: Lewis Hamilton, Adrian Sutil, Loïc Duval, Giedo van der Garde and Sebastian Vettel all took part, and it was Hamilton who dominated the championship, winning 15 races. Di Grassi’s season started particularly badly in the first race at Hockenheim; during an attempt to pass van der Garde, the Manor clattered into the Dutchman’s rear-left wheel, propelling the Brazilian into a flip before the car started to skid towards the gravel upside down. Once in the gravel, his car hopped and bounced into the catch fencing, miraculously righting itself and allowing him to climb out unhurt. After a shaky start, a 3rd place in the championship would be di Grassi’s reward for an altogether solid season, the highlight of which would be a pole-to-win victory at Oschersleben. After the F3 season was over, di Grassi continued his ascent up the racing ladder with a move to Formula 1’s feeder series GP2, but not before winning the prestigious Macau Grand Prix, beating Robert Kubica to the line by 0.7 seconds.
Watch below: Di Grassi’s collision with Giedo van der Garde in F3 Euroseries, 2005.
On joining the GP2 Series, Lucas hooked up with the unsuccessful Durango outfit, partnering Spanish driver Sergio Hernández. Whilst rival Piquet Jr., also in the series, would battle with Lewis Hamilton for the championship, di Grassi struggled with an uncompetitive team and managed just eight points through the season. Despite those poor results, di Grassi managed to secure a deal for 2007 with current champions ART, with Renault’s aid. Joining him were a rotating entourage of Red Bull junior drivers: Michael Ammermüller, who had produced a mid-table finish with Arden the season prior, Mikhail Aleshin and Sébastien Buemi. ART were taking a relative risk, and on the back of guiding past luminaries Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton to consecutive titles, the pressure was on di Grassi to perform.
The season started well; di Grassi took a very reasonable fifth place at the opener in Bahrain as he looked to gain experience of the cut-and-thrust front-guard action of GP2. Lining up fourth for the Sunday morning sprint race, the Brazilian made a handy start before his race was finished a mere three-hundred metres later; Andreas Zuber made contact with di Grassi and pitched the ART into a spin from which it could not recover. Dusting himself off and encouraged by his strong pace at Sakhir, di Grassi proceeded to embark on a run of consistently strong results. A brace of 3rd places at Barcelona would begin the run, although a win was perhaps on the cards in the feature race as Zuber stalled from 2nd on the grid leaving di Grassi, who’d qualified 3rd, just behind leader Timo Glock. The race was neutralised moments later, as Karun Chandhok’s early trip to the barrier and a skirmish between Mike Conway and Xandi Negrão brought out the safety car. This prompted everyone except Glock and a smattering of midfielders to call in to pit. During the pit phase, Bruno Senna jumped ahead of compatriot di Grassi in the order and the pair jumped Glock when he made his pitstop with 11 laps to go. Glock, with fresh rear tyres, made light work of di Grassi and hunted Senna down until the chequered flag called time on his endeavours.
After the races at the Circuit de Catalunya, di Grassi had definitely shown that he could run with the wolves. A strong 5th at Monaco kept the run going, although a podium was in the offing before another problematic pit phase from the ART crew. Di Grassi proceeded to have his best weekend thus far at the subsequent French round, taking 2nd behind the mercurial Giorgio Pantano. The feature race was more famous for all sorts of drama, and the start-line incident between the two iSports would kick off the early-race proceedings. Locking out the front row, Glock and Zuber careened into each other in the middle of the road and were instantly out on the spot. Later that lap, Racing Engineering’s EJ Viso clobbered into Michael Ammermüller and became airborne; Viso was inches away from hitting a bridge before an advertising hoarding pushed the Venezuelan away. Unsurprisingly, the safety car was called but hardly neutralised the mayhem; coming into the pits, Nicolas Lapierre locked up and drove into a member of his pitcrew. At this point, the race was briefly red-flagged before starting again with fewer shenanigans. Di Grassi had to work a little harder in the sprint, carving his way to fourth after a poor start. He took a pair of fourths at Silverstone, a feat he matched two rounds later at the Hungaroring after another 2nd at the Nürburgring.
Watch: The 2007 GP2 Magny-Cours Feature Race “highlights”. Warning: contains Martin Solveig.
Eventually, di Grassi’s impressive streak of points finishes came to a close at Istanbul, but ended with the best result possible. From sixth on the grid, di Grassi quietly worked his way up to the lead of the race, aided by questionable driving from those around him at the front of the pack. Electing to pit early after Luca Filippi stopped on-track and brought out a safety car, di Grassi emerged behind Zuber, the effective leader of the race as Glock, Negrão and Roldán Rodríguez remained on-track. Glock attempted to build a break to reduce the overall deficit of his mandatory pit-stop, whilst his team-mate Zuber made a desperate move on Rodríguez at turn 12, flying into the gravel and handing the net lead to di Grassi. Once the Brazilian had caught up to Rodríguez, he took a more discreet approach than Zuber and simply held on until the Spanish driver pulled into the pits for his stop. Glock then made his stop with four laps remaining, and all Lucas had to do was hold on; he crossed the line over a second before the chasing Pantano, giving the Brazilian his first GP2 victory and briefly the lead of the 2007 championship.
The lead went back to Glock the very next day, as di Grassi was unable to trouble the scorers in the sprint race; Running 6th, he was provided with a drive-through penalty for contact with Pantano, relegating the Brazilian to 11th. Monza would present further disappointment, as di Grassi looked certain to take 2nd behind Pantano in an incident-packed race before his ART began to crunch through the gears on the penultimate lap; this relegated him to a lowly 14th. Picking up from where he left off in Istanbul, di Grassi edged his way through the field on Sunday’s sprint and worked his way into 4th, although holding off from fighting the 3rd-placed Bruno Senna in order to avoid a reoccurrence of Saturday’s gearbox issues. Di Grassi put in a good recovery drive, but ultimately he lost further points to Timo Glock as the German managed to enjoy a relatively routine weekend.
The events within the penultimate round at Spa kept di Grassi in the title hunt, as Timo Glock endured a nightmare weekend; the German stalled on the grid in the feature race, and then was ousted from the circuit on the formation lap by Ricardo Risatti and ended up in the wall. Di Grassi capitalised on Glock’s misfortune and took a fine pair of 3rd places to trail his championship rival by a mere two points. The stage was set for a final showdown at the Circuit Ricardo Tormo, and in changeable conditions.
Glock and di Grassi mirrored each other’s strategies and started the final feature race of 2007 on wet tyres, even though the rain had eased significantly. It became apparent that this was the wrong call, and di Grassi came in after two laps to put on a set of slicks. Although he was now on the right tyres, the Brazilian had to lap faster than Glock to undercut his championship adversary. He pushed too hard. The track was still greasy, and he unceremoniously dropped his car into the gravel, unable to pull free. Glock made the conservative option to stay on wets a while longer until the track conditions had improved enough, and was able to finish 7th to put the gap at four points. Di Grassi’s chance had gone, and unless he could put in the performance of a lifetime and actually win the sprint race, then the championship was Glock’s. He could only manage 13th. Glock won the title in the best possible way, storming to a fastest lap en route to a well-deserved win.
Di Grassi wasn’t intending to remain in GP2 for another year, and thanks to his relationship with Renault was able to help Dallara develop the brand new GP2/08 chassis in addition to his F1 test and reserve duties. In his place, fellow Renault young driver Ben Hanley was now receiving the support of the French marque in GP2 with the Barwa-backed Campos team; Hanley was runner up in the previous year’s Formula Renault 3.5 championship behind Álvaro Parente, and graduated to GP2 with a regularly front-running team. However, Hanley struggled. Managing just one point in the opening three rounds, the Mancunian driver agreed to terminate his Campos deal and went to Durango as a substitute for the injured Davide Valsecchi. Di Grassi, helped by his experience with the new GP2 machinery, would replace Hanley.
It was as if he had never been away. Retaining his consistent presence at the front of the field, di Grassi returned to the GP2 fold by taking 2nd at Magny-Cours behind the eventual championship winner Giorgio Pantano. He then followed that with a 4th in the French sprint race, two more 2nd-place finishes at Silverstone before a more difficult weekend at Hockenheim; taking a decent 5th in the feature race, di Grassi was in the hunt for a victory in the sprint race before Pastor Maldonado ran into the back of the Campos and put the Brazilian out on the spot. There would be no such issues in the next race, and di Grassi won the feature race at the Hungaroring after firing past polesitter Romain Grosjean at the start. It was his first win in the series for nearly a year, but any hopes of repeating the feat in the sprint were gone after he clumsily collected Mike Conway at the start and was called into the pits to serve a drive-through penalty.
GP2’s first race at the new Valencia street circuit was next on the agenda, and once again di Grassi enjoyed a strong weekend to close the gap considerably to Bruno Senna, whose championship challenge had started to cool. Taking 4th in the feature race, di Grassi stormed to a convincing sprint race victory, albeit aided by some incredibly suspect driving from his colleagues. With team-mate Vitaly Petrov taking the honours in the feature race after Pantano ran out of fuel, Campos enjoyed a clean sweep of wins at their home race.
The following race at Spa was far more difficult, and di Grassi was tasked with starting last on the grid after unspecified woes in qualifying. A chaotic, rain-affected race helped the Brazilian climb the field, and by the final lap was up to eighth place. Looking set to take the reverse grid pole for the next day’s sprint race, di Grassi’s was unceremoniously ended by Pantano on the final lap at La Source. Pantano, desperately trying to recover after accidentally selecting the wrong engine mode under the safety car, had been haemorrhaging positions, and this late lunge ensured he was to be called to the stewards and disqualified for his driving that day.
Miraculously, di Grassi managed to take 5th in the Belgian sprint, and despite having competed in fewer races than everyone else was still mathematically in the hunt for the title until the Friday of the Italian Grand Prix weekend. At home, Giorgio Pantano was able to claim pole position at Monza – the final round of the 2008 GP2 season – and went on to claim the title on the Saturday after Senna was unable to score enough points. The pressure off, di Grassi was able to hold off a hot-lapping Maldonado in the wet to claim the victory, as Pantano was provided with a drive-through in the final stages after crossing the pit exit line. Di Grassi also earned a penalty in the sprint race, making contact with Conway once again to end his chance of finishing ahead of Senna in the championship.
Had di Grassi competed in the 2008 GP2 season from the very start, it is not inconceivable that the Brazilian could have walked to the championship. No disrespect is meant to both Pantano and Senna – both of whom finished ahead of di Grassi in the standings – but di Grassi had the measure of the pair in the previous season and to finish just thirteen points behind Pantano having competed in six fewer races was a remarkable feat.
Perhaps ready for a tilt at Formula 1, di Grassi was unable to find a berth for 2009 in the recession-hit grid. Although he had experience testing for both Renault and Honda, the former elected to keep their lineup of Fernando Alonso and Nelson Piquet Jr, despite Piquet Jr’s poor performances in 2008. Honda, meanwhile, withdrew from Formula 1 altogether and sold up to Ross Brawn. Brawn strongly considered rival Bruno Senna as well as di Grassi, but elected to keep the experienced duo of Jenson Button and Rubens Barrichello for another season. Sensing no other options, di Grassi decided to stick around in GP2 for one more season, and signed up with the Racing Engineering team who had taken Pantano to the 2008 title.
Di Grassi had made an impact on a relatively weak grid in 2008, but 2009 would present a greater challenge. Romain Grosjean and Vitaly Petrov, with greater experience, would team up at the Barwa Addax team, renamed after Adrian Campos sold his eponymous outfit to Alejandro Agag. After a poor year, Luca Filippi was in a strong Super Nova team. Pastor Maldonado joined the highly successful ART, and was partnered with the highly-rated Nico Hülkenberg. Hülkenberg was the reigning Formula 3 Euroseries champion, and came with a glittering junior series record.
The season commenced at Barcelona, and it was an inauspicious beginning to Lucas di Grassi’s year, (although perhaps “inauspicious” is an understatement for a near-death experience). Whilst embroiled in a battle for 5th position, Alvaro Parente tapped di Grassi into a spin at turn 4 with just a few laps remaining in the feature race. Parente joined the Brazilian in facing the wrong way, but ended up collecting di Grassi again and bounced onto the front bulkhead of the Racing Engineering. Narrowly missing di Grassi’s head, both cars were out on the spot. The sprint race was a little better, with di Grassi finishing above Parente (in the standings, this time) but still wasn’t able to score. A pair of fourths at Monaco was a much better result for di Grassi, and a sprint race win at Turkey from reverse-grid pole would put the Brazilian in the hunt for honours with Grosjean, Petrov, Hülkenberg and Maldonado.
Over the coming rounds, it became clear that the title would elude di Grassi once again, and although he recorded a strong second at Silverstone as compatriot Alberto Valerio was the surprise victor of the feature race, his cripplingly slow getaway off the grid in the sprint put him down to the back of the field. Germany was also a disappointment, and di Grassi managed just two points over the weekend as championship rival Hülkenberg was imperious at his home circuit, taking pole, winning both races and clocking fastest laps to earn maximum points across the weekend. By comparison, di Grassi’s weekend was error-strewn from both his own perspective and the team’s; scruffy driving and a scruffy pitstop in the feature race yielded 7th, although he gained a position on the penultimate lap after Grosjean crawled to a halt on the start-finish straight. In a wet sprint, di Grassi got bogged down after a reasonable initial getaway, dropped down the order and then collected the back of Sergio Pérez’s Arden. Pérez was able to continue, but di Grassi’s front-right steering arm was broken in the impact and his race ended just before the first corner. After five rounds, di Grassi was already 20 points behind Hülkenberg, the championship leader.
Hungary was better, and di Grassi was rewarded with a pair of podium finishes, finishing 2nd in the feature from pole and 3rd in the sprint. It came at an excellent time too, as rumours had started to surface about Nelson Piquet Jr’s position in Renault’s F1 team. Failing to score a point before the summer break whilst team-mate Alonso was a mainstay in the top eight, Piquet Jr. announced in August that he would leave the team. Despite di Grassi’s greater experience in GP2, Renault elected to promote Romain Grosjean for Valencia, who was five points ahead of his fellow Renault Driver Development team member. Coincidentally, Renault had originally picked up a ban for failing to secure a wheel properly to Fernando Alonso’s car, but this was overturned at the FIA Court of Appeal and Grosjean was able to make his debut. Although overlooked by Renault, Di Grassi would be the official nominated reserve.
Di Grassi performed well in GP2’s support of the European Grand Prix at Valencia until disaster struck. Running in the top five, di Grassi’s Racing Engineering started to crawl to a halt with three laps to spare. The sprint was no better, both Racing Engineerings failing to the end. Hülkenberg and Petrov both claimed wins over the weekend, and were 35 and 15 points ahead of di Grassi respectively. Undeterred, di Grassi qualified 2nd at Spa before receiving a three-place grid drop for blocking Karun Chandhok, but took third in the race anyway after a strong start. Colliding with Edoardo Mortara in the sprint, the Brazilian earned another penalty for Monza, a ten-place grid drop.
Monza was a rain-affected affair for the second year in a row, and di Grassi drove majestically to not only keep his car on the island, but actively push up through the ranks to claim third once again. Despite his strong drive, di Grassi was officially out of the championship running, and by Sunday morning, so was everyone else. Taking 3rd, Nico Hülkenberg claimed the 2009 GP2 championship at the first time of asking ahead of Vitaly Petrov with a round to spare. Di Grassi had his own race to run, and narrowly lost out in a mild encounter with compatriot Luiz Razia for the win.
Although the drivers’ title had been decided, GP2 would host its finale at Portimao for the first time, supporting the FIA GT Championship. It was, after a prolonged stay in F1’s feeder series, to be the last round for di Grassi. For the third round in a row, he claimed 3rd in the feature race before completely dropping the ball in the sprint. DPR’s Michael Herck drove into the back of Petrov on the grid after the Addax driver had stalled, and this brought out the safety car. With the pace dictated by the impatient Andreas Zuber, he overtook the safety car before the line, and a number of drivers followed him through, including di Grassi. All received drive-through penalties, putting their respective hopes of points out of the window and ending their seasons on a sour note.
With the addition of three new teams to the 2010 Formula 1 grid, taking the number of cars up to 24 for the first time since 1997, finding a race seat was perhaps easier than it had been for a number of years. This helped a good number of the 2009 GP2 fraternity to find employment on the grid; Hülkenberg joined Williams alongside Rubens Barrichello, Petrov partnered Robert Kubica for a new-look Renault line-up, Kamui Kobayashi joined Sauber after impressing in his two races for Toyota covering for an injured Timo Glock, and Karun Chandhok was a late call-up for the new Hispania team, joining Bruno Senna at the former Campos-led team.
Di Grassi also found employment at one of the new teams. Alongside former GP2 title rival Glock, the duo would form the driving line-up for the Virgin Racing team. Although backed by Richard Branson, the team was operated by John Booth’s Manor Motorsport, a team familiar to di Grassi in his Formula 3 days. Virgin, having also tied up with former Simtek and Benetton designer Nick Wirth, had decided to pioneer a CFD-only approach to their aerodynamic design process for their brand new VR-01 chassis. The team were hoping to free up other resources by not having to attend wind tunnel sessions, and Wirth had reassured the team having used a similar approach for the Acura LMP project, tasting success with the ARX-02a. Like the other new entrants Hispania Racing and Lotus, the team would use Xtrac gearboxes and Cosworth engines.
Formula 1, however, was a completely different kettle of fish, and the team looked destined to struggle in pre-season testing. After an initial spate of front wing and hydraulics failures testing at Jerez after opting to miss the Valencia test, the team were able to get some good mileage, before the hydraulics issues reared their head once again at the final Barcelona test. It was to be a difficult winter, and although the car certainly looked the part decked in black and fluorescent red it did not look particularly competitive. It was expected that the team would be mired at the bottom with the other new teams.
For the first time since 2006, the season would open at Bahrain’s Sakhir circuit rather than the customary Albert Park. To celebrate F1’s 60th anniversary, the race was held on the aptly-named “endurance” layout, including an extended piece of track after turn four. Thanks to the extended track, lap-times for the slower cars would be over two minutes long. Plagued by more mechanical issues, di Grassi could only manage a couple of installation laps whilst Glock was able to coax his car to a 2:03.680. In comparison, Adrian Sutil managed a 1:56.583 to top the first practice session, so the cars were a long way off the pace.
Thankfully, di Grassi managed a handy 21 laps in the second session and 21st in the time sheets, although Buemi had issues and the Hispania duo were yet to get any meaningful running. More issues limited the Brazilian’s running in FP3, and so it was up to him to get the best out of the VR-01 in qualifying. By some margin, di Grassi was able to head the two Hispanias by just under three seconds, managing a 2:00.587 and two tenths behind Lotus’ Heikki Kovalainen, who qualified 21st. Glock was able to stretch his legs thanks to greater familiarity with the Virgin car, and took a well-worked 19th, pipping Jarno Trulli in the other Lotus. It was a strong effort by Booth and Branson’s men to outqualify the better-funded Lotus, but the race hardly went to plan.
In his first Formula 1 race, di Grassi made an electric start and avoided trouble to jump ahead of Trulli, as well as Sutil and Kubica, both spinners at the first corner. He was able to complete one more lap, before the hydraulic issues that had caused such issues in testing reappeared. The Brazilian driver was not too disheartened however, and was adamant that “the car was feeling good”. A few laps later, Glock suffered from a gearbox issue, losing third and fifth gears en route to retirement.
Melbourne was another truncated affair, but the weekend provided a fuller picture of where Virgin stood in relation to the teams around them. The conservative Lotus T127 was definitely ahead of the VR-01 in terms of both pace and reliability, whilst the Dallara-designed Hispania F110 was a little behind their fellow new teams. Kovalainen, Trulli and Glock all qualified ahead of di Grassi at Albert Park; the trio’s greater experience of the Australian circuit paying dividends. Issues prevented the Virgin drivers from taking their place on the 11th row of the grid, and instead Glock and di Grassi started from the pitlane. After 26 laps, di Grassi’s car sustained another hydraulics issue and the Brazilian was forced to retire.
Qualifying took place in the wet at Malaysia, and di Grassi was slowest of all in the first qualifying session. His disappointment was exacerbated by Glock’s correct judgement within the conditions to claim Virgin’s first appearance in Q2. Starting 16th, Glock managed to undo his good work by colliding with Jarno Trulli on the second lap. For once, reliability issues were not really a factor in Virgin Racing’s weekend, but instead it had emerged that Virgin’s fuel tank was too small to complete a full race distance. Regardless, di Grassi managed to record his first F1 finish with some careful fuel-saving, taking 14th place (albeit three laps down).
After recording their first finish at Sepang, Virgin’s Sunday afternoon two weeks later in Shanghai was over in a jiffy. Reassuringly, the practice sessions were issue-free and the qualifying order at the bottom of the timesheets mimicked Australia, di Grassi reprising his role as the bottom slice of bread in the Lotus sandwich. It all went a bit wrong in the race. Di Grassi had to start from the pits a second time, but Glock wouldn’t get to start at all after an engine software issue forced the German unable to participate in the race. Thanks to Vitantonio Liuzzi, di Grassi was able to make up some places after the Italian collected Sébastien Buemi and Kamui Kobayashi, but it became clear that all was not well for the Brazilian. Trundling around in last place and unable to clear Karun Chandhok, di Grassi pulled into the pits after eight laps with clutch failure.
The European leg of the season couldn’t come soon enough, and now armed with reams of data the Virgin Racing engineers in Yorkshire could start to fix the issues sustained in the previous rounds. Despite getting penalised for failing to submit the correct gear ratios to the FIA, Virgin managed their first double-finish at Barcelona. Struggling with setup, Di Grassi finished last behind Glock and four laps down on winner Mark Webber, commenting that the harder compound tyres made it “tricky to drive the car”.
A week later in Monaco, di Grassi and Glock failed to repeat the feat of a double finish, and instead retired within a couple of laps of each other. In a race with 12 finishers it was perhaps unfortunate that di Grassi, in terms of the Constructors’ Championship battle, suffered a problem with his wheel after his first pitstop. He did manage to claim plenty of TV coverage in the opening stages, however; starting from the pitlane, Fernando Alonso hit a bit of a snag in trying to pass the Brazilian in the opening stages, with di Grassi echoing compatriot Enrique Bernoldi’s famous defence against David Coulthard on the same streets nine years previously. Unlike Coulthard, Alonso only needed three laps to clear the Virgin, which was sliding and squirming on the tight circuit overlooking the French Riviera.
The Formula 1 circus marched east to a sunny Istanbul for the Turkish Grand Prix, an event famous for the collision between Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber on lap 39. Perhaps the warm conditions had encouraged tensions and rivalry in the Red Bull camp to boil over, but in the case of Virgin Racing the heat simply caused struggles over the weekend with their engines. Di Grassi was able to get enough running in practice, but issues in qualifying yielded only 23rd on the grid, 0.7 seconds behind Bruno Senna’s Hispania. Helpfully, the other Cosworth runners all sustained problems in the race and elevated the Virgins to 18th and 19th, but it was a difficult race for di Grassi who had to manage his engine in order to make it to the finish.
Di Grassi managed another 19th in Canada from 23rd on the grid, last of the classified runners, but it wasn’t through the lack of trying. Thanks to the skirmish at the start, di Grassi was able to pick his way to 16th and spent the opening laps hustling the Lotus of Trulli. The circuit in Montreal had been recently relaid, and the new surface was murder on the soft Bridgestone tyres. An early flurry of pit-calls and incidents helped di Grassi to climb up to 10th place by lap 9, but the Brazilian fell through the field over the following laps as the Virgin VR-01 lacked all of the qualities of its fellow cars. His cause was not entirely helped by a hydraulics issue, putting paid to any hopes of an issue-free weekend.
Returning to Europe, di Grassi enjoyed perhaps his best F1 performance yet in Valencia. Outqualifying team-mate Glock for the first time by just over five-hundredths of a second, di Grassi settled in for a quiet afternoon and coaxed his harder-compound tyres to lap 43, needing just one pitstop to bring the car home in 17th, ahead of the other fellow new team runners. Waxing lyrical about the race, Lucas remarked:
“For me it feels a bit like a victory and it was definitely one of the best races of my career. The car was performing well and we had a great pitstop that was well-timed to manage the traffic. We are making good progress as a team and with the car.”
He would be less enamoured with the next race at Silverstone. Despite heading his team-mate in two of the three practice sessions di Grassi was a colossal half a second down on Glock in qualifying to take his customary position ahead of the two Hispanias. His poor qualifying would become an irrelevance, as once again the hydraulic systems aboard the #25 Virgin called it quits after just nine laps. A fortnight later, and the German Grand Prix was a little better; although failing to set a time in qualifying thanks to an issue with the Xtrac gearbox, di Grassi was up to 16th after lap one after an excellent start aided by a skirmish in the midfield pack. This particular race at Hockenheim became famous for Ferrari’s circumvention of the ban on team orders, but the only order di Grassi received was one to retire the car after damaging his rear suspension.
The final race before the summer break took place a week later at the Hungaroring, a particularly perilous venue for the new teams thanks to the high-downforce requirements of the circuit. Qualifying over a second down on Timo Glock, di Grassi’s 1:25.118 was just under five seconds down on Sebastian Vettel’s pole time. Once again making a good start, the Brazilian jumped Glock and Heikki Kovalainen on the first lap and was sitting pretty behind Jarno Trulli in 19th place. On lap 15, a safety car was brought out after Vitantonio Liuzzi shed some debris onto the track, and di Grassi immediately jumped into the pits at a seemingly opportune moment. On leaving the pitlane, it emerged that Lucas would have to return on the next lap after an issue with attaching a wheel, putting him a further lap down. Certainly, this result was a disappointing note on which to enter the summer break.
A rested and rejuvenated F1 paddock returned from their holidays and reconvened at Spa-Francorchamps, swapping sea and sun-loungers for the changeable conditions in the Ardennes. Setting a glacial 2:18.754 in a rain-affected Q1, di Grassi could go no faster as he bore the brunt of an impact with Trulli. Undeterred, the Brazilian picked his way through the chaos at La Source at the start of the race and was up to 14th following an impromptu safety-car period. Predictably, the Virgin VR-01 was not of sufficient quality to remain in such a position, and di Grassi was handicapped even further with a wet setup; the Virgin engineers had predicted more rain than was forthcoming. A downpour did eventually arrive, and Lucas pulled in on lap 34 for some tyres more equipped for the conditions. For the final ten laps, di Grassi was locked in a battle with Kovalainen which the Lotus driver would win by just two seconds.
The final race in Europe for 2010 was at the infamous Monza, although the action itself was relatively processional by virtue of the low tyre degradation on offer. For Lucas di Grassi, the race weekend played out much the same as the German Grand Prix had done over a month before. Making his now-traditional good start, di Grassi experienced a relatively quiet race that was devoid of any on-track battles. With three laps to go, another suspension problem forced the Virgin team to call in the #25. Di Grassi remarked matter-of-factly that Monza “was a race to put behind us”. Thus far, apart from a handful of good results, it was a season to forget. It would get worse from di Grassi’s perspective.
Thanks to his experiences with Renault, di Grassi had impressed the Virgin engineers with his technical feedback. However, team principal John Booth was unimpressed with the Brazilian’s failure to match Timo Glock on a regular basis. A reasonably well-matched pair during their fight for GP2 glory in 2007, Glock enjoyed a clear advantage in the intra-team battle; although the German had two-and-a-bit years’ experience in F1, it was perhaps a mystery why he was often quicker than his team-mate. Booth felt that he had to start evaluating new talent, and thanks to the team’s low budget would appreciate a driver who could sweeten the pot with extra sponsorship.
Booth’s scouting had brought him into talks with Jérôme d’Ambrosio, an affable Belgian racing in GP2. D’Ambrosio was also a Renault development driver, thanks to his ties with Gravity Sport Management, an off-shoot of the Renault F1 team’s latest owner Genii Capital. Furthermore, he had a little sponsorship money from Franco-Belgian fast-food chain Quick. After encouraging talks, d’Ambrosio became the new Virgin reserve, and was handed di Grassi’s car in the first Singapore practice session.
Di Grassi would have been excused for feeling a little aggrieved about missing out on some vital track familiarisation, especially since it was his first time at the venue. To rub further salt in the wound, d’Ambrosio ended the session just over 0.2 seconds behind Glock; whilst first practice times are generally not representative of any order, it was an encouraging start for the Belgian racer. Hence, di Grassi had to condense all learning of the layout into two sessions, and he did well to eventually outqualify Jarno Trulli on the Saturday evening. Ultimately, it would continue to be a tough weekend for the Brazilian, and Heikki Kovalainen’s late airbox fire (which the Finn put out himself with a fire extinguisher) was the only thing saving di Grassi from being classified last.
Singapore represented the turning point in Lucas di Grassi’s Formula 1 career. The addition of d’Ambrosio to the team ensured that di Grassi had to perform or risk losing his seat for 2011, and the Belgian taking the #25 car for free practice again at Suzuka would provide a real challenge. d’Ambrosio, once again, was not far off of Glock’s pace. Handing the car back to di Grassi, the Brazilian was encouragingly quicker than his team-mate in FP2. The heavens opened on Saturday morning, ensuring that FP3 was a complete wash-out and delaying qualifying to the Sunday morning. Unlike the previous day the weather was perfectly clement. Heartened by his performance on Friday, di Grassi managed to outqualify Glock by a few hundredths of a second to line up 21st for the grid later in the day. It all went very wrong on Sunday afternoon. On the formation lap, di Grassi had dropped behind Glock and needed to be ahead of his team-mate en route to the grid. At 130R, the high-speed left-hander, di Grassi somehow managed to overcook it at a reduced speed and locked up his brakes. The Virgin driver’s last act of the race was to dive straight into the barriers, ensuring that he would be classified as a “Did Not Start”. Thankfully, di Grassi was physically unhurt, but the incident was a blow to both his pride and his chances of staying at the team for another year. He had three races left to rescue his F1 career. External factors conspired against that.
Watch: Di Grassi’s embarrassing 130R excursion in the formation lap at Suzuka.
For the first time, the Formula 1 circus made the trudge to South Korea. The new Korea International Circuit in Yeongam had only just been finished, so the F1 race weekend would be the true acid test of the facilities. Losing his seat in FP1 to d’Ambrosio once again, di Grassi would lose precious time learning the brand-new circuit. It showed. Di Grassi was miles behind Glock in terms of pace all weekend long, and was a second-and-a-half down on his team-mate in qualifying. The race itself was an oft-interrupted affair, as the rain stunted any real progression; the first 17 laps were led by a safety car, pausing only for a red flag as the conditions were particularly awful. Withdrawing to the pits, the safety car would return to head the field only moments later as a collision between Mark Webber and Nico Rosberg created a mess for the Korean marshals to clear up. Five laps later, the action would begin once again. Di Grassi’s race would last only two further laps; attempting to avoid making contact with Sakon Yamamoto’s slow-moving Hispania, he ended up crashing regardless.
In 2010, the Brazilian contingent on the F1 grid consisted of four members; Lucas di Grassi, Bruno Senna, Rubens Barrichello and Felipe Massa, the most since 2001. All four were about to make their returns home for the Brazilian Grand Prix at Interlagos, the penultimate Grand Prix of the year. Despite the brilliant atmosphere and the psychological advantage which comes with a home race, di Grassi’s fortunes were not about to change. 0.7 seconds slower than Glock in qualifying, di Grassi had a rather torrid time in front of the home fans, exacerbated by more suspension issues. Although the Virgin mechanics were able to fix the problem mid-race and return the #25 car to the track, di Grassi was unclassified in the final results, finishing nine laps down on the winner.
The final act of the 2010 F1 season would take place at the Yas Marina Circuit in Abu Dhabi. For the first time since Monza, di Grassi was able to take his car for all sessions. Slowly closing in on Glock’s pace through the weekend, the Brazilian was able to qualify under half a second down on the German. Before the curtain fell on another season, there was the small matter of a championship battle to resolve. More pertinent to this article, however, was the final Formula 1 outing for Lucas di Grassi. As such, it would be remiss not to use his own words as a summary of his efforts:
“[It was] a very unusual race with a safety car at the beginning. We decided to go for the pitstop straight away in order to change to the Prime tyres. We had to do more than 50 laps with the same set of tyres, which seemed like a difficult task, but we managed it. I am ending the year with a feeling of ‘mission accomplished’”.
The Abu Dhabi Grand Prix would be the last time Lucas di Grassi would take part in a Formula 1 race. To the surprise of none, Jérôme d’Ambrosio was handed a promotion to the Virgin race lineup alongside Timo Glock, having sufficiently impressed the higher-ups and decision-makers in the team. Comprehensively beaten by Glock, di Grassi would have little chance of finding his fortune further up the grid. Hopes of finding a seat within the new teams was slim too; Lotus retained Kovalainen and Trulli, whilst HRT (as Hispania were now officially known) were after moneyed drivers, and later signed Force India reject Tonio Liuzzi whilst handing a surprise drive to former Jordan recruit Narain Karthikeyan.
Equally as congested, the reserve driver market would not provide di Grassi with any employment either. Left on the sidelines, presumably twiddling his thumbs, di Grassi finally found a Formula 1 drive…sort of.
After Formula 1
After a few months on the sidelines, Di Grassi was handed a development role with Pirelli, who had replaced Bridgestone as F1’s tyre supplier. With his past development experience and knowledge of contemporary F1, di Grassi would take part in five tests driving a Toyota TF109 for the Italian company as they sought to gather data for future tyre constructions. He continued in this role into 2012, and would be joined by former Toro Rosso driver Jaime Alguersuari prior to leaving, wishing to pursue other areas in motorsport.
As has become customary for a former F1 driver, di Grassi also made the move into endurance racing. For 2012, the FIA started the new World Endurance Championship and di Grassi joined Joest Racing, the works Audi outfit, for the 6 Hours of São Paulo after Rinaldo Capello elected to retire part-way through the season. Partnering endurance racing legends Allan McNish and Tom Kristensen in the #2 Audi R18, the trio took 3rd place. Di Grassi also sampled GT racing, racing in the Macau GT Cup and 24 Hours of Nürburgring with limited success. Race appearances were once again sporadic, but di Grassi had managed to find further development driver work. The Brazilian would help Spark Racing Technologies and Dallara to test their prototype for the brand new Formula E championship: the all-electric racing series.
Having also enjoyed most success in endurance racing, di Grassi continued with Joest Racing and slowly upped his involvement through the years. In 2013, he would join Marc Gené and Oliver Jarvis in the #3 Audi R18 e-tron quattro for two races, placing 3rd at Le Mans behind the winning #2 Audi of McNish, Kristensen and Loïc Duval, and the #8 Toyota TS030 of Anthony Davidson, Stéphane Sarrazin and former F1 contemporary Sébastien Buemi. Di Grassi would do the whole season in 2014, partnering Kristiansen and Duval (and Gené for one event) in the #1 Audi. The trio were unable to win any races in 2014, placing 4th overall in the standings, but the Audi links would aid di Grassi in his aspirations to get further involved in Formula E, which would start its inaugural season in late 2014.
Electing to race in Formula E, Di Grassi left his development role with the series and signed up with the Audi-backed ABT Sport team. ABT, a big name in the DTM series, had decided to expand into Formula E series, and di Grassi presented an invaluable addition to the team thanks to his prior knowledge and experience. He would join former GP2 driver Daniel Abt, the son of team principal Hans-Jurgen.
After tests at Donington, the series would host its first “ePrix” on the streets of Beijing on the 13th of September, 2014. Di Grassi qualified 2nd alongside polesitter Nicolas Prost in the e.Dams Renault, but the Brazilian would lose a place to Venturi’s Nick Heidfeld. Spending the majority of the race in 3rd position, infamous events at the final corner would change the shape of the race altogether; having caught Prost, Nick Heidfeld made a concerted effort to overtake the e.Dams driver. At the final turn, Prost made a questionable block which resulted in Heidfeld becoming airborne and subsequently upside down at the barrier. Prost had to retire on the spot too, leaving di Grassi to pick up the pieces and win the first ePrix. Joined on the podium by Franck Montagny and team-mate Abt, the latter would receive a time penalty for using more than the maximum allowed battery power and fell to 10th in the standings.
Di Grassi surged to an early lead in the championship, following Sam Bird home in 2nd at Putrajaya, and then taking 3rd place behind Sébastien Buemi and Nelson Piquet Jr at Punta del Este; with Piquet Jr in the series, the two Brazilians had the platform on which to rekindle their adversarial relationship. Continuing his strong run of form, Di Grassi assumed the lead from Buemi at Buenos Aires after the Swiss racer broke his suspension against the wall and retired, but with ten laps to go the Brazilian’s own suspension failed and released the ABT driver into the wall. Karun Chandhok’s suspension also suffered similar issues a few laps prior, forcing Spark to revise the suspension designs.
The field rejoined in Miami for the first of two races in the USA, and di Grassi made do with a tentative weekend, finishing only 9th and losing the points lead to Nico Prost. Returning to the podium in Long Beach after finishing 3rd, di Grassi spent the next race at Monaco fighting Buemi for the lead. Although their battle was incredibly close, Buemi held on to take the win, although di Grassi was back in the lead of the championship going into the German round, situated at the Tempelhof airport in Berlin. At ABT’s home race, di Grassi took a decisive victory over Jérôme d’Ambrosio, the man who replaced him four years prior in F1. During post-race scrutineering, it later emerged that ABT had modified their front wing; by reinforcing the endplate fairing, the wing no longer adhered to the regulations. Di Grassi was disqualified from the results, ironically leading to d’Ambrosio usurping the Brazilian’s win.
Moscow was a far better round, and di Grassi took 2nd place behind Nelson Piquet Jr on the bank of the Moskva River. The final two races were held in London, and the twenty Formula E cars would do battle in Battersea Park; Piquet was now the leader of the drivers’ championship, and held a 17-point advantage over his countryman and rival di Grassi. Crucially, di Grassi finished ahead of Piquet in the first race, finishing 4th and 5th respectively. However, Buemi’s win threw him back into the championship mix, and was now just five points behind Piquet. As a result, the second race would be incredibly tense, and the championship protagonists spent the race in close proximity to each other in order to further increase the tension. As the chequered flag fell, Buemi was the highest placed of the three in 5th position, followed by di Grassi and Piquet, the latter of whom would win the title by just one point over Buemi. Di Grassi, despite his early-season surge to the lead, was ten points adrift of his compatriot.
Returning with ABT for the 2015-16 season, di Grassi was confident of another shot at the title. The Formula E regulations had opened up for its second season, allowing teams to develop their own powertrains. ABT, with Audi support, would develop a three-speed single-motor arrangement, and the package seemed immediately competitive in pre-season testing. However, Renault had worked with the e.Dams team to create a two-speed unit, and it became clear in early running that their package was the one to have, evidenced by Buemi’s domination of the opening round at Beijing. Lucas could only finish 2nd best in China, but mechanical issues in Buemi’s e.Dams at Putrajaya threw the race open and di Grassi was able to capitalise with a charging drive, taking the lead from a power-saving Nico Prost to win in style, and by some margin to the rest of the field.
It became clear at Punta del Este that Buemi and di Grassi would be the main protagonists of the title fight, finishing 1st and 2nd respectively. The two would continue their battle into Mexico, racing at an abridged version of the Autódromo Hermanos Rodríguez. Starting 3rd, Di Grassi jumped Prost in the pitstop phase and passed Jérôme d’Ambrosio with FanBoost on lap 24, before building a lead to take the chequered flag. Di Grassi celebrated in style by treating the fans in the stadium to doughnuts, but the smile would be wiped off of the Brazilian’s face in the post-race inspection. Rolling his ABT onto the weighbridge, the Formula E onlookers would experience a case of déjà vu; like Germany the year before, di Grassi was disqualified and his win handed to Jérôme d’Ambrosio. It emerged that the ABT was 1.8kg underweight, and this helped Buemi to surge to a 22-point lead at the midpoint of the season.
With Buemi’s advantage, it was a surprise that di Grassi would take the lead in the championship after Long Beach by one point. Helped by Buemi breaking his front wing and being shown the black-and-orange flag early on, the Swiss driver had to make an early car-swap and could only manage points for fastest lap. Di Grassi, on the other hand, was able to beat Stephane Sarrazin to the line and jump to the top of the standings. Celebrations were slightly muted, instead quipping to Dario Franchitti over the radio “no doughnuts, maybe some doughnuts to eat after”. Winning at the next race in Paris and Buemi taking 3rd, di Grassi extended his lead further, although they would reverse roles in Berlin after confusion over team orders; Daniel Abt seemingly defied orders to let his team-mate through, despite any assertions otherwise.
Everything was set up for a thrilling showdown in London, once again. Di Grassi was one point ahead of Buemi once again, and qualified 11th and 14th respectively in the first of the two races. Tentatively picking their way through the field, di Grassi finished 4th with Buemi just behind, bringing the lead to three points in the Brazilian’s favour. Act two of the double-header would play out quite differently; Buemi brought the duo equal on points by taking pole position, ensuring neither driver could hold back.
On the grid, Dario Franchitti asked di Grassi “we’ve both seen the big championship finals, especially the Prost and Senna ones. How aggressive are you going to be?”. Of course, this was intended as just a throwaway question about the Brazilian’s plans for the race, but Dario’s comment would inevitably turn out to be more prescient than originally expected. Di Grassi would line up 3rd, behind Buemi and Prost who occupied the front row. Getting off the line, di Grassi had to tuck in behind the two e.Dams cars through turn one and two, but Prost left some room for the Brazilian to pull alongside into turn three. Attempting to clear Prost, di Grassi steamed into the back of Buemi and forced both drivers into the wall at turn three.
Amazingly, both cars were still in one piece, and the two were able to limp back to the pits and change cars. The rules of engagement were completely different, and the race a subplot; di Grassi and Buemi had no shot at making the top 10, so the only way to be sure of winning the title would be to set the fastest lap. The result was akin to a boxing match, although this was less Rumble in the Jungle, and more “Spark in the Park”. Di Grassi and Buemi traded blows, returning to the pits between laps to check data and to pick a clear piece of track. A pair of safety cars, coming out for the flightless Sam Bird, then for the stricken Andretti of Robin Frijns a few laps later ruined some of the flow of the battle, but after the dust settled Buemi started to get into his stride as di Grassi set the early pace. Eventually, the two drivers felt that they could do no more, and sidled into the pits after hotlapping for the best part of half an hour. Buemi claimed the two points on offer for the fastest lap, setting a scorching 1:24.150, half-a-second faster than anything di Grassi could manage.
Watch: Extended highlights of the thrilling 2015-16 Formula E finale.
Although di Grassi failed to shine in Formula 1, this is perhaps forgivable due to the problematic Virgin VR-01 he was saddled with. Glock’s greater F1 experience ensure that he was better equipped to deal with leading the Virgin team, and although di Grassi finished ahead of the German in the standings his situation was exacerbated by his lack of testing before lining up at Melbourne. It also emerged during the reason that Virgin were unable to roll out new upgrades for both cars, and so Glock was given the new parts first. Ultimately, the extra financial incentives which Jérôme d’Ambrosio brought to the team ensured that di Grassi was deemed surplus to requirements at Manor, and bowed out of the sport with barely a whimper.
As of September 2016, di Grassi has increased his involvement with Audi in the WEC and is on course to complete his third full season with Joest Racing; he won his first WEC event at the 6 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps, alongside Formula E rival Loïc Duval and Brit Oliver Jarvis. Di Grassi will also remain at the ABT Formula E team alongside Daniel Abt for a third season, hoping to fight once again for the title.
Away from his busy schedule on the racing circuit, di Grassi enjoys skiing and wake-boarding. He is also a member of MENSA.
Sources: bandeiraverde.com.br, fiaformulae.com, lucasdigrassi.com, driverdb.com, pitpass.com, gpupdate.net, Haynes Official Formula 1 Season Review 2010, autoblog.com, current-e.com, BBC Sport, Foto Ercole Colombo