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Friday, September 24, 2021

The failed F1 bid that ensnared Le Mans’ latest victor

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For all of Argentina’s outstanding historical past in System 1, it has now been 20 years because the nation was final represented on the grid courtesy of unremarkable ex-Minardi and Prost driver Gaston Mazzacane. However had the formidable USF1 group bought off the bottom in 2010, the baton would have been taken up by Toyota’s newly-minted Le Mans 24 Hours winner Jose Maria Lopez.

A driver touted by Autosport in 2004 as a darkish horse to turn out to be the primary rookie System 3000 champion since Jorg Muller in 1996, Renault-backed Lopez had risen shortly by means of the junior ranks and had already examined for the Renault and Minardi F1 groups earlier than his twenty first birthday.

Signing for Coloni off-shoot CMS, he set the quickest lap on his F3000 debut at Imola earlier than crashing out of third place and ended the 12 months with two podiums to his title. However the change from F3000 Lola on Avon slicks to GP2 Dallara on grooved Bridgestones for 2005 harm his momentum and whereas fellow Renault junior Heikki Kovalainen jumped to the pinnacle of the queue for an F1 seat, Lopez was dropped.

Going through obvious profession oblivion in Argentina, Lopez shortly realized the abilities to outlive within the tough and tumble of touring automobile racing and gained back-to-back titles within the nationwide TC 2000 sequence in 2008-09 – opening an unlikely path to F1.

The addition of three new groups to the grid for 2010 created alternatives for drivers on the fringes to get a foot within the door, and the formidable USF1 group co-founded by Ken Anderson and Peter Windsor confirmed an curiosity.

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With the assistance of late Argentine F1 legend Carlos Reutemann, a well-connected senior politician, Lopez succeeded in elevating the price range for a seat and all seemed rosy.

Lopez, pictured with Giancarlo Minardi in 2004, had shut ties with Renault till he was reduce free on the finish of 2006

Photograph by: Motorsport Images

“Generally a name was far more essential than having a price range as a result of he has such an ideal fame all over the place,” says Lopez of Reutemann. “He known as Bernie [Ecclestone] I bear in mind, he helped us additionally with Peter Windsor so it was crucial. We met the President, every thing was set.”

However Lopez was stored at the hours of darkness over the quite a few points that might preclude the group from becoming a member of the grid till February, and admits he “missed a number of issues” whereas he targeted on the “fairly sophisticated” enterprise of preserving native sponsors blissful.

“It might have been a really exhausting 12 months for me. I’m certain that there would have been many races that we might not be capable of even be out of the storage most likely, so I believe on the finish, it was higher that means” Jose Maria Lopez

Though he did attempt to take the sponsorship elsewhere, funds had already been dedicated to USF1 that it obstinately held onto past the purpose that he might have fairly approached one other outfit.

PLUS: How US F1 became F1’s lost cause

“We realised very late, they knew earlier than for certain,” says Lopez. “In some way they stored us till the tip. We tried with different groups that have been becoming a member of the sequence but it surely was already too late.”

Lopez maintains that his profession wasn’t harm by affiliation with the failed group, however explains the largest price was in his lack of profession momentum – having to exit contracts with essentially the most skilled squads in Argentina to take up the choice with USF1, solely to search out himself with nothing in March 2010.

“I needed to inform all of the groups I used to be concerned in I couldn’t proceed, so I needed to break all my contracts in Argentina after which needed to begin from zero once more,” he says. “All of the groups that I used to be in, they have been the perfect groups, so all of them didn’t have a seat anymore and I needed to begin from scratch. I wasn’t in the identical automobiles and it took a bit for me to attempt to get again once more the great issues I had in Argentina.”

USF1's Peter Windsor and Lopez meet former Argentine president Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner

USF1’s Peter Windsor and Lopez meet former Argentine president Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner

Photograph by: Motorsport Images

After toiling to get again right into a title-winning automobile and claiming a 3rd TC2000 crown in 2012, a successful one-off look within the World Touring Automotive Championship yielded a seat with Citroen for 2014, and three titles on the spin.

As soon as once more he was a person in demand, scoring two podiums in 33 System E begins for Virgin and Dragon, and becoming a member of Toyota’s LMP1 WEC squad for 2017 – claiming his fourth world drivers title within the 2019-20 World Endurance Championship.

PLUS: Why Argentina’s current great isn’t motivated by emulating Fangio 

Le Mans success had famously eluded Lopez and his team-mates Mike Conway and Kamui Kobayashi, however after a number of agonising near-misses the trio put it proper in 2021. In doing so, Lopez turn out to be solely his nation’s second-ever Le Mans winner, and the primary since Jose Froilan Gonzalez in 1954.

His subsequent success means Lopez takes a philosophical strategy when contemplating what may need been had USF1 someway made it onto the F1 grid. Having been accustomed to successful most weeks in Argentina, he believes folks “would have anticipated me to do the identical in F1”.

“Folks generally they don’t actually perceive the potential of the automobiles,” he says, “and after I have a look at what the brand new groups did that 12 months, it could have been a really exhausting 12 months for me. I’m certain that there would have been many races that we might not be capable of even be out of the storage most likely, so I believe on the finish, it was higher that means.

“I wish to suppose that issues occur for a purpose. Even when I didn’t get to System 1, I can’t actually complain about my profession. I’ve achieved far more than I’ve dreamed of.

“It was a little bit of a disappointment it didn’t occur and in the way in which it occurred, there have been many issues we didn’t know on the time. However for me it could be a lot worse to know that I had the chance and I didn’t strive.

“In the long run, I did every thing I might to be in F1 and it didn’t occur, however I nonetheless achieved 4 world titles out of F1. The one factor we missed was the seat on the finish, however I don’t remorse it, actually.”

#7 Toyota Gazoo Racing Toyota GR010 - Hybrid Hypercar, Jose Maria Lopez

#7 Toyota Gazoo Racing Toyota GR010 – Hybrid Hypercar, Jose Maria Lopez

Photograph by: Nick Dungan / Motorsport Images



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