It used to be in Formula One that in-season replacements were more common, and occasionally, surprising in their choice. But they’ve become less frequent in recent years, and more predictable.
Each of the last two years, the only team that’s required an in-season replacement driver has been Lotus. Jerome d’Ambrosio, then Lotus reserve driver, got the call to replace the suspended Romain Grosjean at the 2012 Italian Grand Prix. “JDA” had been in F1 with Virgin, now Marussia, the year previous but wasn’t able to make the most of a difficult situation in that cameo.
Meanwhile a year ago, following Kimi Raikkonen’s injury that cost him the last two races of the season, Lotus went for a trusted veteran in Heikki Kovalainen rather than shaking up the status quo by bringing in its actual reserve, Davide Valsecchi. While Kovalainen brought experience to the table, he wasn’t able to deliver in his assigned task for the United States and Brazilian Grands Prix: delivering additional points.
You’d have to go back to 2011 to see the last real, major, raft of in-season replacements and what they brought in terms of unpredictability to F1.
There were several changes. Lotus, then Renault, was at it again: Bruno Senna replaced Nick Heidfeld the second half of the year, in a season where both were in essence, injury replacements for Robert Kubica. Pedro de la Rosa deputized for an injured Sergio Perez at Canada. And then, there was a then-unheralded Australian rookie named Daniel Ricciardo who was quietly drafted in at HRT to replace Narain Karthikeyan the second half of that year. Karthikeyan’s Indian countryman, Karun Chandhok, also made a one-off cameo at the Nurburgring in for Jarno Trulli at Lotus, now Caterham.
All of this preamble brings us to Andre Lotterer, who will make a surprise but welcome F1 debut this weekend with Caterham in place of Kamui Kobayashi at the Belgian Grand Prix.
Lotterer, while he has been one of the world’s top sports car drivers for five seasons, still has a tall task in front of him with Caterham. He can’t embarrass himself and he also has to have the realistic goal of beating his teammate Marcus Ericsson, who has a year’s worth of running with the CT05 chassis.
But his is a refreshing appointment compared to the usual reserve driver, retread, or prodigy-in-waiting that has been the general call in recent years.
Ferrari, for instance, had a golden opportunity to promote someone outside the realm of normality in 2009 following Felipe Massa’s injury in the Hungarian Grand Prix. But veterans Luca Badoer and Giancarlo Fisichella failed to take advantage of the lifelong dream the pair had, struggling with a geriatric chassis and earning a wealth of criticism from onlookers.
Renault seized an opportunity to promote Grosjean in the same season, to replace Nelson Piquet Jr., but as reserve and with the cloud of controversy that hung over the squad in the wake of Piquet’s “Crashgate” scandal at the 2008 Singapore Grand Prix, Grosjean was nothing more than a stopgap measure for the time being and really wasn’t able to prove himself.
Jaime Alguersuari at Toro Rosso, also in 2009? He entered F1 with nothing but question marks surrounding his readiness as the then-youngest driver in history, a mark that will be beaten in 2015, in the same team, by Max Verstappen.
And then whether it’s been de la Rosa, Kovalainen, Chandhok, d’Ambrosio or Vitantonio Liuzzi as the pop-up, replacement driver, you’ve had guys who are devoid of any real “star” value and with the mystery and mystique surrounding them as to how well they’ll do. Basically, you knew what you’re getting as all these guys have been solid but never superstar-worthy in their F1 careers.
For Lotterer, he may well be a colossal flop or he won’t be able to outperform his machinery, but his presence as a three-time Le Mans winner, a driver in the peak of his powers in a different discipline, adds a level of intrigue not present for some of the other in-season replacements in recent years.
He makes Caterham an interesting team to watch, instead of merely the also-ran at the back of the grid it’s been for most, if not all, this season.
He has track experience (he raced at Spa earlier this year in the FIA WEC) and has still actively maintained a single seater career in Japan, so he’s as fresh as a daisy.
For F1, it can claim for the first time in 20 years it has the active 24 Hours of Le Mans winner in its field – and a guy who’s adept at handling some of racing’s newest technology with aplomb.
In short, Lotterer’s one of the most intriguing in-season replacements, and for that matter, debutantes, F1 has seen in years. It’s going to be fascinating to watch how he goes.