Lotterer debut a refreshing tonic for F1, Caterham

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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.

March 28 in Motorsports History: Adrian Fernandez wins Motegi’s first race

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While auto racing is an international sport, oval racing remains uniquely American. 

That almost always has remained the case since the inception of the sport, but in 1998, the citizens of Japan got their first taste of American oval racing.

Having opened the previous year, Twin Ring Motegi was built by Honda in an effort to bring Indy-style racing to the Land of the Rising Sun. 

Adrian Fernandez was the first driver to win at the facility, taking the checkered flag in CART’s inaugural race after shaking off flu earlier that day.

Fernandez held off a hard-charging Al Unser Jr to win by 1.086 seconds. The victory was the second of his career and his first since Toronto in 1996.

Adrian Fernandez celebrates with Al Unser Jr and Gil de Ferran after winning the inaugural race at Motegi. (Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images)

The race was also memorable for a violent crash involving Bobby Rahal.

Running third with 15 laps remaining, Rahal’s right front suspension broke in Turn 2, causing his car to hit the outside wall and flip down the backstretch.

Luckily, Rahal walked away from the accident without a scratch.

“The car was on rails through (turns) 1 and 2, and all of a sudden it just got up into the marbles, and it was gone,” Rahal said. “Thank God we’ve got such safe cars.”

The following season, Fernadez went back-to-back and won again at Motegi. The track remained on the CART schedule until 2002.

In 2003, Honda switched their alliance to the Indy Racing Leauge, and Motegi followed suit.

The track continued to host IndyCar racing until 2011 with the final race being held on the facility’s 2.98-mile road course, as the oval sustained damage in the Tōhoku earthquake earlier that year.

Also on this date:

1976: Clay Regazzoni won the United States Grand Prix – West, Formula One’s first race on the Long Beach street circuit. The Grand Prix would become an IndyCar event following the 1983 edition of the race.

1993: Ayrton Senna won his home race, the Grand Prix of Brazil, for the second and final time of his career. The victory was also the 100th in F1 for McLaren.

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