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.

Coyne transitioning from underdog to Indy 500 threat

Photo: IndyCar
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For most of the team’s existence, Dale Coyne Racing has been the Chicago Cubs of American Open Wheel Racing – a team whose history was more defined by failures, at times comically so, than success.

The last decade, however, has seen the tide completely change. In 2007, they scored three podium finishes with Bruno Junqueira. In 2009, they won at Watkins Glen with the late Justin Wilson.

The combination won again at Texas Motor Speedway in 2012, and finished sixth in the 2013 Verizon IndyCar Series championship. That same year, Mike Conway took a shock win for them in Race 1 at the Chevrolet Dual in Detroit.

Carlos Huertas scored an upset win for them in Race 1 at the Houston double-header in 2014, and while 2015 and 2016 yielded no wins, Tristan Vautier and Conor Daly gave them several strong runs – Vautier’s best finish was fourth in Race 2 at Detroit, while Daly finished second in Race 1 at Detroit, finished fourth at Watkins Glen, and scored a trio of sixth-place finishes at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course, Race 2 at Detroit, and the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.

And 2017 was set to possibly be the best year the team has ever had. Sebastien Bourdais gave the team a popular win in the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, and then rookie Ed Jones scored back-to-back top tens – 10th and sixth – at St. Pete and the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach to start his career.

But, things started unraveling at the Indianapolis 500. Bourdais appeared set to be in the Fast Nine Pole Shootout during his first qualifying run – both of his first two laps were above 231 mph –  before his horrifying crash in Turn 2.

While Jones qualified an impressive 11th and finished an even more impressive third, results for the rest of the season became hard to come by – Jones only scored two more Top 10s, with a best result of seventh at Road America.

But, retooled for 2018, the Coyne team is a legitimate threat at the 102nd Running of the Indianapolis 500.

Bourdais, whose No. 18 Honda features new sponsorship from SealMaster and now ownership partners in Jimmy Vasser and James “Sulli” Sullivan, has a win already, again at St. Pete, and sits third in the championship.

And Bourdais may also be Honda’s best hope, given that he was the fastest Honda in qualifying – he’ll start fifth behind Ed Carpenter, Simon Pagenaud, Will Power, and Josef Newgarden.

“I think it speaks volumes about their work, their passion and their dedication to this program, Dale (Coyne), Jimmy (Vasser) and Sulli (James Sullivan) and everybody from top to bottom. I can’t thank them enough for the opportunity, for the support,” Bourdais said of the team’s effort.

Rookie Zachary Claman De Melo has been progressing nicely, and his Month of May has been very solid – he finished 12th at the INDYCAR Grand Prix on the IMS Road Course and qualified a strong 13th for the “500.”

“It’s been surreal to be here as rookie. I’m a bit at a loss for words,” Claman De Melo revealed after qualifying. “The fans, driving around this place, being with the team, everything is amazing. I have a great engineer, a great group of experienced mechanics at Dale Coyne Racing.”

While Conor Daly and Pippa Mann struggled in one-off entries, with Mann getting bumped out of the field in Saturday qualifying, Daly’s entry essentially puts three Coyne cars in the race – Daly’s No. 17 United States Air Force Honda is a Dale Coyne car that has been leased to Thom Burns Racing.

Rest assured, the days of Coyne being an “also ran” are long gone, and a Coyne car ending up in Victory Lane at the biggest race of the year would complete the Chicago Cubs analogy – the Cubs won a World Series title in 2016, and an Indy 500 triumph would be the crowning achievement in Coyne’s career.

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