2016 has been a year full of hot streaks in motorsport.
Nico Rosberg and Simon Pagenaud both trotted off a run of consecutive victories in Formula 1 and IndyCar respectively, Kyle Busch pulled a similar run in NASCAR, while Lucas di Grassi has been impressing in both the FIA World Endurance Championship and Formula E.
Yet this weekend, it is Luis Felipe Derani – better known as Pipo – who stands on the brink of a unique endurance hat-trick.
The 22-year-old Brazilian could become the first driver to win his class at three of motorsport’s biggest events in one year should he follow up his victories in the Rolex 24 at Daytona and the 12 Hours of Sebring with a third at the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
He’ll co-drive the No. 31 Tequila Patron ESM Ligier JS P2 Nissan, now adorned in white and black Paul Mitchell colors since Patron can’t advertise in France, with Ryan Dalziel and Chris Cumming.
You could forgive Derani for getting ahead of himself given the level of success he has attained in the past six months despite this being just his third season in endurance racing. However, he remains a humble, well-grounded figure, conscious of the magnitude of his recent achievements.
“I think by December or the beginning of January, it was a dream to just to be able to be part of those events,” Derani says of Daytona and Sebring. “To be able to win in my first event, both of them, it’s a dream come true. I wouldn’t actually have thought about it. So extremely happy with that.”
The victory at Daytona not only came on debut at the event, but also in his very first race with ESM, an American team racing in the FIA WEC that Derani joined at the beginning of the year. He had previously raced with G-Drive, but when OAK Racing moved its support to ESM, Derani was happy to follow suit.
“It was very appealing to me. They’re one of the most classic sports car teams coming from America,” he explains. “I always had a desire to do some of the American races. I think it all came together because OAK Racing was part of the deal. OAK was taking care of G-Drive and then they moved over to work with ESM.
“So it all came together very easily because of OAK, who I was working with already last year. I think it wasn’t a hard choice to keep working with OAK and move to ESM. It’s a great pleasure to work with all of them.”
Derani caught the attention of many within WEC paddock during his debut season with G-Drive in 2015, but it was at Daytona and, perhaps to a greater degree, at Sebring, when he led ESM’s charge to victory across 12 hours in the Prototype class, that people truly began to stand up and take notice of him.
“I think Daytona was kind of the turning point in my career where a lot of people got to know who I am and what I’ve been doing,” he says. “Also Sebring because the kind of show to everyone that the win at Daytona wasn’t just pure luck. Sebring was a confirmation of all the work we’ve been doing with myself and the team. They were two special moments in my career and I hope I can continue to improve.
“I’ve been asked before what it is like to achieve a little bit of what guys like Tom Kristensen and Allan McNish have achieved. Obviously the question got me thinking, yeah, that’s actually really nice. I just want to be able to continue and improve, that’s my mindset. I believe and I know there is always something to improve on. I know that Daytona and Sebring is just the beginning.
“But to look back and see that guys like Kristensen has won Sebring six times and to be able to feel for a very short period of time what they felt a few years ago on the podium, it was just amazing. In Daytona, I got the Rolex from the hands of Mr. Kristensen, that was a special feeling.”
But if he can win Sunday’s LMP2 class race at Le Mans, he would achieve something that Kristensen and McNish never did: winning his class at all three events in the same year.
“Winning Daytona and Sebring, and being able to win Le Mans in the same year, it would be magnificent,” Derani says. “It’s hard to put into words what it would mean because I don’t think there is a driver who has won those three in the same year.
“But at the end of the day, I don’t only think about that. We have a championship to fight for and it’s double points. I think just by finishing the race, it’s extremely important. That’s the sort of mentality we’re taking to the race. If we have a chance in the end to fight for victory, there’s one thing that’s for sure: if I’m in the car, I’m gonna go for it. Hopefully we are in that position.”
Derani will start Saturday’s race sixth in class for ESM in the No. 31 ESM Ligier-Nissan alongside Cumming and Dalziel, but with the LMP2 battle so close and hard to predict, the small things may be the key to success over the 24-hour duration.
“I think our team is great. What they do with strategy and mechanics and everyone, how they work, it’s unbelievable,” enthuses Derani. “To look at those guys not making a single mistake in all those races, it’s very nice. That’s one of the points that we have, the strength that we have. And that’s the point for us to keep up in the first 22 hours, then to try and fight for a win in the last couple of hours.
“Not only that, but I think the drivers must also not do mistakes as well. I think with Ryan and Chris, I will be able to hopefully achieve that. Obviously you need the speed – you don’t do anything without the speed.
“I think our car will be more competitive than it was at Spa [where ESM finished second]. We were extremely competitive at Silverstone [again, finishing second], and we believe we’ll be competitive at Le Mans, even though the Orecas are newer cars. They seem to be extremely fast over there. From last year we might have this year a better car, so hopefully we can put all those things together, make no mistakes and fight for a win.”
The ambition that Derani possesses is evident. Even with Daytona and Sebring under his belt, he is hungry for more – and not just Le Mans.
“Once you win big races, you always want more,” he begins. “And now that I’ve won Daytona and Sebring, obviously the next goal is to win Le Mans. Together with that, in a short period of time to be able to win the world championship. I think WEC is a place I want to be a for a very long time.
“Hopefully I can move up to LMP1, that would be a very big goal. Together with that, yes, trying to win other big races would be very special. But we don’t always know about opportunities and how they come together. So one step at a time, now let’s focus on Le Mans and try to win this championship.”
While Derani is happy in LMP2 and likes the direction that the championship is set to take for 2017, introducing a spec engine across series and reducing costs for teams, he dreams of racing for one of the WEC’s big manufacturers in LMP1 one day.
“I think that the championship is going in a very nice direction with the spec-engine and the four manufacturers,” he says of LMP2. “I’m happy to be part of Ligier and Onroak which will be one of those. I think the championship is getting bigger and bigger. If you look at this year at Le Mans, there are over 20 cars just in LMP2, so that’s going to make for a very exciting show and a very exciting race.
“But I truly hope that I can do a good job and have the chance to move up to LMP1 with one of those big manufacturers. That’s been one of my objectives since I moved to endurance racing. That’s what I’ve been working for. I love being part of LMP2, I love the competitiveness and the amount of cars, but the ultimate goal for me would be to go up to LMP1.”
And he feels more than ready to make the step.
“I’m still young, I’m 22. But I feel ready for it,” he asserts. “After the full complete year in WEC and this one already with the big races, I’m absolutely ready to move up if I have the chance. We all know that’s very difficult in terms of how many drives are available.
“We know that it’s only for now three manufacturers with two cars each. That’s less than a Formula 1 grid. But hopefully things turn out to be good already for next year because I feel ready for it.
“But if it’s not next year, then I don’t mind waiting a little bit more, doing another year of LMP2 or even going to a factory team in GT.”
Hailing from Brazil, Derani grew up in a nation with a rich history in racing, as fostered by the likes of Ayrton Senna, Nelson Piquet and Emerson Fittipaldi. To be able to fly the flag for Brazil in the WEC is something he is very proud of.
“The flag flying is something that we are very passionate about,” Derani says. “If you look back in the day, Ayrton always had a flag inside his car. That was extremely important for the people in Brazil, to have a hero and have someone to look up to.
“I want to kind of do the same and show the world that I love my country no matter what. It hasn’t been an easy time for Brazil lately in terms of economy and stuff, so I think it’s important that we still can be very big and we still can achieve great things no matter how tough it is.
“To be able to add Le Mans and the championship to my career, to my CV, then it would be like a dream come true for what a driver wants from a season. Hopefully we can achieve that, but if not is is already a very good year.”
‘Very good’ is an understatement typical of Derani. Yet if he can complete an unique endurance racing hat-trick in the space of just six months this Sunday, there would surely be little way to downplay such a momentous achievement.