This time, we hit up sports car racing hero André Lotterer in Austria’s Tyrolean mountains, where he was keeping fit in the run-up to Series 7 of Formula E with 3.5 hour-long high altitude cross-country ski trips…
Going back in time, do you remember the first time you fell in love with cars? How old were you and what exactly was it that appealed to you? The aesthetics, the power, the speed?
Well, that’s a long story because my dad had a race team in Belgium, and because he was team principal, my mum could always bring me along to the rallies and tracks when I was a kid. So from the first thing I remember, I was around race cars. It was before I could walk, and I loved it straight from the beginning. As a kid, I was always looking up to the race car drivers and that was always what I wanted to become. So that’s when I got infected by that ‘virus’, if that’s still a word we’re allowed to use today. And it’s been a love story since then.
As a kid, the sounds, and the smells and the whole sensory experience of racing must have been wild…
Yeah, it was awesome. Sometimes my dad would take me to some practice sessions. And at the end of the day, I was allowed to sit in the co-driver’s seat and I couldn’t even see the road! But I had the feel and the thrill! I mean, my dad knew what he was doing. It was just me who didn’t know yet.
When he got me a go-kart, I will never forget that moment because I was so excited. Before that, I had a pedal go kart, the one you do with your feet, you know. But he would bring me to the workshop and ask the mechanics to wet the floor and push me. And he would laugh so much because I was counter-steering and drifting already…
Then we went actual go-karting, the car was too slow. So a week after, we went back and he saw that in the store there was a go-kart for kids for sale. We stood there, and he asked me really seriously, if I wanted to do it. I was seven at the time. But as he said, ‘this is serious stuff. It costs money. And if you want to do this, you have to commit to this. You are not going to get bored of it and start to play soccer and tennis, etc.’ So I said yes, and then I ran home after that and told my mom. She said “oh my God”. Like “here we go”, because she knew my dad’s a perfectionist in racing and she knew that that was the beginning of a crazy adventure of making it as a race car driver. And a lot of sacrifices that my parents made.
It is a brilliant image to think of now: you being in the car and not being able to see above the dash…
The first go kart was funny because we would put it in the back of the car, wheels up in the boot, and my parents would sit in the front of the car and I would stay sitting in the go kart seat. That’s always where I wanted to be.
Beyond your father’s intuition, and your parents’ support, you clearly had a natural talent. What was the most formative moment in your early career where you thought, ‘OK, yes, I can do this and take it to the very top level’?
Up until I was 12, 13 years old, it was definitely my father’s push and intuition because when you’re a kid, you still want to play! And my mom was a brilliant balance reminding him I was still a kid whenever my dad would push too much. But really, I’m where I am because he set the bar so high.
It was when I was 13 that suddenly something clicked. I started looking up to international go kart drivers in the bigger scene. And there was this sticker that only drivers had with their name on. And I was like, ‘I want to have a sticker like that!’ because that would mean I was a factory driver. And from then on, I started putting my whole existence into it.
For someone who is new to Formula E say, what makes it different and so exciting to be a part of right now?
Oh, there are so many things that are exciting about Formula E. First of all, it’s a great opportunity to be involved in the race of the future. We innovate a lot and we bring the race to city streets, and people in cities, so often new spectators. The cars are very equal in terms of performance, which puts focus on the drivers – and for us, tackling the streets, drifting between tight walls and managing the intensity of the energy is something very challenging. Even though the power is a bit less than conventional combustion race cars, the fact that you’re literally in city streets makes it so much more difficult than racing at 250 on the tracks.
In Formula E, you work so much with the team in the simulator to prepare everything because really, you go into unknown tracks. You cannot practice in the cities! So you have to be really prepared. And there’s so many different scenarios to think of. So honestly, it’s a really cool sporting challenge, but also very intellectual. You race for efficiency all the time, working out optimum efficiencies for every corner and trying to outsmart everyone. There are so many little details.
With Formula E, there’s that sense everything being pioneering and pushing forward new ground. Do you miss having a weight of history behind you, or does it feel liberating to be forging a new path?
I think nowadays it’s really important that things are meaningful. It’s great to do things that are fun. But I think that’s another great thing about Formula E. It’s a race, but it’s also a race for efficiency. And that’s really important. As human beings, we all have a responsibility to do something – and we have the responsibility to do that with our best engineers and resources. This is what is happening all the time with Formula E – we are pushing limits and new boundaries, and it is inspiring people to go electric, for a cleaner world. So it is not only the technological aspect, it is also to show that you can have a lot of fun with electric cars. We’re doing such good races with it.
For you, what is the most crucial lead up moment to a race? The night before? The second before?
Well, definitely the half an hour before qualifying. And the reason is because mostly we race at 200kwh. That’s the standard power. However, in qualifying, we are allowed to run at 250 kilowatts, which is significantly more power, and we are barely allowed to practice it. Only once in free practice 1 and once into practice 2. So all your reference points, your breaking points, your speeds are much higher just for that one qualifying lap and you cannot mess it up. Going into the qualifying round is super stressful. Because there’s a massive factor of unknown, and you so want to nail the perfect lap. So yes, nerves definitely start to play on your psychology.
Do you see the races against the clock, other people on the other teams or against yourself?
Mostly, I think, I race against myself. I always have the vision that if I optimize my team and we extract the most out of ourselves, we should be in the lead. So this is the biggest challenge. It means you have to be super critical. Every time you approach a corner, you break, and then you work out the tiny bit of percentage where you could have done better. Of course, you are battling everyone on the track but it is still only really about optimizing your own performance. How do you overtake someone? I am not focusing so much on the opponent, I am focusing on myself: how I can make this situation the best?
And in terms of that self-critique, those hard decisions that you’re trying to make, what’s your awareness of time in the vehicle? Do you have a dash timer? What metrics are you looking at?
In Formula E, we mostly focus on two metrics. I’m looking at the big times on a screen, where I do a corner and see if I’m up or down. Then the other metrics is the energy you need to keep an eye on how efficient you’re driving. These are the two things you’re constantly optimizing. Whenever you see there is lost time or energy you are mad at yourself.
And in those moments of very extreme pressure, does the time feel fast to you or slow? After a race, can you remember it sequence by sequence or does it feel like a kind of blur?
It’s a good question. It’s more like a blur, because I’m so in the moment. Sometimes I don’t know what happened, but that’s because you have to be relying on instinct. If you’re thinking, you’re already behind with everything! The goal is to be so well-prepared and in such a flow that everything happens instinctively, which gives you the space you need for strategy. When all that comes together though, it’s a bit of a blur.
Going back to endurance racing: with a race like Le Mans, the 24 hours is so central to the process. How do you break that down in your head?
For me it’s pretty simple. There are two things: it’s the 100% because at Le Mans it is easy to say, OK, I’ll drive a bit safe and drive at 98%, 99%. But then you’re wasting plenty of budget from the factory team and you’re not extracting most of the car. But on the other hand, if you drive 101% you really could go well but at some point you’re just going to crash or hit someone and then you’re just going to waste it all too. So the idea at Le Mans is really to optimize and be just right – 100%- every time. Just the right amount of risk at the edge, and the best of the car at all times.
The other thing is that at Le Mans you kind of need a bit of a sixth sense. There are three categories at different speeds and when you come up to slower cars, you’re going to need to be able to read what they’re going to do, what kind of driver’s in the car? Because when you commit to pass them or somehow go around them, you also need to be able to have a good sense of what’s going to happen to avoid collisions.
« You have to be relying on instinct. If you’re thinking, you're already behind [...] »ANDRÉ LOTTERER TAG HEUER PORSCHE FORMULA E TEAM
When you are perfectly balanced on that 100% and everything’s going right, what does that feel like in your body?
When everything goes well, it’s an awesome satisfaction. If you get everything in the right window, you’re just one with a car. It feels like you’re playing with the car and at the same time you’re banging the fastest lap times. When everything is in the flow, it’s just flying. Flying in pure pleasure because it’s effortless. And then you can go above the limit and still be comfortable in it sometimes and you never wanted it to end because it’s just so much fun.
You started doing this when you were a kid, just seven years old, when you couldn’t even see over the dash. How has your perception of time changed over the course of your life? Has it sped up, slowed down?
It definitely sped up, and I think that’s the same symptom that we all have, actually. I was wondering why this happens, and I think it’s because when you’re one year old, one year is 100% of your brain’s timescale and when you’re two years old it’s 50% and when you’re three and so on and so on. So when you’re my age, one year is getting smaller and smaller. I’m lucky, though. I had a great time. From the beginning on, I was lucky to be involved in motorsports and go through different eras to see the beginnings of racing in my dad’s team, which were in rally, and all the incredible cars of the 80s and 90s. And then to have my turn – to see the evolution from old school tracks to newer tracks, and to go from racing diesel cars and hybrid cars to fully electric cars. It’s been a great journey so far. And every time there are new surprises. So I hope they keep coming.
Another truism about time passing is that when you have repetition, time feels very rapid because the brain doesn’t have to create new synapses. But when you change what you’re doing all the time, when you’re in new places a lot, the brain has to expand time. So the way in which you’ve evolved your career, you’re always pursuing new challenges will definitely extend time more than most people experience it. Has your go-to timepiece changed?
I was quite the annoying kid with my parents because they were spending already so much money to make my career succeed. But it was my biggest wish to have a TAG Heuer watch for my 18th birthday and they somehow managed to get the money together. It was a TAG Heuer Link and I wore it all the time.
What about now?
Actually, I mostly wear the one that my dad had. A vintage Heuer.
How has your life been different during this ‘time out’ of the past year?
It was interesting because I was so used to running around, flying around non-stop and being in a plane every third day, fourth day and then suddenly, boom! Stop. To be honest, I think that was something quite valuable for someone like me to be able to pause everything, recharge the batteries and use that time wisely. First of all, to do a bit nothing and to think about what my life is when I’m not racing, and chasing these goals all the time. To have a chance to think: OK, what am I doing? Who am I? It was nice because I was able to be with my mom and my girlfriend and to spend quality time with people I love and live the simple life. I think that’s what came out from that: you can enjoy the little things: just plant my vegetables, cook and go back to the simple basics.
Well, going from simple basics to kind of extremities of complexity and design, can you just say a quick word about the Porsche and TAG Heuer collaboration and what it means to have these two incredible brands come together?
When I heard this collaboration would happen, I was so excited because I’d just joined the team, and when I heard TAG Heuer would be title and timing partner, I was so happy, because they’re two of my favorite brands. I had opportunities with other factories, but I always wanted to stay with Porsche, and like I told you before, TAG Heuer was always what I wanted since I was a kid, because I was a big Ayrton Senna fan, and he always inspired me with his driving. To see these two legendary, historical brands that meant so much for motorsport come together, and for me to be in the middle of this? It’s something really, really special. And I’m really privileged to be part of it.
And you are going to win, right?
Well, that’s the target! I’m working out every day and pushing the team and doing everything it takes. So, yeah, you can count on me to bring the maximum.
The 2020/21 ABB FIA Formula E World Championship kicks off in Diriyah, Saudi Arabia, on February 26th. Lotterer is joined by compatriot Pascal Wehrlein in a formidable TAG Heuer Porsche Formula E Team line-up making its second run for top honours.