Life for many is considerably different since the COVID-19 pandemic took hold in 2020. That certainly applies to Louis Deletraz, whose career has gone from strength to strength since that much-disrupted season when his sportscar journey truly began.
The Swiss will be a full-time Acura GTP driver in the IMSA SportsCar Championship next season after impressing in a third-driver role with Wayne Taylor Racing this term, and appears odds-on to end three successful years in LMP2 by clinching the class’s final World Endurance Championship title with WRT. Already twice an LMP2 champion in the European Le Mans Series, Deletraz went into the recent Portimao finale with a shot at a third, having begun the season at Barcelona with a buccaneering outright victory aboard his Pro-Am TF Sport-run ORECA.
All told, it’s been a fulfilling period for a second-generation racer whose four-year Formula 2 career was largely frustrating after a stunning maiden season in Formula V8 3.5 in 2016. After coming close to beating the vastly experienced Tom Dillmann to the crown, his move to F2 with Racing Engineering didn’t go to plan. For the 2015 Formula Renault 2.0 Eurocup runner-up and champion of the category’s NEC contest, F2 “was proof of how quickly your reputation in motorsport can turn around,” he remembers. “Racing Engineering was supposed to be a good team but, for whatever reason, something changed in the management and it was a disaster.”
Without any F2 experience, he struggled to turn the situation around and lost confidence. Sebastian Viger, now technical director for WRT’s LMP2 programme, held the same position at Racing Engineering in 2017, and thinks Deletraz suffered from putting expectations on himself that were “too high versus the level of understanding”.
“It was a lot of pressure on his shoulders,” adds the Belgian. “We were second [in the teams’ championship] twice in a row, and when you join a successful team like we were back then you expect it to be plug-and-play. But it was different tyres – back then it was Michelin to Pirelli – it was a different car, different approach. And that year he was missing experience.”
Over his next three F2 campaigns, Deletraz claimed six second places, but never managed to win a race across two spells with Charouz and one year with Carlin. “Because we had such a bad year, it’s hard to find a good team,” he recalls of joining series newcomer Charouz for 2018. “F2 is so competitive, it’s hard to win. I’m very happy with my 10 podiums, I sadly never got a race win but I learned a lot and in the end in tyre management, pace, we were always strong. And if you look at the grid that we were racing in, it’s pretty incredible names. Leclerc, Norris, Russell, they were all here.”
Photo by: Zak Mauger / Motorsport Images
Deletraz didn’t win a race in F2, but is proud of his performances against esteemed opposition including fellow 2018 Monaco podium finishers Fuoco and Norris
Deletraz did get to test for Haas in 2018 at Yas Marina, but it proved his closest encounter with Formula 1. Overlooked for fellow Haas reserve Pietro Fittipaldi when Romain Grosjean was ruled out of the final two grands prix in 2020, Deletraz committed to switching codes.
He had previously dabbled in sportscars by entering four ADAC GT Masters rounds in 2016 as a BMW junior team member, plus the 2017 Dubai 24 Hours in a GPX-run Renault RS01, experiences he believes explain his confidence in jumping between cars, and he picked up the baton again in 2020. That year, Deletraz combined his F2 programme with three GT World Challenge Europe Endurance Cup outings in a GPX Porsche 911 GT3-R and raced Rebellion’s Gibson-powered R-13 LMP1 car at the Le Mans 24 Hours.
The deal with GPX, a backer of his since karting, was only ever intended to be a one-off at Imola to stand in for Dennis Olsen, who had a clashing IMSA date. But he also contested the Spa 24 Hours and Paul Ricard 1000Km after winning SRO’s GT Esports title.
“I wouldn’t be the same driver today without [Kubica]. His experience, technical feedback and knowledge of how to see a project, how to talk about things openly, he taught me a lot” Louis Deletraz
“Pascal Zurlinden [then Porsche’s factory motorsport boss] asked me at that time if I wanted to do more with the team, so it was actually the first time I got a drive coming from Esports!” recalls Deletraz. But it was in the higher-downforce prototype, in which he finished fourth on his first crack at Le Mans, that he felt most comfortable due to the stylistic similarities with single-seaters.
“I enjoy prototypes more also because I’m better in them I think,” he explains. Deletraz believes that turning down some “very good offers” for a fifth year of F2 and accepting WRT chief Vincent Vosse’s proposal to join Robert Kubica and Ye Yifei in the 2021 ELMS was “the best thing I could have done”. The WRT trio won the title and, but for an agonising electrical failure on the final lap at Le Mans, would have conquered the French classic too.
Le Mans 2021 “broke my heart and makes you think that motorsport can be very cruel sometimes,” reflects Deletraz. It’s an event he thinks about daily. “Now it’s better two years after but you still think, ‘How is it possible?’” he ponders.
Deletraz switched to Prema for 2022 to claim another ELMS title, although second at Le Mans was the highlight of his WEC season with Kubica. They paired up again upon returning to WRT this year and, together with Rui Andrade, once more finished runners-up at the Circuit de la Sarthe. But wins at Spa and Fuji have put them 33 points clear with a maximum 39 available in this weekend’s Bahrain finale, meaning they only need to finish eighth regardless of what closest challenger Inter Europol can muster.
Photo by: Rainier Ehrhardt
The final lap failure that cost victory at Le Mans in 2021 still nags at Deletraz today, but he hopes securing the 2023 LMP2 title will go some way to make up for it
Viger notes that Kubica has served as “kind of a mentor” to Deletraz and recognises that he is now “able to deal with all kinds of scenarios in the car and not be thrown off completely if things don’t go to plan.” Viger also observes that Deletraz has learned “when to speak up”, and that in his earlier career he “was maybe too gentle on some teams that maybe gave him some solutions which were not perfectly suited for him.”
“We became extremely good friends and super-close,” Deletraz agrees of his relationship with Kubica. “I wouldn’t be the same driver today without him. His experience, technical feedback and knowledge of how to see a project, how to talk about things openly, he taught me a lot.”
Viger reckons the pair have clicked so well because both are “only goal-driven, that’s why also you never have a fight for who is doing the quali”. He adds that “this is their best strength”, which enables the squad to “nearly work as a factory team. It’s pretty equal, I have to say. They learned to drive the car in a similar way. When you put them in the car, they just deliver and you get what you expect. It’s a luxury situation that you can actually use them both.”
Deletraz contributed heavily to Tower Motorsport driver John Farano securing last year’s IMSA LMP2 crown (although the Swiss missed Mid-Ohio, so didn’t get to share the honour), and high-stirring performances put his name on the map in North America. But the trigger for joining WTR was the recommendation of team regular Filipe Albuquerque, who had enjoyed many bouts against Deletraz with United Autosports in LMP2.
For Albuquerque, Deletraz satisfied the criteria of being fast, experienced in different series and having a good attitude.
“He’s humble and he keeps humble after being fast, which some of the young drivers they start to lose their contact with earth and that ruins the appeal of a team to approach somebody,” points out the Portuguese.
After holding discussions at Road America, Deletraz duly joined Albuquerque and Ricky Taylor in the Wayne Taylor Racing Acura for the four endurance races, finishing second in the season-opening Daytona 24 Hours. Deletraz admits to finding the third-driver role tough – “You are compared to drivers who are always in the car when you are not” – but never let the team down.
Photo by: Andy Chan
Kubica and Deletraz have formed an effective partnership over the past three years, with the Pole forming something of a mentor figure to the Swiss
And at the Petit Le Mans finale, when entrusted with qualifying duties, he rewarded his team’s faith with pole in the wet. “No one had doubts or questions, and it felt very good for me,” he grins.
Albuquerque believes that Deletraz has “totally deserved” his promotion to a second car with Jordan Taylor for 2024 and anticipates that this “will make us stronger” when it comes to unlocking set-ups. But before he can look ahead to next year, Deletraz is anxious to finish off 2023 on a high with the WEC title. It’s likely to be his final outing with Kubica for the time being, since the Pole is seeking a WEC Hypercar drive for 2024.
As for Le Mans, Deletraz is determined to be back next year since he believes “it’s most important for the driver to be there, to keep learning, to keep improving”
“I’ve never won WEC, I want to win it,” he stresses. “It’s the last opportunity to do it in a P2 and again if we can do it with Robert, it would be at least a payback for 2021. It’s not Le Mans, but it’s already big to win a world championship.”
As for Le Mans, Deletraz is determined to be back next year since he believes “it’s most important for the driver to be there, to keep learning, to keep improving”. And after two runner-up finishes and one gutting loss, there’s only one thing on his mind: “With or without Robert, I will try to win it!”
A family business
Photo by: Ercole Colombo
Commentator Walker mistook Montermini’s fuel-starved Pacific for Deletraz in commentary, spawning an enduring quote
“And what is Deletraz doing?” As Jean Alesi and Michael Schumacher motored past the Pacific wiggling erratically down the Nurburgring back straight during the closing stages of the 1995 European Grand Prix, Murray Walker’s famous commentary line became an indictment of Jean-Denis Deletraz’s otherwise unmemorable three-race Formula 1 career.
It didn’t matter that Walker had misidentified his team-mate Andrea Montermini, who retired shortly afterwards out of fuel. It fit the narrative assigned to a driver who had qualified well off the pace.
But it would be wrong to say that Deletraz Sr was bereft of talent. Twice a Formula 3000 podium finisher in 1988, he briefly ran his own team in the F1 support series before going on to enjoy success in sportscars, with two Le Mans 24 Hours class wins in the LMP675 division that preceded LMP2.
But the most notable successes came in the FIA GT championship, where he claimed four outright wins aboard Scuderia Italia’s Ferrari 550 GTS Maranello in 2002 and two with Carsport’s Corvette C6.R in 2007, including that year’s Spa 24 Hours. Louis Deletraz joined his father on the podium after he’d finished second at Spa in 2006 with a Phoenix-run Aston Martin DBR9, and is proud of his feats.
“I remember very well Spa,” he says of his first visit to a podium he’d stand on for real eight years later in Formula Renault 2.0 NEC. “I’m proud of what he achieved in his career. My dad never thought he would do F1 races, but an opportunity came up for him and he took it. Who says no to that? Obviously, he knows the results were not great, but he still did F1.
“What I really am proud of is his endurance career and it taught me a lot. That’s the reason why I’m here today, because my dad started this family passion.”
Jean-Denis, now 60, took a hands-on role and “in the beginning he was very involved with choosing teams”, recalls Deletraz Jr, before stepping back once his son “evolved into my own person, my own driving style”. But he still attends races today. “He’s passionate and we’re sharing this as a family,” adds the 26-year-old. “It’s pretty awesome.”
Photo by: Sutton Images
Louis Deletraz joined his father on the podium after finishing runner-up at the Spa 24 Hours in 2006