Unlike his team-mates in the #7 TS030 HYBRID however, Nicolas hasn’t got a background in Formula 1; his single-seater career featured race wins in GP2 and a championship in A1GP but from there his career took a different track.
Looking back at single-seaters you really seem to have clicked with endurance after a promising but unlucky single-seater career?
“I’m enjoying myself. It’s a huge pleasure to drive at this level in endurance racing and I think I fit better with the team spirit in this sort of racing, helping a team-mate and not fighting them is more part of my nature.
“It’s good too to surprise people that maybe haven’t heard of me before and are surprised that I am driving at this level for a big manufacturer team like TOYOTA where, more normally they would expect to see drivers from F1.
“The TOYOTA programme is a great opportunity for me, I’ve been racing in sportscars since 2008 and I’m still enjoying it.”
You have developed a great reputation for being one of the fastest men out there, do you ever allow yourself to compare your pace against your ex-F1 rivals and team-mates?
“F1 was, of course, part of the plan for many years, particularly when I got to GP2. At that point I wasn’t looking at sportscars at all but then in my last year in GP2, 2007, I went to Le Mans in a GT car.
“I’d never been to Le Mans before and thought it was super cool. I liked the spirit, the atmosphere and the track. I had the possibility of another season in GP2 and then Hugues de Chaunac was in touch asking if I would like to be involved in Oreca’s new LMP1 project with a long-term contract.
“I thought about it and came to the decision that it was time to do something different. I had my chances in single-seaters and it hadn’t really gone my way for a variety of reasons, particularly after a crash at Monaco when I should have been going for the championship but ended up breaking two of my vertebrae. The following year I was there with DAMS and we were very competitive, winning two races but we suffered too many reliability issues to keep up a title fight.
“I made the decision and many people were surprised; I was only 25 when I moved over. I took it step by step and learned a lot from my different team-mates, particularly Stephane Ortelli and Olivier Panis. I learned as much as I could and I made my way.
“When TOYOTA came they asked me if I wanted to join. I already had an another offer on the table but I decided it would be better to go to a project where we could all start together. As things turned out that was a good decision!
“I’m really happy here, and with my role. The team are giving me a lot of responsibility; I’m doing a lot of the development of the car and have been doing the racing since the very beginning. It’s great that we are having some success and that it allows me to give them something back for the chance they offered me.”
You’ve proved to be a trend-setter – you made a move which a lot of F1 drivers, or others who got close, have gone on to do. You started something?
“I don’t know if I started something but when I did it, for sure, nobody had really done it in that way, as a young driver leaving the chance for F1 to take a different path. I guess I was different – I was never obsessed with F1. Yes I wanted to go there but I always had an open mind that if I couldn’t find a way in then I would race somewhere else.
“I think it has proved to be a good approach, a good decision. It was good too that I made the move early enough to get experience and still be young enough to join a factory team. With some knowledge but still hungry too, for race wins, championships and, of course, Le Mans!”
Being part of a factory team must be an interesting experience – the TOYOTA Motorsport GmbH (TMG) facility at Cologne is an amazing place…
“It’s impressive, really amazing! It’s one of the strongest parts of this programme as it’s probably the best motorsport facility anywhere.
“Every time you go there there are other major teams using parts of the facility so they too recognise how good it is, and you realise how lucky you are to drive for this team.
“It has everything you need and in addition there is the amazing research and development team in Japan too who built the engine and the hybrid system. Together we have some facilities that no other team has, really world class.”
The driving simulator at TMG looks like a useful tool. We have seen results from your test sessions and a trace from the simulator, overlaid on your actual lap around the real circuit, was almost identical!
“The technology really is that good, that accurate – we spend a lot of time calibrating it, with about a third of the time we spend there spent ensuring that we have the correct feel for the simulator, to replicate the feeling we have in the real car. The top speed, the bumps, everything is really the same.
“It has been a very interesting part of the programme for me. Before joining TOYOTA I had never been in a simulator, I was really very impressed with its capabilities.”
“I am in the simulator for perhaps 20-25 days in a year and that has been enormously helpful. A good example was Fuji last year. I had never been there before and it was strange to arrive there and find it so familiar.
“I was able to arrive and drive at almost 100% immediately, it saved time at the track, which is very expensive and its time we have very little of too.”
The simulators are stunning – but what about the cars themselves?
“The cars are very exciting, especially the hybrid system. The TS030 is a very beautiful aerodynamic form too but the hybrid system is something very new.
“I was very curious in the beginning when I sat in the car for a seat fitting. So many cables and the super capacitor – I thought ‘how can they bring all this stuff together?’
“But then the first time I sat in the real car on track the system was already working very well without any problem from the hybrid system; very, very impressive.
“And the power! A real kick for one and a half or two seconds. Remember too that this energy is coming only from braking, energy that otherwise normally you would waste. It is a beautiful thing; the hybrid system is something really special.”
Last year you started well and finished on the podium for the first time at Silverstone . After that it all came together and you seemed to gel particularly well with Alex Wurz…
“Alex is a two-time Le Mans winner and he’s 10 years older than me so there is no competition between us at all. In racing terms it is the perfect match.
“I really enjoyed working with him last season and even though, with just one car, we were under a lot of pressure there were really no mistakes apart from Bahrain and we got some really great results. The car was great and we only really had Le Mans as a black mark on the season.
“That wasn’t because of the car’s pace, because that was clearly there, but because we retired both cars so early, for different reasons. We always knew that it was going to be difficult but I would have liked to have done 16 or 20 hours through the night and into the morning.
“After Le Mans last year it was fantastic. We won races and of the four final races we only lost in Bahrain after a technical issue and then I crashed the car while trying to fight back.”
Which of the circuits are you looking forward to the most for the 2013 FIA WEC?
“I have to say that I am very disappointed that we are not taking the championship to Sebring. I have very happy memories there of course, the track is fantastic and the atmosphere is incredible. After Le Mans that would be my second choice.
“Aside from that I like Spa because the track is very exciting and also Fuji, we have a lot of support there and the atmosphere again is superb.”
So this year the target is to win Le Mans and fight for the WEC title, but it’s not an easy task is it?
“This year though everybody knows we are fast and have the pace to win. Everybody is quite naturally expecting more and we need to deliver, so the pressure is on.
“Having the second car this year though is a big boost. In free practice you can try more things, compare the two cars on different settings, get more data.”
If, at the end of 2013 you had to choose between Nicolas Lapierre world champion and Nicolas Lapierre Le Mans winner, which way would you go?
“It’s Le Mans winner for sure. For so many drivers, and in particular for French drivers, Le Mans is a dream and so my personal target is Le Mans and that’s the way it will be until I actually do win it. But both would be good and if you win Le Mans you are in a strong position for the world championship too.”