STÉPHANE SARRAZIN – IN DEPTH

When we look at the great all-rounders in world motorsport the names of Moss, Elford and Clark quite correctly come up, all masters of the multi-disciplinary school of motorsport thought.

They aren’t alone though – indeed there is a current racer who has one of the most impressive and varied CVs of all, Formula 1 as a racer and tester, WRC and IRC with factory teams and podium-finishing form, GT racing (again with a factory
team), a huge contribution towards a title-winning run in the inaugural World Endurance Championship year and now, as we near the start of the 2013 season, his second factory deal in LMP1, with the potential for success to come.

Stéphane Sarrazin may not be a household name in the style of a Moss or Clark but he is nothing short of a world-class racer and there’s no doubt whatsoever where his current racing passion lies: “Le Mans, absolutely!

“2013 will be my 11th time there and I still have a burning desire to win. Since 2001 I have only missed Le Mans once, in 2004, and that was because I was rallying with Subaru. I have finished on the podium three times, finished second twice, and this year there is again the chance to do very well.”

That sentiment is left hanging for a while as we take a look back at a relatively short but astonishingly varied career so far in the upper reaches of the sport.

2013 will yet again see that reinforced, not only as a WEC driver for TOYOTA Racing in the #8 TS030 HYBRID but also with duties in North America with a Daytona Prototype, and the continuation of a multi-year rally tyre testing project with
Michelin.

“I  like challenges and that’s why I spend so much of my time racing in so many  different areas of the sport. It has given me so many amazing opportunities, so  many fantastic cars in great events. It’s difficult to understand why this is so unusual in the sport!”

So you are the only current driver to have competed in a Grand Prix, in a factory WRC team and for factory teams in LMP1?

“Well there is Kimi (Raikkonen) who comes close. We had him for a day testing with Peugeot and we spent a lot of time talking about the rally cars actually, he was less interested in LMP!

“I just love being in a race car, or a rally car! One of the big challenges when you are a professional racer is to keep fit and stay sharp. The way I see it the more days I can spend running or racing the easier that becomes. I spend around 100 days a year in a race car or rally car but remember a professional football player trains or plays every single day.

“Some people question the logic of my Daytona Prototype programme but I say it is good preparation and conditioning with traffic, safety cars, set-up. Time in a race car is never wasted.”

That’s strong logic, and certainly Stéphane’s continued pace wherever he competes seems to justify the approach.

As far as Le Mans goes, Sarrazin has experience of understanding how tiny margins can make the difference between winning and – not winning.

“It is an amazing event and still such a huge challenge, not just for the individual driver but for the whole team, and for the way that they compete together as a unit.  The race nowadays is a full 24-hour sprint, you have to prepare for it perfectly, you have to drive it perfectly and there have to be no mistakes either on track or in the pits.  If you miss just a small thing it will lose you the race.

“For five years I was in the fight for the overall victory, four of those five times I led the race but every time we had small issues and whilst I have finished on the podium we learnt the hard way that perfection was needed.

“This year again we have the car to do it, and the team is very, very good too. We will see!”

TOYOTA Racing is targeting victory at La Sarthe but faces a difficult challenge from Audi, a competitor with over a decade of unprecedented success.

“We are still pushing, still working hard to make the transition from a team, and a car, capable of competing in the WEC races over six hours, and a team, and a car, capable of doing the same over much longer distances, especially for Le
Mans.

“In fact we just finished a full endurance test this week and completed mileage greater than Le Mans with little or no problem, so that is a very promising way to start the year. The revised 2013 car is very strong, very predictable and we
all feel we can push really hard through a stint.”

Whilst the 2013 version of the TS030 HYBRID looks very similar to the original car there are a number of detail changes and improvements, for reliability and serviceability as well as ultimate performance.

“It has developed in every detail, every single problem we reported back on from last year TOYOTA Racing has developed and delivered a solution, they may only be very small details but put together they have produced a more reliable, more
comfortable and more balanced package. More stability, better braking, easier to understand the car through the steering wheel.

“I drove the car for the first time in the wet in pre-season and was very impressed by it. To enjoy driving a car like this in the wet, that is a real mark of quality.  The traction, the traction control and the balance were really good.”

The technical facilities at TMG’s facility in Cologne are truly world class, how big a difference does that make in terms of the team’s ability to adapt and develop?

“It’s amazing.  When you see what they have available you understand immediately how and why they were able to win races so soon into the programme. The approach of Pascal Vasselon (Technical Director) and his whole team is to analyse every single detail, pushing everything to the limit.  I’m impressed though not only by the facilities but also by the people, the mechanics and technicians who have a real hunger too.

“TMG has come from F1 and you can feel it – not just their attention to the detail but with their approach with the drivers, very open minded, very much a team atmosphere across the whole staff, all pushing in the same way that perhaps has
not been the same way in other places!”

You are part of the team for the WEC (sharing a car with Anthony Davidson and Sébastien Buemi), aside from Le Mans where else are you looking forward to racing?

“Le Mans is at such a high level it is difficult to compare the other races but I am looking forward to running at Austin at the Circuit of the Americas. It is really a mega circuit and I’ve already raced there a couple of weeks ago in the Daytona Prototype.  I think it will give us a great race, and I think all the drivers will come away with a very good feeling about it too.

“I am happy to go back to Brazil, that’s the track I had my one race in F1 so there is unfinished business for me there and of course Spa is a great track too, very fast and very demanding.  All in all it is great looking calendar.”

Audi are a tough nut to crack, how hard is it to beat them?

“I fought with them for five years so I know them very well.  When you see TOYOTA Racing beating them you can be sure that they will have reacted strongly. Like us they have a new car with plenty of changes, lots of improvements. This year is going to be a big fight.”

And with even more competition to come in 2014 – Porsche and potentially other manufacturers – WEC is a real challenge?

“Absolutely.  With the openness of the rules, the opportunity to use new technology it is now more important on that front, and certainly more open, than F1. I think more manufacturers will come and the competition could be fantastic.  I intend to be a part of it and I want to win!”

So given the choice, Stephane Sarrazin Le Mans winner or Stephane Sarrazin World Champion, which would it be?

“Le Mans winner for sure. It is such a huge race, and such a huge challenge and, of course, I am French!”