Highway from the comfort zone

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One of Formula E’s greatest strengths is the depth of quality running throughout the field Whereas some championships are filled with teams making their driver decisions chiefly on the level of financial backing they can bring, Formula E is largely about quality. That’s becoming even more apparent as the seasons roll by. The wheat is separated from the chaff.

There will be five rookies racing in Formula E this year. Adam Carroll and Mitch Evans will team up at Jaguar, both coming into the series with impressive CVs that feature title successes. Mahindra’s newcomer Felix Rosenqvist is of similar ilk, winning the F3 title last year and the prestigious Macau Grand Prix twice, while Maro Engel, in at Venturi (albeit reportedly to help please new sponsor ZF) has impressed throughout his career in GTs.

Despite the wealth of prior experience among this cohort of newcomers, it is the fifth fresh face who arrives with the most impressive resume. Enter Jose Maria Lopez.

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Lopez (nicknamed “Pechito”) has more world championships to his name than any driver on the Formula E grid. Nelson Piquet has one title (the first Formula E drivers’ crown); Sebastien Buemi has two (in Formula E and WEC). The likes of Carroll (A1 GP) and Evans (GP3) also have major titles to their name, as does Rosenqvist. Lopez, however, has been world champion on three occasions with Citroen in the World Touring Car Championship, winning the title in each full season he has raced in. In just three years, he’s racked up 29 wins, 47 podiums and 20 poles. No-one else has got close.

But now Lopez’s attention has turned to Formula E. After making an appearance in his native Argentina last season at the Buenos Aires ePrix and coming close to racing (something we’ll get to later), Lopez was hooked. The link with DS Virgin Racing made a move into Formula E logical (DS is a Citroen brand and Lopez is a Citroen works driver), particularly when Citroen announced that it would be pulling out of WTCC at the end of 2016. DSVR has been through two drivers in two seasons in that car, neither really fulfilling their potential. Jaime Alguersuari had a tough first season, struggling to adapt to the car. Jean-Eric Vergne was drafted in for season two, had an up and down time, scored some decent positions but never really looked happy where he was. Instead, the team appears to be one moulded fully around the British racer Sam Bird, a multiple Formula E race winner and WEC champion.

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“I’m very excited to be here,” Lopez told me for Current E when we caught up at Donington Park for preseason testing in August, a wry smile on his face after completing a run in the DS Virgin car. He talks fast in a thick South American accent and smiles frequently. He bounces with energy, like an over-excited teenager. “It’s like your first day at a new school. I’m really really excited. I’m in the learning process and trying to catch up as quick as I can, but fortunately I have a very good team behind me and a good team mate. They’re making things much easier.”

Lopez explained that his interest in Formula E was piqued when DS got involved, which was ahead of the sport’s second season, prompting him to find out more about the series. “When I saw the car in the workshop and they started to do the development, when I watched the races, I watched the competition, I watched the level of the drivers,” he recounted. “Those kind of things for a driver are very important. The level of drivers and competition and teams is very strong.”

DSVR is unquestionably one of the strongest teams, having claimed race wins in both season one and two with Sam Bird leading its charge. His finest hour arguably came in front of a watching Lopez last February in Argentina, when he fended off a charging Buemi (the Renault a far faster car which had cut through the pack to challenge the unwieldy DSVR) to claim victory. Poles followed in Long Beach and Paris as the team edged out Dragon for P3 in the teams’ championship. It was not quite the realm of Renault or ABT, but with Lopez on board and a new powertrain, the top table may now properly be within reach.

Lopez may have made his name in recent years behind the wheel of a touring car but he is no stranger to single-seaters. The Argentine was one of the early stars of GP2, finishing second in its inaugural race in 2005 and spending two years on the grid alongside the likes of Lewis Hamilton, Nico Rosberg, and even fellow Formula E drivers Piquet, Carroll and Lucas di Grassi. But as 10 years has passed since his last race in a car without a roof, Lopez is expecting a period of acclimatisation.

“It’s difficult, it’s something completely different,” he said. “I need to adapt again. I’ve been in my comfort zone in touring cars for 10 years, knowing everything and having experience, maybe being the most experienced guy in the field. It fits me very well, touring cars. I need to clear my mind, reset it and start doing it again. Going back a little bit to my old and first love, which is single seaters, with a different engine. We’ll see. Only time will tell me how I can be here.”

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Stepping out of his comfort zone is just the latest in a line of challenges for Lopez, even if it is a surprising move. “My career has been really good for me,” he said. “A lot of things I didn’t expect came lately. I didn’t expect in a few years to be back in Europe, I didn’t expect to be world champion. Everything came really quick. I was trying to take the opportunity and trying to improve as a driver, as a person. I’m very happy for that.”

Lopez completed some private testing with DSVR before officially being named as part of its driver line-up for season three in the week following the 2016 London race. He also took part in the six days of running at Donington Park alongside Formula E two-season veteran Bird as the team impressed the paddock. But Lopez isn’t rushing things.

“I’m not desperate,” he said. “I know it’s different, I have time. I have to do it properly. I don’t want to do a really high learning progress without understanding something. I prefer to be a bit slower but know exactly what I have to do. As I said before, I have a team which will help me a lot to catch up quickly.”

Spaceuit-Media-Nat-Twiss-Formula-E-Donington-Park-August-2016-Jose Maria Lopez DS VIrgin Racing with engineer

And working alongside Bird, one of Formula E’s most consistent and quickest drivers, will only help Lopez’s development.

“I think Sam is one of the best drivers in Formula E at the moment and probably in the world in any series,” Lopez told me. “It’s good to have him. It will help me to learn a lot and when the time comes, of course we are racing drivers, we try to win.”

Realistically in the short-term, though, Lopez knows that winning won’t be within reach. But he remains grounded, avoiding the typical racing driver spiel about hitting the ground running and being far more modest in his main aim for season three: consistency.

“I have short-term goals and long-term goals,” he said. “Long-term, I would like to be able to win races. Of course we will see how it is with the car. If we have the car to win with, I’d like to be able to at least be competitive, to fight for wins. If you are able to do that, then of course one day or another it will come. The short-term goal is just to be on the track, run as much as I can and don’t do mistakes and try to be consistent.”

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Lopez may only have just formally arrived in Formula E, but he was part of one of the series’ more curious stories in season two in Buenos Aires. After Vergne came down with reported food poisoning, Lopez – who was only at Puerto Madero for the weekend as a guest – was the man primed by DSVR to be a possible replacement, even getting a seat fitting. However, when Vergne made a swift recovery and wanted to race, the team management faced a tough call to make: Lopez was already in place. JEV allegedly took the matter to the top of DS itself, insisting he race despite being on a drip earlier in the day, and finally got the green light.

“It was really close [to racing],” Lopez explained. “I was just getting ready and just trying to catch up with the systems. It’s completely different from where I’m coming from. I was really close. I was just about to jump in the car to do free practice. I was there and hoping to help the team. They had a problem and I was there. I didn’t have any problems to do it.”

Spacesuit-Media-Dan Bathie-FIA-Formula-E-Donington-Park-August-2016-Jose Maria Lopez DS Virgin Racing preparing

The can-do, race-anything attitude Lopez bears is most welcome in Formula E, but could we see him dovetail his commitments with a possible drive elsewhere, such as the WEC, like many of his peers?

“For the moment, Formula E is the only thing I have and I’m quite happy with that, to keep going my career with a high level of competition,” he said. “We’ll see.”

Jose Maria Lopez may be a rookie, but he comes with an asterisk attached to his name. Sure, he’s never started a Formula E race before, yet his experience in WTCC proves his credentials and ability. Quite how long it will take him to get use to a Formula E car and, for that matter, a single-seater remains to be seen. But if his career is anything to go by, we may be about to witness the start of a very successful stint in Formula E for Lopez.

Luke Smith

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