After a year away competing in the European Le Mans Series, Ricardo Gonzalez has returned to the FIA World Endurance Championship, and reunited to the team that took him to the LMP2 world title in 2013.
But a lot has changed in the 16 months since. The 37-year-old Mexican ace has a new car, new co-drivers and a new team name, but perhaps the same winning formula needed in his quest for repeat glory in the competitive cost-capped prototype class.
Gonzalez, who teamed with Bertrand Baguette and Martin Plowman for the drivers’ championship in an OAK Racing Morgan-Nissan, sees himself with the OAK-run G-Drive Ligier JS P2 Nissan this time around with rising stars Gustavo Yacaman and Pipo Derani.
“This is definitely a category that I like to be in, LMP2 in the World Championship,” Gonzalez told Sportscar365. “Definitely being back with OAK and having the chance to work with this team again is great news for me.
“It’s the best team I’ve worked with in my career, once I’ve come back to sports car racing. I’m very, very happy to have been able to put all of this together.”
While having taken part in the Shanghai round last year with Tequila Patron ESM in its LMP2-class HPD ARX-03b, Gonzalez spent the majority of the 2014 season with ART Grand Prix in the ELMS at the wheel of a McLaren MP4-12C.
And despite having piloted a number of cars in the past, namely the HPD, Morgan and Zytek Z11SN, Gonzalez’s switch back to full-time LMP2 racing marked his first experience at the wheel of a closed-top prototype, something he admits that didn’t take too much time adapting to.
“Last year I was doing GTs, so I had already gotten used to having a roof over my head,” he said. “I thought it was going to take a couple of laps to get used to the blind spots in having a roof in a prototype but I felt straight at home as I got out of the pit lane. There was nothing to adjust to there.
“But I had to work on the high level of grip and downforce compared to spending a year in GTs. I definitely love the car. I think the balance is great. The grip is great and it’s going to be a very nice weapon to have for the championship.”
Gonzalez, who is coming off a successful four-day test with the G-Drive squad at Motorland Aragon with the team’s brand-new Ligier-Nissan, feels there have been a number of advancements with the Onroak Automotive-designed prototype, which debuted mid-season last year.
“It’s definitely a big step forward in different ways, starting with safety,” he said. “The size of the cockpit, for a big guy like me, is a lot more comfortable… and having the great balance this car has.
“For me, I had not driven such a well-balanced car except from the HPD I was driving with Level 5. Other than that, it’s the first time I’ve gotten in a car where the limit is so high.”
The other thing he’s had to come to grips with are his new, younger co-drivers, who both make their full-season FIA WEC debuts.
Colombian Yacaman, a standout in the TUDOR United SportsCar Championship last year with OAK, steps up for a shot of the world title alongside 21-year-old Brazilian Derani, who made his sports car racing debut last year in the ELMS.
With all three boasting Latin roots, it’s created a unique ensemble that could be tough to beat in 2015.
“Obviously being Latin, our cultures are a bit easier than working with people who have very different ways of doing things,” Gonzalez said..” It does make it easier.
“Even though Pipo doesn’t speak Spanish, he understands it perfectly what we’re saying, so we [speak] Spanish constantly. These guys make me feel old! I think this the youngest [co-drivers] I’ve had.
“But after four days of testing and looking at the results, it makes me very happy to have a pretty strong lineup. My teammates are really fast and we can all do our jobs without any problems.
“We’ve put a lot of miles put into the car and track. I think all of that is going to be pretty good for the championship.”
Gonzalez is upbeat about their chances for the year, although realizing their sister entry of Roman Rusinov, Julien Canal and Sam Bird could very well be their toughest opposition, having nearly taken the title last year with the Nissan-bound Olivier Pla.
“All of the teams in the World Championship are top level,” Gonzalez said. “All of the drivers are top level. We’ll see in Paul Ricard but there are always surprises.
“The competition is tough and we’re not expecting it to be easy. But we’re well equipped to be fighting.”