Newly-announced AF Corse stand-in Michele Rugolo said he immediately felt comfortable in the No. 51 AF Corse Ferrari 488 GTE after getting his first taste of the car during practice for the 24 Hours of Le Mans on Wednesday.
Already on hand due to his Road to Le Mans commitments driving the No. 55 Spirit of Race Ligier JS P3 Nissan with Claudio Sdanewitsch, Ferrari quickly identified Rugolo as a candidate to replace Lucas di Grassi in the lineup, when the possibility emerged that the Brazilian may not be cleared to race.
The team reportedly narrowed down the list of potential drivers to Rugolo and Maurizio Mediani, who is also on-site racing in the Road to Le Mans events.
But Rugolo’s four prior Le Mans starts, more recent GT experience, and the fact that he already shares a Ferrari 488 GT3 with one of his new Le Mans teammates, Alessandro Pier Guidi in the Blancpain GT Series Endurance Cup helped give him the edge.
When word officially came late Wednesday afternoon that di Grassi was not medically eligible to drive, Rugolo said he had very little time to suit up and jump in a car he had never driven in the middle of a practice session.
“I knew I might drive one hour before jumping in the car,” Rugolo told Sportscar365. “It was at 3 p.m., the session was starting, and they told me there is a chance you will know in 20 minutes.
“Then we got the response from the medical delegate that Lucas was not able to do the race, and that’s how I found out!
“I grabbed [di Grassi’s] stuff besides my helmet. There was a lot of pressure because we are Ferrari, it’s the biggest race in the world.
“The only thing I can do is not to put pressure on myself. I’ve driven here already and I was OK.”
The reigning Asian Le Mans Series GT class champion said his first goal for the weekend was to come to terms as quickly as possible with the GTE car, which he found to be not significantly different from the GT3 variant he drives on a regular basis.
From there, the goal is to support his co-drivers Pier Guidi and James Calado in any way he can in the car that finished third in the first qualifying session of the week.
“I think I just need to do a few more laps because I am missing completely experience with the GTE car in the 488, and I was not there obviously for the pre-test, so I’m missing many test days that they have done,” Rugolo said.
“It’s not so different from the GT3 actually. I would say the bigger difference is more the tires.
“Even in terms of the buttons you have on the steering wheel, everywhere it’s more or less the same [as the 488 GT3] so I’m pretty much familiar with the position inside the car.
“I have no issues so far, but I think I am not going to have any issues because the only thing I have to do is try to adapt myself to the situation.
“My job here is to be competitive but try to let them rest as much as they can in order for them to be on the hammer, if we are there, for the last six hours of the race. Then, they do a normal WEC race.”
When prompted to shed light what expectations he has for the race itself, Rugolo said there are too many unknowns to begin to make a prediction, starting with what AF Corse’s opponents are up to.
“I don’t want to say anything about it because it’s a 24 hour [race], and there’s so much unpredictability that any time you say something it’s wrong,” he said.
“I really don’t know, and you never know what are the performances of the other competitors in real life. I’m expecting them to be really quick.
“Even the ones that you see at the back of the field now, they will be on top of the field soon. But it’s going to be a sprint race.”