Steven Thomas says his last-minute drive with Algarve Pro Racing that has enabled the Portugal-based team to remain on the FIA World Endurance Championship grid amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, has been his way of promoting a “force of good” amid challenging times.
The Bronze-rated driver, who finished runner-up in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship LMP2 standings last year, has joined Rene Binder and James Allen in the newly re-classified LMP2 Pro-Am entry for the full season.
It comes after the Stewart and Samantha Cox-owned team was facing an uncertain future following G-Drive Racing’s withdrawal from the WEC and European Le Mans Series over FIA-related sanctions to Russian and Belarusian drivers and sponsors.
APR, which operated G-Drive’s LMP2 programs since 2019, was left without ex-Formula 1 driver Daniil Kvyat in its WEC entry and Roman Rusinov in the ELMS car, with both Russian drivers refusing to sign the FIA’s decree to race under a neutral flag.
Thomas revealed the deal, which originated with a potential Le Mans only-entry, came together earlier this week.
“We had talked a little bit whether they would run my car at Le Mans,” Thomas told Sportscar365. “I was trying to have a Le Mans entry. We had been speaking to a number of teams.
“Then Stewart reached out to me and explained the issues they had.
“It felt like a force of good in a horrible, horrible situation. It felt like some small little good thing we could do.
“All of these people are still working. Otherwise they’re not working.”
Thomas added: “Honestly, we’re in free countries. If there’s a country that’s fighting to be free we ought to be helping them.
“I think the United States, where I’m from, and free countries from all over the world should be doing everything they can for Ukraine.
“He felt the same way and was in a pinch based on what was happening with Russia. I wanted to be part of that solution.”
Thomas said he never would have imagined stepping up to a full WEC season, after only starting his racing career three years ago.
“[Stewart] asked me, ‘Would you be interested in running the whole season?’ I was like, ‘Well, what happens if I don’t?’
“He said, ‘I’m trying everything I can to run the team but we may not be able to run.’
“Of course I was already running IMSA [full-time]. I talked to my partners and my firm, Fear the TAFS decided to step in and be the sponsor and for me to drive the race car.
“For me it’s super exciting. I get to do Le Mans and the whole season. It was so far in advance it wasn’t even a dream of mine; It seems so far removed.”
As a result of the last-minute drive, Thomas will be pulling double duty between next week’s WEC season-opening 1000 Miles of Sebring and the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring with PR1/Mathiasen Motorsports.
He said he doesn’t expect it to be too big of a challenge despite jumping between two different specs of LMP2 machinery.
“Fortunately I haven’t been driving race cars that long,” he said. “I think part of it is that the differences mean a little less to me, honestly.
“I got in a race car for the first time three years ago. My coach, Ross Bentley, from the get-go, we just drove everything.”
Thomas said he’s spoken to both of his WeatherTech Championship co-drivers, Jonathan Bomarito and 16-year-old Josh Pierson, for advise.
Bomarito previously contested the first-ever ‘Super Sebring’ event in 2019 split between the factory Mazda DPi and Ford GT WEC programs.
“I asked [Jonathan] about it and he said the main thing is just having a set schedule and stick to it,” he said.
“We’ve tried to put together a real schedule so I know exactly where I’m supposed to be and when I’m supposed to be there and those kind of things.
“Drivers are already here and helping me and talking to me about the car.
“Josh, who drives with me [in IMSA], is doing the same thing. He drives for United [Autosports in WEC].
“I actually spoke to Josh [earlier this week] and went through what he’s doing. That will be super helpful because Josh can say, ‘Hey Steve, make sure you don’t hang on to the brake in Turn 7 or whatever.’
“That’s a real bonus for me to have Josh doing it too.”
Cox ‘Making the Most’ of Challenging Situation
Team co-owner Cox said he’s pleased to have remained on the WEC grid with the last-minute signing of Thomas following the Russian situation.
“It’s not really a question, is it?” Cox told Sportscar365. “Because 30 people could lose their job and that is not what we want.
“The fact is that we’ve had such a good Bronze turn up, it’s mega and so we can continue in the Pro-Am class. We’ve got a very good Am lineup. Let’s just make the best of it.”
The car, re-numbered to No. 45, is still carrying black and orange colors similar to the G-Drive livery although Cox said those colors have since become APR’s corporate colors as well.
“I thought we had changed the livery, I just like the orange,” he said. “We’ve changed all of the headlights, we’ve changed the back a bit and all the stickers that were orange on the car are now white.
“There’s a lot [that is] different.
“We actually rebranded last year. People didn’t notice. If you notice on track, the APR logo changed. There were a lot of changes that went on at the end of 2020.
“Traditionally we were in the blue until 2019. In 2020 we ran with Goodyear sponsorship. Then we looked and the blue basically didn’t go with anything.
“So we rebranded at the end of 2020 into 2021.”