GT3 rookie Arthur Rougier has impressed in his debut season of GT World Challenge Europe powered by AWS Sprint Cup, partnering Audi factory ace Christopher Haase.
A former member of the Renault Sport Academy, the 20-year-old Frenchman switched to sports cars last year driving in his national GT4 series, before moving up to GT3 competition for 2020 with Total 24 Hours of Spa-winning outfit Sainteloc Racing.
In this week’s Pirelli Paddock Pass, Rougier discusses his journey to Sainteloc’s Pro lineup, his impressions of the recent Sprint Cup meeting at Zandvoort, and his thoughts heading into the Barcelona finale as a dark horse in the overall title race.
How did you get started in sports car racing?
“I didn’t start karting really young like most of the guys I am racing against now. I did just one year of karts. Then I went straight to French F4 for 2016, so the first year was a bit tough because I was missing all the racing spirit and techniques you learn in karting.
“The first year was hard, but I won the last race of the season at Barcelona, and then I found a sponsor to do another year and won the championship in 2017.
“I’ve always wanted to be in GTs. There is room there for racing drivers to be professional.
“In single-seaters, if you don’t have a lot of money, it’s really hard to go far, so I felt like it was always a good idea to do GTs.
“My  season in Formula Renault Eurocup wasn’t easy but even then, I couldn’t finish the championship because it was too expensive, even if I was in the Renault Academy.
“If you want to be in a good team, fighting for the title and testing lots, you need quite a lot of money. But I couldn’t fight like this, so for me it was a good option to go into GT4.”
How well did your season in FFSA French GT prepare you for the step up to GT3 this year?
“I was with CD Sport last year, driving a Mercedes-AMG. It was a really late call, signing the contract 15 days before the first race.
“The team didn’t know the car because they were racing Porsche GT4s in the years before, so at the beginning of the season we were at the back foot because we had only tested twice and had a few issues.
“So the season started really early for us, but we built our pace and we were really strong in the second half of the season.
“It was really positive because 2018 was a tough year, but I could build my confidence again a little bit.
“The level in France is very high in GT4, so it was cool to be put right up there again, fighting for a title until the last weekend of the championship.
How did you get involved with Sainteloc to drive the team’s Pro-class Audi in GTWC Europe Sprint Cup?
“They wanted me to maybe race with them two years ago or so. I kept driving in single-seaters but they kept an eye on me.
“I was meant to do Sprint Cup in the Silver Cup class. But then I tested with Sainteloc, and because the test went quite well, we did a lineup with Christopher Haase to fight for the overall title.
“That was quite great news because I wasn’t expecting that. Straight into the car I felt quite good.
“We just have one round to go in the Sprint championship and I wasn’t expecting to be fighting for the championship, but we are still in contention.”
How valuable is it to be working with an experienced factory driver like Christopher Haase, whose CV includes wins in the 24-hour races at Spa, the Nürburgring 24 and Dubai?
“Is there a better place to be? He’s such a nice guy. To have Christopher as a teammate, he just keeps an eye on me all the time and we have had a good relationship this year.
“He is really humble and he teaches me as much as he can, but he also learns from me. If I do something that maybe wasn’t in his mind, he will take it on board and try it next time. We are really pushing each other to be at the front. He’s really open-minded.”
The most recent Sprint Cup round at Zandvoort was an eventual one for you. How did the first race go?
“We would have had a chance if it was wet or if it was dry, but it was not dry and not wet, and we messed up the strategy a bit. It was between slick and wet tires, and we made the wrong decision.
“We started on slicks. We came on track with them to see how it was, and I was quite happy with the grip overall. But we had the tires heated and in-temperature.
“While sitting on the grid for 15 minutes the tires went completely cold, and we had a bit of rain on the formation lap, so the track got even wetter and the tires were completely cold.
“I couldn’t build the temperature after the race started so we had to fight while it was nearly impossible to drive. I couldn’t go flat beyond fourth gear!”
Things got better in Race 2, despite a spin at the first corner for Haase. How did you manage to stage your recovery to finish fourth on the road?
“Race 1 was really a disappointment and an awful result, but Race 2 was something else.
“I was so disappointed after the start, thinking it was such a bad weekend. I thought that Christopher had come over from the Nürburgring 24 for nothing!
“I always watch the races from previous years and last year there were no overtakes at Zandvoort, so I thought it was over. But the pace he had was crazy. He went from dead last to P13 or P14.
“And then we had a good strategy. Everybody was waiting for the rain to come so lots pitted quite late, but we had no choice but to pit early.
“I had great pace on new tires and was alone on track, so I overtook a lot of cars in the pit window. When everybody pitted, we exited in P7. Then I made a few more overtakes to finish P4 on the line, and then we got P2 afterward [due to penalties for higher-placed cars].”
This kept you in contention for the Sprint Cup championship heading into the Barcelona triple-header finale. What do you make of your title chances?
“It’s a track that I really like. I think it’s a track that’s suited to the car and the team, too.
“I’m looking forward to it, and we’re still in contention for the title. We’re not so far back, so it’s not like we depend a lot on the results of the others.
“If we have a great weekend, we can win the title. But we will not think about it.
“We’ll just take the sessions step-by-step, collecting information in Free Practice for the rest of the weekend. I think this is the best way to do it.”