World karting champion, Formula Ford Festival winner, International Formula 3000 champion, Formula 1. Vincenzo Sospiri has done it all, but the Le Mans 24 Hours still holds unfinished business for the Italian, who now runs his own team in the Asian Le Mans Series. Ahead of round 2 at Fuji, Sospiri spoke to James Newbold.
VS Racing boss Vincenzo Sospiri looks back on the 1999 Le Mans 24 Hours with a heavy heart. The event is best remembered for the spate of airbone accidents which triggered Mercedes’ immediate withdrawal and for BMW Motorsport’s first outright victory as a constructor. However, it was also a race that by rights, Toyota should have dominated, as the incredible GT-One saw off competition from the Williams-designed V12 LMRs, Mercedes CLR, Panoz, Audi and Nissan to lock out the front-row of the grid.
Sharing the pole-sitting No. 1 car with Martin Brundle and Emmanuel Collard, Sospiri was firmly in contention for victory when just before midnight, Brundle suffered a blowout on the approach to the first chicane on the Mulsanne. He tried his best to crab back to the pits, but to no avail; the entire right-rear corner was destroyed and the devastated Brundle had no choice but to pull off at Arnage.
Sospiri never returned to Le Mans as a driver and retired in 2002 to set up the Euronova Racing team, which helped develop the likes of Vitaly Petrov, Jerome d’Ambrosio, Luca Filippi and Sergey Sirotkin.
However, Sospiri never lost sight of his dream to conquer La Sarthe and in late 2014, he signed a deal to run the Lamborghini Squadra Corse Junior Team in Formula 4. Vincenzo Sospiri Racing was born and hasn’t looked back since.
“I started thinking about GT cars four or five years ago, and eventually I decided to go ahead. I had a lot of meetings with different manufacturers and in the end I decided to go with Lamborghini because the proposal I believe was the best for myself and for my team,” explained Sospiri.
“I signed a deal with Giorgio Sanna and Lamborghini for three years to run the Squadra Corse Formula Junior Team and develop young drivers starting from the formula cars, then bring them to GTs later. Because of the relationship with Lamborghini, they asked me if I can put my name on the door, so I say ‘sure no problem’ – it’s me running it anyway!”
After dipping their toes in the water with GT cars in Super Trofeo, VS Racing expanded their operations to GT3 for 2016, but only took delivery of their first Huracán in July. Having missed the start of the regular European season, the Asian Le Mans Series was left as the only viable option, although a guaranteed entry to the 2017 edition of the 24 Hours helped to sweeten the deal.
— VSR (@VSRacing1) September 5, 2016
“As a driver I went to Le Mans two years in a row [1998-1999] and it’s one of the best events in motorsport around the world,” Sospiri said. “One day I hope to come back with my team and go even better than in 1999, because we had a big chance to do very well but we were very, very unlucky.
“We got the car very late and the Michelin Cup was already started, so the only way to get the entry was to go to the Asian Le Mans Series. Now I’ve been there, I see it is a very hard championship, with very good teams and very good drivers as well. Everybody told me in the past ‘that’s not so good championship, not so many cars’, but listen, it’s all bullshit! I tell you, it’s very tough, but at the moment I’m enjoying it.
“We have three more races to go and then I will plan also next year where we will have two GT3 cars, one that will run in Europe and one that will run in Asia.”
A puncture while leading in the final hour of the Zhuhai season opener thwarted VS Racing’s hopes of a debut victory, but third on the rostrum marked a positive start to life as a GT3 team. With Super GT front-runner Yuhi Sekiguchi – also a Euronova alumni – joining the team from Fuji onwards alongside Super Trofeo graduate Corey Lewis and ex-Formula Nippon racer Kei Cozzolino, Sospiri is optimistic that his team can contend for a first victory.
“[Sekuguchi] has been with us in the past in Formula Master – I know him since 2008, then I looked after him as a driver in Japan and now he’s back with the family,” he said. “He’s really fast and he’s now very mature. He will have to learn everything, but he is a very quick learner.
“The first race weekend two of my three drivers didn’t know the track, but more than the drivers is the team, because we didn’t really run a GT3 car in the past, only Super Trofeo. For us this was a new experience, so we were very happy about Lamborghini sending us two very strong engineers to help us at the first race and they will send some more for the next races to help us with setup and car-handling.
“The car in the race was very good but the BOP at Zhuahi, the Ferrari was a little bit too fast. I think [the organisers] understand that and hopefully they will try to balance it out.”
— VSR (@VSRacing1) November 28, 2016
As for the man himself, don’t expect to see any Franz Konrad-esque cameos behind the wheel any time soon. Despite his 14-year absence from the cockpit and the fact that he recently turned 50, Sospiri still has an FIA Gold driver rating – although that’s perhaps not surprising considering his glittering CV…
“I haven’t been in a car for too long! Sometimes I get in a car when I get new cars just to do the shakedown, but the last time I really tested with the car was around 2011, 2012 when I got the new Formula Abarth and helped to develop that,” he added.
“I don’t believe I will be up to speed to go back to it. I believe I am actually slower than a Bronze and they put me as a Gold! Maybe when I am 60 maybe I will be back to Silver…”
Among the notable additions to the entry list for Fuji include Spa 24 Hours winner Philipp Eng making his series debut in place of Xavier Maasen at Team AAI, while Mathieu Vaxiviere and Stephane Lemeret join Michele Rugolo in the second DH Racing Ferrari.
The TianShi Racing Audi is absent, its place taken by another R8 entered for LMS Cup Asia champion Alex Yoong by Team Audi Korea. Team Absolute Racing have also skipped the meeting, with neither their Audi nor Bentley making the trip.