Stephane Richelmi will be making his second Blancpain Endurance Series start of the season this weekend at Silverstone, driving the #3 Belgian Audi Club Team WRT entry alongside fellow Monegasque driver Stephane Ortelli and German driver Frank Stippler.
Richelmi also competes in the Blancpain Sprint Series with Ortelli, with the duo taking the pole position and the qualifying race victory in the season opener at Nogaro in France, although they could only finish second in the main race. They currently sit second in the BSS championship, a point behind their team-mates Robin Frijns and Laurens Vanthoor.
Talking to The Checkered Flag, Richelmi revealed for as long as he remembers he has had a passion for racing cars, and attributed some of that passion to his rally driving father.
“I think most of the time, you start doing a sport because it’s your passion and for long as I can remember, I’ve always been passionate about cars and racing,” revealed Richelmi. “It’s coming from my father who was doing some rallies when I was a kid.”
Despite his father racing in rallies, Richelmi decided to take a different route into motorsport, deciding to take up go-karting that ultimately led to a career first in single seaters and now into GT racing.
“Firstly because I started in Go-Kart makes you prefer to race on tracks and when you feel ready to go in cars,” said Richelmi. “You are most of the time too young to have the driving license, which is mandatory to compete in Rally.
“Secondly because for me it’s harder to become a factory driver in Rally whereas you have plenty of professional series racing on tracks.”
Looking back at his three years in the GP2 Series, Richelmi reminisces, and felt his time there was great. Despite being disappointed with his overall performance in his final year in the series, he was happy with his pole positions and his victory in his homeland.
“Unfortunately it’s always when you finish something that you realize how great it was,” revealed Richelmi. “It’s a really high-level championship, with the teams and the drivers… For sure after some time, you get used to all the tricks to manage a good weekend.
“Nevertheless nothing can be planned in Motorsport and at the beginning of last year, I was too much in confidence… To be honest, I’m a bit disappointed of the 2014 season. But I am happy with the two poles and the win in Monaco.”
He also looks back with happy memories about his two years with the DAMS team, which helped him to those pole positions and his victory in Monaco, and insists he wants to keep in contact with them despite having departed the team at the end of 2014.
“I grew up a lot,” revealed Richelmi about his team with DAMS. “More with them than all the rest of my career, especially the first year.
“I learnt really good methods and procedures that are really useful, from now and the rest of my career. And I have met smart and really dedicate people for their work that I want to keep in contact with.”
When it became clear that his time in GP2 was coming to an end, Richelmi revealed a move into GT Racing was discussed between his former manager and a fellow Monegasque driver Stephane Ortelli, and after one of a team’s drivers left, he was drafted in to be Ortelli’s team-mate for the final two Blancpain Sprint Championship events in Belgium and Azerbaijan and the final Blancpain Endurance Championship event at the Nurburgring.
“At the end of the summer break last year, it was quite clear I wouldn’t stay in GP2 for 2015 so I was looking for new horizons,” disclosed Richelmi.
“My former manager, Cyrille Sauvage, was spending some time with Steph Ortelli, who is a close friend of him; Ortelli suggested Cyrille to speak to Vincent Vosse in order to take the seat of [Roman] Rusinov who left the team in this period. Then we agreed to start at the Nurburgring for the BES.
“What clearly impressed me the first time I saw them was the size and the numbers of people working there. I didn’t think a GT Team would provide a race engineer and a data man by car, but it’s like the top single-seater categories in the best teams!
“I wasn’t lost at all in the way they worked, coming from DAMS, which really care about all these aspects.”
Richelmi spoke about the problems about coming through the ranks of single seater racing, citing difficulties in becoming factory drivers unless you are amongst the best in the sport, and once it became clear that his door in single seaters was closing, the door to Endurance and GT Racing was just beginning to open.
“The problem in single seaters series is that you can’t really target to become a factory driver except if you are among the best of your generation,” said Richelmi. “So at one point, it’s better to look what’s next and I do believe Endurance (WEC) or even the GT championship are a good opportunity for drivers like me, who wants in the end to be paid.
“If you look carefully, there are a lot more factory drivers in all others international series than in F1. Even if for sure, the F1 remains and will remain the pinnacle of our sport.”
Richelmi also revealed the differences he’s encountered since switching from the GP2 car to the Audi R8 LMS Ultra car he pilots in this season’s Blancpain series’, with the weight of the cars one of the bigger issues, especially under braking.
“The main thing is the weight, around the double,” said the Monegasque driver. “So it’s changing a lot all the references I have got the previous years, especially after 3 years in GP2.
“The first impression is that you look slow on the track so you are tending to push too much and you finally overdrive, still now! But slower doesn’t mean easier neither. Even if in a GT3 is easier to reach the last second compare to a GP2; it’s still really demanding to be at the top.
“Hopefully the races I’ve made last year helped me a lot. I’m more used to the ABS or the traction control, which are the 2 new things for me. Then it’s to brake earlier, with less combine, less minimum speed in the corner but you can be more sharp on gas due to the better traction.”
Richelmi also revealed that he has known his 2015 team-mate Stephane Ortelli for more than a decade, and joked that it is hard to live in the small principality of Monaco without knowing every other Monegasque driver. He feels partnering up with Ortelli will be beneficial for his career in GT racing.
“I’ve known Steph for more than 10 years now, Monaco is so small that it’s easy to know everyone involved in the same sport than you,” laughed Richelmi. “The good thing is that we always both appreciated each other and we were always in contact, go-karting together.
“It’s not incidental that we became team-mates but a choice we made this winter. He has a massive experience and he has always wanted to help the youngest, which is good for me!”
Looking ahead to the season, Richelmi revealed that he wants to be close to the drivers that are racing for his Belgian Audi Club Team WRT that are already factory Audi drivers, and is aiming to fight for the Blancpain Sprint Championship in his maiden year in the series.
“Considering that in WRT, there are 4 Audi drivers and 4 drivers in my situation, I want to get closer from the factory drivers performance wise and also to be the best of the others,” said Richelmi.
“It’s a tough challenge because I have to face driver like Robin Frijns. A really important thing is also to learn being surrounded by so many others drivers in the same team, It’s important to share a good environment.
“The main target is to fight for the Sprint championship because I know that with Steph, we have everything in our hands to be really strong. In endurance, I have more things to discover and to learn so my expectations are lower but I aim a podium at the 24 hours of Spa, which is the GT Race ‘per excellence’.”