A Brazilian driver has never taken an overall victory in the 24 Hours of Le Mans. It’s a statistic that makes you do a double take, but it is true.
Since the French endurance classic was first held in 1923, nearly a hundred years ago, not once has a Brazilian driver managed to take victory in the world’s greatest endurance race.
It’s particularly surprising considering Brazil’s love of motor racing. The country has a rich history in motorsport with the likes of Jose Carlos Pace (who came close, finishing second with Ferrari in 1973), Rubens Barrichello and, of course, Ayrton Senna.
Brazilian drivers have, of course, taken class victories, with Daniel Serra’s 2017 and 2019 GTE Pro triumphs springing to mind, but an overall victory still eludes the nation.
In recent years, some of the world’s top racers have made their bids, but came up short. Bruno Senna finished second overall with Rebellion in 2020, and before that, Lucas di Grassi took three podiums finishes out of four starts between 2013 and 2016, also finishing second in 2014.
With Senna and Di Grassi now both out of endurance racing, Brazil has a new hope for its maiden victory at Le Mans: Andre Negrao.
The 28-year-old, who was born in Sao Paulo much like Senna and Di Grassi, is part of Alpine’s line-up that will combat Toyota Gazoo Racing and Scuderia Cameron Glickenhaus for overall victory at Le Mans this August.
Negrao will drive the #36 Alpine A480-Gibson alongside Nicolas Lapierre and Mathieu Vaxiviere and is, for better or for worse, the odd one out n the French team’s revised line-up.
He’s the only non-French driver in the line-up, but is also somewhat notable for his steady, if slightly silent rise up the ranks of international motorsport.
While Lapierre and Vaxiviere both made a name for themselves early on in their careers, with Lapierre winning the Macau GP and Vaxiviere becoming French F4 champion and serving as test and reserve driver for Lotus, Negrao’s junior formula career was rather under-the-radar.
He finished third on debut in the Formula Junior FR2.0 Portugal Winter Series in 2008 and did relatively well in his native Brazil, but his combined efforts in Formula Renault 3.5 and GP2 between 2011 and 2015 produced two podiums: one in 2012, and one in 2013. His best finish in GP2, racing with Arden, was a pair of fifth places at Monza in 2014.
2016 seemed to bring a switch in prospects for the young Brazilian, as he traded in Europe for the United States and joined Schmidt Peterson in Indy Lights. The American campaign produces more notable results, with five podiums, but it too would not last as another focus shift was on the cards.
In 2017, Negrao abandoned his pursuit of a open wheel success in either Europe or America and joined Signatech Alpine in the FIA World Endurance Championship.
In hindsight, Philippe Sinault’s Signatech operation was exactly the team to join at that time. It had brought the Alpine name back to endurance racing in 2013, won the European Le Mans Series in 2013 and 2014 and captured its first class victory in the 24 Hours of Le Mans. In 2017, it expanded its WEC involvement with an ambitious, two-car line-up with Negrao joining the fold.
For the first three rounds at Spa-Francorchamps, Le Mans and the Nürburgring, he partnered Pierre Ragues and Nelson Panciatici aboard the #35 A470-Gibson, before moving across to partner Lapierre and future LMP1 star Gustavo Menezes aboard the #36 machine.
It was the first chapter in the partnership between Negrao and Lapierre, and it proved instantly successful, winning at Circuit of the Americas.
For the 2018/19 Super Season, Menezes departed for Rebellion but Lapierre and Negrao remained at Alpine, joined by Pierre Thiriet. If the Brazilian had showed his potential as an endurance racer throughout 2017, he came of age throughout the Super Season.
The Alpine squad finished on the podium on each of the eight rounds of the gruelling campaign and, aided by back-to-back LMP2 triumphs at Le Mans, captured the world championship. In just a handful of years, Negrao had transformed himself from a struggling junior formula prospect to a world champion and two-time Le Mans winner.
While not under the massive spotlight that the top class at Le Mans typically enjoys, the Brazilian had used his time in the championship’s secondary class to develop himself into a high-calibre driver. Negrao’s rise to top class status did not come from nowhere: it was forged in the Super Season, even if not everybody noticed it was happening.
Alpine certainly noticed, however. While Lapierre and Thiriet both left the team, with with the former moving to Cool Racing and latter stepping away from racing, Negrao had to contend the season with two new team-mates in Thomas Laurent and Pierre Ragues.
It proved a difficult title defence. While the team still showed speed, it struggled in an immensely competitive field and recorded only two podiums at Silverstone and Le Mans en route to fifth in the team’s standings, with mechanical troubles striking on several occasions.
For 2021, the team is stepping up from LMP2 to the top class, with Negrao part of its trio of drivers, giving him the shot to fight for overall victory with two class wins already under his belt.
While it’s difficult to make predictions this early on, there are a few things that definitely play in Alpine’s favour. It is by far the most proven package in the field, with the ORECA-built grandfathered LMP1 car a proven and reliable race winner in the hands of Rebellion.
Toyota, while still the undoubted favorite, is entering an all-new car, as is Glickenhaus, whose 007 is still undergoing testing and even had its first crash at Vallelunga earlier this week.
Additionally, the Negrao-Lapierre-Alpine formula is one that has proven itself capable of winning at Le Mans. Negrao, with two wins and a podium out of four starts at La Sarthe, is not the most experienced driver in the Hypercar field, but has proven himself at the Circuit de la Sarthe, while Lapierre’s expertise at the French classic is impossible to deny, taking four consecutive LMP2 class wins between 2015 and 2019.
So will Andre Negrao be the one to finally break his country’s duck and deliver Brazil its first overall Le Mans win? The opportunity is there…