When Whelen Engineering Racing captured the DPi title in the IMSA WeatherTech Sportscar Championship after a heartstopping conclusion to Motul Petit Le Mans, the emotions were hard to hold back for one of its star drivers. After multiple near misses and a deeply disappointing end to a tough 2020 campaign, it was clear that finally capturing the championship meant a lot for Pipo Derani.
“It was a fantastic moment in my career because I’ve had such a difficult end to last season, fighting for a championship that did not materialise,” Derani told MotorsportWeek.com. “Then the beginning of this year was difficult again, but we never stopped believing.”
“To finally be crowned the champion and look back on all those hard moments, not only from the beginning of the season and last season but the years since I started in go-karts and all the efforts that my family and my father put into making me a professional race car driver.
“You look back and there’s all these emotions going on. I couldn’t hold it but I’m really proud of the moments that we achieved as a team together.”
The outcome of Petit Le Mans for Derani this year could not have been more different than the equally dramatic conclusion to last year’s ten-hour race, which resulted in a collision between Derani and Ricky Taylor in the closing stages that saw both drivers end up in the gravel.
A month later at the postponed Twelve Hours of Sebring, a brush with another Penske car, this time Juan Pablo Montoya’s, resulted in a sixth place in the race and fourth place in the championship standings.
It meant a bitter end that, amidst the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, had already been a challenging campaign for the 28-year-old. His team-mate Felipe Nasr contracted COVID-19 prior to the resumption of the championship at Daytona, forcing Derani to team with Gabby Chaves until Nasr recovered.
Derani is one of the fastest drivers active in the DPi category. His speed is paired with an aggressive driving style, which has led to broadcaster Shea Adam’s oft-repeated call for fans to ‘stand back from the fences’ whenever the Sao Paulo native is seen climbing into the cockpit of the bright red #31 Cadillac DPi-VR during races.
It’s a style that has led to a fair share of success with twelve race wins and counting, including some of the biggest endurance races in the world, but as the end to the previous campaign shows, it doesn’t always pay off. As he himself admits, the end to 2020 convinced him to push the reset button and bounce back stronger from a year of adversity.
“I’ve worked really hard on myself as a person,” he said. “I have worked really really hard to try and learn from my mistakes. I don’t think [Petit Le Mans] last year was my mistake, we got taken out of the race. At Sebring at the end of the championship, I made a mistake.”
“I really put myself together and worked really hard to overcome some of my personal limits and become a better driver and a better person. I think I was able to do that and having the championship, despite not necessarily being something to prove myself that I did get better, really is a crown that I will look back on and say ‘okay, you proved yourself as a person and as a driver and here you go, you’ve got the championship.’”
“Last year, like I said, was really difficult but nothing like living one day after the other and working hard. If you work hard, it will eventually pay off.”
‘A fantastic time’ with Nasr
The conclusion of the 2021 also marks the end to one of IMSA’s most popular and successful driver pairings between Derani and Felipe Nasr. Derani had teamed with the ex-F1 racer since the 2019 season, when he joined the reigning champions from Extreme Speed Motorsports when that team closed its doors. After three seasons together, Nasr leaves the team. He is strongly linked to a role within Porsche’s upcoming factory LMDh programme.
For Derani and Nasr, who had already won the Twelve Hours of Sebring, Petit Le Mans and the Michelin Endurance Cup together during their three-year partnership, the overall DPi title was the one thing still left on the table for the Brazilian duo.
“It definitely was very satisfying to be able to close the chapter as the champions,” Derani spoke of Nasr. “Once we started working together we were really competitive in the first year and we came just short of winning the overall championship.”
“We won the Endurance Cup, but not the overall championship. Last year was a little bit difficult, Felipe missed one race. So to close this chapter with a championship means a lot to us.”
“Many regarded us as one of the strongest pairings in the championship, so to not win a championship would have been difficult for us. It really is great to look back and see that the hard work paid off on track with this fantastic team that we raced with.
“A group of people which really became a family for both of us and now I wish Felipe all the best for his future with other teams and other manufacturers. Looking back, I think it has been a fantastic time.”
The cherry on the cake
After six years racing in IMSA, Derani has developed into one of the most decorated drivers on the grid. He started sportscar racing in 2014 and after a year in the FIA World Endurance Championship, he signed with ESM for 2016. Since then, he has won the Rolex 24 at Daytona, the Twelve Hours of Sebring and Petit Le Mans twice, the Endurance Cup and now the overall championship.
When he’s reminded of his impressive track record in the series so far, Derani is humbled and is quick to credit the people around him for their part in his success.
“It’s incredible. Thank you for reminding me,” he says. “It didn’t come easy. The biggest lesson is that I wouldn’t have achieved so much on my own. There’s so many people involved, so many aspects of the sports that help you succeed. So all that success is not only myself. It’s the team, it’s my family, the car and so on.”
“Honestly, it’s very special to look back. The championship is what really was missing, because I had won Daytona, Sebring, Petit Le Mans and the Endurance Cup, but the championship was missing.”
“When I came into the Action Express team, most of the guys who came into the team became champions. I had that in the back of my mind, thinking ‘when is it going to come?’ That might take five years, it might take ten years, it might take one year, like with Felipe – the first year he came into the team he won the championship. I just kept working hard and I’m glad that it came. That was the cherry on top of the cake after all of the other successes.”