Pechito López, the ’unexpected’ champion

"As they say in France: ‘Chapeau!’ "

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By Olivier Ferret

26 October 2014 - 12:31
Pechito López, the ’unexpected’ (...)

José María López became the first non-European FIA WTCC champion and the man who gave Argentina its first world crown 57 years after Juan Manuel Fangio.

He can certainly be described as the unexpected 2014 WTCC Champion. In his maiden full WTCC season, the 31-year-old from Río Tercero surprised many. Very few, at the beginning of the season, the first for Citroën in WTCC, would have forecast that the boy from a remote province at the end of the world would have beaten his two world famous team-mates, Yvan Muller, the ‘king of WTCC’, and rally legend Sébastien Loeb.

Pechito was not unknown to motorsport experts. He had a good career in single-seaters in Europe, clinching titles in the 2002 Italian Formula Renault 2000 and the 2003 Formula Renault V6 Eurocup, and being a race winner in GP2. This opened him the door to the Renault Driver Development programme and to a F1 tester role. In those years, some of his rivals were the likes of Lewis Hamilton and Robert Kubica, who deemed him as “a fast and tough competitor and a good guy to hang with.” López’s F1 dream seemed to materialize in the winter ahead of the 2010 season, when he signed for the brand new US F1 Team, only to fade away when the outfit’s finances collapsed even before hitting the track.

It looked like the end of Pechito’s international career. He went back to Argentina and to touring cars, to clinch another TC2000 title in 2012, which added to the ones conquered in 2008-09 and the Top Race V6 one in 2009. But a last chance came in 2013 when he was invited as a guest driver to the WTCC’s first Race of Argentina, and he seized it as a hunting condor. At the wheel of a Wiechers-Sport BMW 320 TC, he won one of the two races in Termas de Río Hondo and got noticed by Citroën, wishful to recruit some new face to complete its driver line-up for its forthcoming WTCC campaign.

The rest is today’s history, or maybe even a tale. A fast and hard fighter on the track, good strategist and hard working, José María López has definitely left his mark on the 2014 championship, as proven by some of the comments we have gathered in the paddock.

Tiago Monteiro, Castrol Honda driver: “As they say in France: ‘Chapeau!’ One can only take his cap off and bow in front of such an achievement. What López has done, in his first full WTCC season, working in an environment completely new to him, not knowing most of the circuits, is simply impressive. One must be really top class to come and just beat everybody, including the king of the category like Yvan. Of course, we knew that Pechito was fast and good, and I personally know him since we raced against each other in junior formulae and were together in Renault’s Driver Development programme, but still, I would have never predicted such a success. I believe that the experience and know-how acquired in Argentine touring cars has been instrumental in bringing him so quickly at the top level.”

Tom Coronel, ROAL Motorsport driver: “I must have been one of the very few who predicted that López would win the title. I said it before the first race started! I’ve been around enough in motorsports to be able to guess these things and even bet on him with my wife. Why? Simply because he was the underdog: the fast and strong guy coming from nowhere, with no pressure and no history in WTCC, a non-French in a French team. He started from a white sheet of paper, did everything right and imposed himself. He has the speed and the right mind-set of someone still young and hungry. Perfect mix. Of course, it worked because he was in a very professional and competitive team, but… well done! And don’t forget that for many years, he has been racing 45 weekends a season in very competitive and closely-fought touring car series like Argentina’s, with cars that have similar power and aero package as ours. That taught him something, I guess…”

Norbert Michelisz, Zengö Motorsport driver: “I sincerely congratulate López, because what he achieved this year is really impressive. I think he brought the level in WTCC a few steps forward… I have big respect for him, he is so fast and so good, and at the same time, he is a very pleasant guy. He fully deserved this title. What impressed me the most is that he is such a complete driver and the way he manages his races, how consistent and effective he is. It is something that I spotted immediately, because it seems to be intrinsic to his driving style and his general attitude. I saw him driving for the first time in February, during a joint testing session, and watching him said to myself: this is the guy to beat this year…”

Xavier Mestelan-Pinon, Technical Director Citroën Racing: “The first thing to say about Pechito is that he is a hard worker and a top professional. He impressed us straight away by his ability to work with engineers, giving very sharp feedback and perfectly interpreting technical data. He is also very meticulous in preparing races, studying data and footage, and training on simulator. He might be an extremely nice person, he is very demanding when it comes to work, with himself and with us. The second thing I would point out is his driving style, always to the limit, always testing the limits of the car. It shows on all data and on-board images, he drives the C-Elysée like an F1, swinging from understeer to oversteer. And, thirdly, he is extremely fast in finding top pace, taking an extra risk if needed. He has courage and is extremely effective. See how fast he can climb through the field in any Race 2, or how precise he is in overtaking. He rarely needs to attempt twice, generally his first attack is successful. Really, a great champion!”

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