Patrick Pilet has been a Porsche Motorsport factory driver since 2008. Although he has competed around the world, his more recent efforts have been focused on the U.S., where he races a 911 RSR in the GTLM class of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship with co-driver Nick Tandy.
Like many European drivers, Pilet started in go-karts at a young age and moved up through the single-seater ranks. In 2007, he switched to Porsche Cup cars and promptly won four races on his way to that year’s Porsche Carrera Cup France championship. Since then, Pilet has won several major endurance races. He’s scored victory in the GT class in the Rolex 24 at Daytona and the 12 Hours of Sebring and overall wins at the Petit Le Mans, the Nürburgring 24 Hour, the 24 Hours of Spa, and the Dubai 24 Hour. He also took home the IMSA GTLM title in 2015. We caught up with Pilet at Lime Rock Park in Connecticut.
Excellence: How did you first become interested in racing?
Pilet: It came from my father, who was a driver. He was a French champion in go-karts and then moved to single-seaters. He was driving with a bunch of drivers in Formula Renault at the time that went on to Formula One and the interest in motorsport in France was really high. I remember the first time I jumped on his lap on the go-kart and I was just turning the steering wheel. I started racing at 10 years old because at the time you weren’t allowed to start any younger, and I won my first title in go-karts the next year.
Excellence: It sounds like racing was in your blood.
Pilet: Yes, at home my father was always watching Formula One or sports car racing. I was playing football as a kid and was quite good, but as soon as I tried go-karting for the first time, I didn’t want to do anything else. I really loved it, and I was always asking my father when we were going to be go-karting again. I quickly knew that I wanted to become a pro race car driver and be paid to do something I was passionate about.
Excellence: Who were your racing heroes when you were a kid?
Pilet: It was the generation of Michael Schumacher when I was growing up. Schumacher seemed like the perfect driver when it came to winning races and motivating the team around him, and he was extremely professional.
Excellence: How did the transition from karting and single-seaters to sports cars come about?
Pilet: I didn’t have many choices in single-seaters. I worked my way up into Formula Renault 3.5, and at the time GP2 was the last step before Formula One but, unfortunately, I didn’t get that chance. At the end of 2006, I wasn’t sure what I was going to do the next year, and my old boss called me and said he had a project to do, Porsche Carrera Cup in France.
I was already watching it and saw that a lot of drivers became professional after becoming a Carrera Cup champion, so I thought maybe it was a good plan. My plan was to do two years in French Carrera Cup—one year to learn and one year to win, then move up into Supercup and try to become a factory driver for Porsche. I arrived in the series in 2007 with no experience, but the motivation and experience I had from single-seaters really helped me and I won the championship in my first season. I was then signed as a factory driver for 2008.
Excellence: Was your experience in Carrera Cup in 2007 the first time you had raced a GT car?
Pilet: Yeah, Porsche was the first and only GT car I’ve driven. Normally drivers go from Carrera Cup to Supercup and then become a Junior driver before they become a factory driver, but after winning the championship in 2008 I was invited by Porsche to a test at Sebring with the RSR. They signed me a few weeks later, so it was really quick. Going into Carrera Cup was clearly one of the best choices in my career.
Excellence: Was it a challenging transition to go from single-seaters to the Porsche?
Pilet: It was. In terms of preparation, organization, and working with the team it’s no different. But I remember the first time I drove in Carrera Cup I was entering corners too quickly and braking way too late. The Porsche had the same amount of power but there was no downforce or anything, so I had to get used to it. It was the 997 at the time and I had a lot of pleasure driving it but the Formula 3.5 cars were a lot quicker, by around 20 seconds per lap on average. The pleasure was there with the Porsche though. It was difficult because I had to adapt to the car and learn all the tricks in the series for setting it up, but I really loved it.
Excellence: Were there ever any regrets about not pursuing single-seaters more after starting your career with Porsche?
Pilet: No, I was super happy being with Porsche. Except for Formula One, nobody really gets paid to drive single-seaters except for in Japan in Formula Nippon with some drivers. I wanted to live my dream and get paid for what I love to do every day, and the best way for that was in sports cars. My target when I started in Carrera Cup was to become a factory driver for Porsche, and I was lucky that it happened the year after.
When you are a kid, you dream about driving for either Porsche or Ferrari because these are the two biggest brands for sports cars in the world. I still remember watching Le Mans in 1998, when Porsche won there overall with the 911 GT1. It was incredible to see such an amazing car and the fight was great between all the manufacturers. When I saw that, I knew I wanted to do it.
Excellence: How do you compare racing in the U.S. versus racing in Europe?
Pilet: There’s clearly a big difference. Like I said, working with the team is not different, but the U.S. is more like pure instinct racing. You have a lot of strategy and the tracks are more old school. You could never have a small track like Lime Rock in the FIA WEC. It’s part of the charm of the championship and also why it’s so difficult. We go from Daytona to Sebring and then to Long Beach, and the tracks are so different you have to be a really complete driver.
In Europe, every weekend is more or less the same. The competition is extremely high but every weekend is similar to the other ones. Here in the U.S., you have to adapt yourself to tracks that are often much different. The competition is very similar in IMSA and FIA WEC with factory cars and factory drivers, but the racing in WEC is a bit less aggressive than in IMSA and there’s a bit less fight.
Excellence: Do you like the atmosphere in the racing here in the U.S.?
Pilet: Yes, it’s really friendly racing here in the U.S. and you’re really close to the people. Racing here reminds me of when I was racing go-karts when I was younger. It’s a lot more relaxed and you’re all together. We all eat at the same place and see all the other teams. It’s a big fight on the track, but the atmosphere is a bit more open and friendly. That’s one of the things I love about U.S. racing. If there’s one race in Europe that’s similar it’s the Nürburgring 24 hour. It’s an amazing track where you can’t make mistakes, and everyone is there because they love that track and they love racing.
Excellence: Do you have a preference for longer races like Daytona, Sebring, and Le Mans or the shorter races on the IMSA schedule?
Pilet: In general, I like the longer races because they show the strongest points of the drivers and the team. But I like everything in the IMSA championship because everything is so different. Even if you have the same race length, they’re such completely different tracks. The race at Lime Rock is the same length as the race at Mosport (Canadian Tire Motorsport Park), but at Lime Rock, you do 75 laps in one stint.
Excellence: Do you have a favorite track in the U.S.?
Pilet: For me, it’s Road America. I really love that track, and it reminds me of classic European tracks. It reminds me of Spa in the past, because there’s not much runoff. I haven’t gone to any tracks in the U.S. that I really didn’t like. Lime Rock is short and busy with traffic, but it reminds me of when I was racing go-karts, and it’s still challenging.
Excellence: You’ve driven several different 911-based GT cars since 2007. How have the cars evolved over the years?
Pilet: The cars have changed quite a lot but you still recognize that you’re in a Porsche. The evolution of the car is really impressive over the last ten years when it comes to aerodynamics. The aero on the car has become more and more and it’s almost like prototypes used to be. If you look at the lap times from Le Mans this year, we were doing similar lap times to what the prototypes were doing in the 1990s. It’s impressive to see GT cars going as quick as the prototypes were not too long ago because of the aero efficiency and the tires. Everything really has improved so much.
Excellence: Have you had to adjust your driving style over the years with the changes in the cars?
Pilet: The biggest adjustment has been with this car (911 RSR). It’s not so much about the weight distribution (with the mid-engine placement), but the biggest difference is that we have a way better diffuser on the car so there’s more downforce. It makes this car a bit more unpredictable than in the past. When you lose the car it happens quickly—it’s not like in the past where the car was moving around a lot and was really more predictable. Now the car is more efficient but is trickier to drive, so we have to adapt our driving style. I really love the car, and it fits my driving style, it’s just different.
Excellence: Do you enjoy the testing and development side of the job?
Pilet: Yes, I like it, especially when you start with a completely new project. It’s always challenging and exciting to see the next car you will use and try to optimize it and find solutions with your engineers.
Excellence: What are the goals that you still want to fulfill as a race car driver?
Pilet: For sure winning Le Mans with Porsche is my main goal, and when you’re French you really want to do that. To be honest, every weekend I arrive at a race track I want to win—I’m not coming for anything else. I would like to win a championship again.
Excellence: You had a big win this year in the Nürburgring 24 Hour.
Pilet: Yeah, that was great. We lost three to four minutes in the first lap, so it was a big fight to come back. There was a lot of team spirit to get that win.
Excellence: How long do you want to keep racing?
Pilet: As long as I’m fit! I’d like to continue as long as Porsche wants me and I feel that I’m helping the team. I think it’s difficult after you’re with a factory team for as long as I’ve been to move on to something else in racing. I don’t know if I’d continue in a non-factory program. You get used to working with the same people and Porsche is like my family now after so many years.
Excellence: What would you do if you weren’t racing?
Pilet: I already have some extra activities and am working on some mini-projects that still involve cars. I have to say I’m passionate about racing, but I’m passionate in general about many things. It’s important to think about the future, but for the moment I’m concentrating on my racing career. I hope I can do it another ten years.
Excellence: Do you live in France during the season?
Pilet: Yes, I live in France during the season. It’s a bit difficult with the travel and everything, because my wife also works and travels a lot. We met at a race track and she loves racing probably more than I do. She’s a journalist and is working in motorsport, so it’s easy for her to understand my job.
Excellence: What’s your favorite thing about racing?
Pilet: What I really love about racing, especially endurance racing, is sharing with all the people you work with and with teammates. When you race in single-seaters, you’re alone. When I was younger, I didn’t have the team spirit like we have now. With age, you understand how important it is to motivate not only yourself but also your teammates, mechanics, and engineers—the entire team. For me, the best moment is when we’re all celebrating on the podium. It’s tough because it’s so much effort for a few minutes really, but they are moments you cannot forget.
Excellence: What do you drive on the road?
Pilet: I have a Cayenne Turbo, and I love it. I’ve driven all the Porsche models over the last ten years, but the Cayenne is perfect as an everyday car.