“No one probably knows who I am here,” said the quiet 29-year-old American in the Formula 1 paddock hours before the title kick-off in Abu Dhabi.
And yet, also thanks to the fact that his racing exploits in 2021 match those of Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton – and despite his modesty – some know very well who he is.
Because this McLaren guest is none other than Kyle Larson, winner of the NASCAR Cup title with 10 victories (plus a victory in the All-Star race without points).
To put that into context, in a championship that has embraced chaotic factors like race stages and sudden death qualifiers, he is the only driver to record double-digit wins in cash races in a single season. in the 21st century other than Jimmie Johnson in 2007.
On top of that, he had 18 other track racing wins, including winning the famous Chili Bowl Nationals midget race for the second year in a row.
Larson attended the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix “because I always wanted to go to an F1 race and never got the chance” which is easy to believe given his schedule. charge.
But as a superstar in yet another top motorsport series moving into another, even one so different, he knows more than most what Hamilton and Verstappen are about to go through.
“It’s so different,” Larson told The Race. “Formula 1 is so well known around the world. but i have a lot of respect for all these riders, especially lewis and max for their performances this year and the battle they fought.
“I meet a lot of people. I don’t know if anyone knows who I am here, but it was cool.
– Team n ° 5 (@ Hendrick5Team) 12 December 2021
Some of those who recognized Larson are perhaps just as likely to have done so because of what happened last year, where he used a racist slur while competing in an iRacing event. This led to his suspension from NASCAR competition, but after working to rehabilitate off track he has reached new heights this year.
“I don’t know, in America maybe,” he replies when asked if he feels like he’s on top alongside the stars of F1. “But probably nobody knows who I am here, it’s a whole different world here and these guys are all known to the world. They are at the top.
“I think we’re still a cut below, although I’ve had a few good seasons now. These guys are on a whole new level of fame and fame, I am in awe to be here. I am a fanboy today and I hope that one day I can rise through the ranks and continue to be better known.
Larson certainly deserves to be well known outside the United States. After his return to NASCAR with Hendrick Motorsport this year, after being made redundant by Chip Ganassi Racing last April, he reconstituted a championship of rare domination. He won five of 10 races in the playoffs, including the winner who wins all of the finals in Phoenix. Combined with the number of points in the regular season, it was a supreme year.
This was not just about beating serious opposition, but also about a specially designed format to make such a campaign a thing of the past. That there had been another winner would have been a travesty.
“It’s really a little surprising,” Larson says of his dominance. “But at the same time, when you see the inner workings of the team – how well everyone is preparing and how many great and smart people are in Hendrick Motorsports, it should be done. The resources are insane.
“I worked really hard so it was a great season, much better than I expected. I knew we would be able to win the championship, but to have 10 race wins, plus the All-Star victory, I never imagined such a great season.
“You don’t need a lot of luck, you just can’t have any bad luck or mistakes in the playoffs so that makes it really tough. We were able to win a lot of stages and a lot of races during the regular season which made our playoffs a little less stressful.
“It’s intense, however you want to look at it.”
What is very clear is Larson’s enthusiasm for the race. After all, he was a driver who managed to convince Rick Hendrick to allow him to race outside of NASCAR in what seems like every free moment – no small feat.
Not only did competing in this type of race keep him alert during his suspension from NASCAR – he won 69 races in 2020 – but Larson believes his obsessive multidisciplinary antics played a key role in his performance.
“It has a lot to do with how many races I can do,” says Larson. “There’s probably no one in the world who runs as often as I do. It’s different in different cars.
“With the dirt stuff it’s not the same as a stock car but I’m in racing situations more than anyone, I’m in winning situations more than anyone.
“So I learned from all these wins and losses and that makes you a better and more experienced rider. It really comes down to all the experience I get throughout the year.
“I feel unique because I race in the Cup, I race sprint cars, I race amazing models, I race USAC midget guys so I can experience the best of their types of cars. And that’s all the same, the best in these cars are just as tough as the guys from the Cup series.
“And I imagine it’s probably the same here [in F1] also. These guys are probably as good as the best guys in NASCAR or the best guys in sprint cars. They are the best in their form [of racing].
“It’s really hard to compare who’s the best – kind, who’s the best? Who has the best pilots? I am unique because I have the opportunity to race against many of the best riders in their sport.
In some ways, that makes Larson a throwback. He is not the only NASCAR driver to participate in various forms of gravel racing as well, but he is certainly the most prolific.
When Fernando Alonso announced that he was racing the Indianapolis 500 for the first time in 2017, he spoke about wanting to prove he was the best by conquering multiple disciplines. It’s a sentiment Larson shares.
“That’s probably the main thing that motivates me,” he says when asked about Alonso’s position. “It’s my love for sport in general, motor racing motivates me.
“I am thinking of Mario Andretti, AJ Foyt, Tony Stewart and Parnelli Jones, who could win in any type of vehicle. I want to be in the same category as them someday and it’s important for me to drive a lot of different cars and to be competitive in those cars.
“I hope I get the chance to venture out of what suits me and show myself well. I really like the challenge of learning something new and trying to learn it quickly and be competitive.
“I’m jealous of the lifestyle they had back then. I feel like I’m as close to this type of return schedule as you can get these days.
“It’s just hard to get these opportunities outside of the United States. So I am jealous of the lifestyle and the schedule they have to stick to.
Larson’s CV already contains a Daytona 24 Hours victory (pictured above) – although not yet a 500 – but given the location, it’s only natural to ask him questions about Formula 1.
Like any racing driver, he would revel in the chance to get behind the wheel of a grand prix car. But at a time when the kind of versatility that Andretti could show, competing in an IndyCar one weekend, F1 the next, is impractical, a change of codes in F1 is unrealistic – just as he would like to take on the challenge. . And it’s not due to a lack of enthusiasm or skill.
“I don’t know, who knows? He says of the possibility. “I’m still only 29 years old. So it’s definitely a dream.
“I would love to have the chance to drive one. Later if it was somehow more realistic I would entertain it, but it never feels realistic because of the way the FIA is and the superlicence [points].
“And I would have to put all my other races on hold to really try to get there, so it’s probably not realistic. It would probably be more realistic to try a simple car swap, but I would love to drive one. “