Nathanaël Berthon is one of the most versatile racing drivers of his generation.
The young Frenchman has raced competitively – and often won – in just about every type of racing car imaginable: open-wheelers, GT racing cars, Formula E, LMP2, ice-racing and touring cars.
His biggest obstacle to success has been budget (or a lack of it). Rarely given the machinery competitive enough for him to show his true speed, he’s now found his home in touring cars, racing in the inaugural FIA World Touring Car Cup with the Audi-backed Comtoyou Racing squad. Despite having never driven a front-wheel drive car, or a touring car, Berthon has undoubted pace and is now regularly challenging for podiums and wins.
He caught up with the MotorsportM8 team to talk about his season to-date and the highs and lows of his entire career…
|Nathanaël Berthon||French||1 July 1989, Romagnat (FRA)|
|2008||Formula Renault 2.0 Western European Cup, Boutsen Energy Racing, 15 races, 18th overall
Formula Renault 2.0 Eurocup, Boutsen Energy Racing, 14 races, 33rd overall
|2009||Formula Renault 2.0 Western European Cup, Epsilon Euskadi, 14 races, 1 win, 7 podiums, 3rd overall
Formula Renault 2.0 Eurocup, Epsilon Euskadi, 14 races, 1 win, 2 podiums, 6th overall
|2010||Formula Renault 3.5 Series, International DracoRacing, 17 races, 1 win, 4 podiums, 7th overall|
|2011||Formula Renault 3.5 Series, ISR Racing, 17 races, 1 podium, 13th overall
GP2 Asia Series, Racing Engineering, 4 races, 23rd overall
GP2 Final, Racing Engineering, 2 races, 11th overall
|2012||Toyota Racing Series, M2 Competition, 15 races, 7th overall
GP2 Series, Racing Engineering, 24 races, 2 podiums, 12th overall
|2013||GP2 Series, Trident Racing, 22 races, 1 win, 1 podium, 20th overall|
|2014||GP2 Series, Venezuela GP Lazarus, 22 races, 20th overall
European Le Mans Series, Murphy Prototypes ORECA 03R Nissan, 2 races, 1 podium, 16th overall
24 Hours of Le Mans (LMP2 Class), Murphy Prototypes ORECA 03R Nissan, DNF
|2015||GP2 Series, Daiko Team Lazarus, 19 races, 1 podium, 16th overall
European Le Mans Series, Murphy Prototypes ORECA 03R Nissan, 5 races, 1 podium, 10th overall
24 Hours of Le Mans (LMP2 Class), Murphy Prototypes ORECA 03R Nissan, 5th overall
|2015-16||FIA Formula E Championship, Team Aguri Spark-Renault STR 01E, 3 races, 17th overall
Andros Trophy – Électrique Class, Biovitis, 11 races, 2 wins, 4 podiums, 4th overall
|2016||FIA WEC (LMP2 Class), G-Drive Racing ORECA 05 Nissan, 2 races, 1 podium, 22nd overall
24 Hours of Le Mans (LMP2 Class), Greaves Motorsport Ligier JS P2 Nissan, 6th overall
European Le Mans Series, Greaves Motorsport Ligier JS P2 Nissan, 4 races, 11th overall
|2016-17||Andros Trophy – Elite Class, Belgian Audi Club Team WRT, 13 races, 4 wins, 8 podiums, 1st overall|
|2017||European Le Mans Series, Panis Barthez Competition Ligier JS P217 Nissan, 5 races, 13th overall
24 Hours of Le Mans (LMP2 Class), Panis Barthez Compeition Ligier JS P217 Nissan, DNF
Blancpain GT Series, Belgian Audi Club Team WRT, 4 races, 45th overall
|2017-18||Andros Trophy – Elite Class Pro, Comtoyou Racing, 13 races, 2 wins, 7 podiums, 3rd overall|
|2018||FIA WTCR, Comtoyou Racing Audi RS 3 LMS, 24 races, 1 podium, 14th overall*
24 Hours of Le Mans (LMP2 Class), DragonSpeed ORECA 07 Gibson, 5th overall
|2018-19||FIA WEC (LMP2 Class), DragonSpeed ORECA 07 Gibson, 2 races, 1 podium, 7th overall*|
* Denotes season in progress
Looking at Today
We’re now approaching the end of the inaugural FIA World Touring Car Cup season. How do you appraise your season to-date?
Well, it’s always nice to be part of a World Championship and fight with the best racers of the world in touring cars… But I have to say, my expectations were much higher that we have achieved yet. The positive thing is that we are going better and better in terms of performances. We are getting closer to top now [he claimed his maiden podium finish of the season last time out at Wuhan], and I’m looking forward to it.
Your career has seen you race across all sorts of disciplines – open-wheelers, ice-racing, Formula E, endurance racing. How have you found the adaptation to touring car racing, particularly given the added challenge of not having raced at a number of the circuits before?
That’s true, I have a lot of experiences with many cars and many types of driving. I would say, my driving style fits perfectly with aero cars but I can now adapt myself very fast to any cars. I would say that WTCR is a very different driving style from any other categories I’ve raced, but I feel more comfortable now with it. It’s quite frustrating for me as basically to go fast you can’t push the car.. that’s the hardest. I knew only one track this year, but as I’ve said I learn generally quite fast so it wasn’t a problem for me. My best result this year [prior to the podium at Wuhan] was on the Nürburgring Nordscheilfe; I did not know the track at all before the race…
Comtoyou Racing has a strong history in TCR and has opted for a young line-up in the first year of the WTCR. How important has it been to benchmark your performance against your teammates, and indeed beat them? In turn, what is your working relationship like with them as teammates and rivals?
The first goal is always to beat your teammate, it’s very important to show that you on the pace at all times – especially when you are backed by a brand like Audi. It’s for me really important to be competitive with respect to my teammates, but I’m also a good team player. This means that I’m sharing with them and hope to get in return as well. We are a team and this spirit is important for our Comtoyou team.
The Balance of Performance calculations have attracted criticism in some circles, with the Hyundai, Audi and VW runners particularly affected at certain rounds. Are you concerned that the final rounds in Asia and your potential success in them could be impacted by BoP adjustments, or is the rules structure ‘about right’ for the WTCR so far?
It’s always difficult to say. As you say, the top four of the championships have been the four Hyundais. We are generally struggling a lot with the BOP calculations but there’s nothing we can do at the moment. The only thing to do is to focus on our work and always do our best with the package we have.
What inspired you to go racing as a child?
Every year I went to Monaco during the time of the Grand Prix. I’ve always loved cars, beautiful cars… I love the noise, the smell of the tyres, oil, fuel, the speed, the race spirit, the competition. I odn’t come from a rich family and my family wasn’t involved at all in motorsport… I wasn’t destined to be a racer and I really feel lucky right now to have the best job of the world!
Who were your idols early on and what is it about their character or achievements that you admired?
On the motorsport side, I really love Ayrton Senna’s mentality. I was young when he died but I’ve watched many videos, interviews and films about him. He is a true inspiration.
On life in general, I admire people that are dedicated to good work, the people that never give up and always try to find a way to open a closed door or who find the way to make the impossible possible just because they really want it. And the best person at this who I know is my father.
What important lessons have helped you progress up the motorsport ladder?
I had a lot of lessons. Work hard and it will pay off, if you really want something do your everything you can to get it. The race to success is never finished until you cross the finished line. And the most important of all: stay humble, one day you can be the best and the next day not. Keep focus on what you are doing to maximize your chances to stay at your best.
After success in karts you graduated to circuit racing in 2008 and started racing in Formula Renault 2.0 – what was the adaptation like from karting to open-wheel racing?
That’s a very good question! You know, the first time I drove formula-spec machinery I was 17. I was already a frontrunner in the European and World Karting Championships, but after the first laps in an open-wheeler I though I was the fastest driver on earth. I don’t even think I put the car in sixth gear at the end of the streight and wasn’t even going over 200km/h – but straight away I knew I loved it!
Karting is very light while a formula-spec car is five times the weight. The first thing is to understand is that you can’t use your body weight in a formula-spec car to help the car turn like you can in karting. My adaptation was very fast though!
While you inherited a race win in 2009 at Barcelona when your teammate was disqualified, your first outright win was in the same year at Spa-Francorchamps. Not everyone can claim their first win at such an iconic circuit – what is your recollection of that moment today?
This was my second Eurocup race and on paper I finishes in second place, which was itself really unbelievable. After few hours I was promoted to race-winner – I have always loved racing at Barcelona as a result. I’ve always been very fast straight away in all the categories I raced, but this was a win at the highest level in Formula Renault. I was very very happy about it but of course I wanted more!
As a reward for winning the French title, you were offered a Formula Renault 3.5 test and then signed to race for Draco Racing for the 2010 season. You claimed a podium on debut and then beat Daniel Ricciardo to victory on home soil at Magny-Cours. A win at home is always special and to beat a future F1 race-winner must still be satisfying?
Winning your home race is always a different feeling. Winning in front of Daniel is also a fantastic feeling! I remember our battle: in the middle of the race we felt a few drops of rain, I was leading the race and didn’t want to make a mistake. Daniel was pushing like hell behind and he was flying! I don’t even know how I could have kept him behind. Daniel is a very good guy, we became teammates the year after and share the same birthday. I’m happy to share a part of my career with him.
You had an opportunity to test driver a Formula 1 car when the HRTF1 team called you up to drive at the Young Drivers’ test at the end of 2011 in Abu Dhabi. What are your recollections of your two days in the car and the overall experience?
My answer will be strange for you. In one day I had two opposite feelings. It was the most beautiful day of my life and in the same time a very frustrating one.
The first lap I did in the F1 I had a smile like I’ve never had during all the laps I’ve ever driven! After few runs, I was looking at the TV lap times and the gap to the frontrunners was so big that honestly this made me feel disappointed.
I felt that I couldn’t do anything to be at the top and obviously when you are racing you want to be the fastest! I was still in front of two others teams who were running good drivers, which was really good for HRT, but it was so frustrating to fight to not be the last of the field.
You spent four seasons in the GP2 Series championship racing for Racing Engineering (2012), Trident Racing (2013) and Lazarus (2014-15) in Formula 1’s feeder series. What were the highlights and biggest challenges during this time?
I did not have the chances to be with good teams and cars. I scored my first podium in my second GP2 Series race in my rookie season – success again came really quickly, but after this it was hard to find a budget. I spent my time with ‘back of the grid’ teams. I’ve enjoyed my time in GP2 a lot because my teams were family teams and I loved to race there, but again when your race is to fight for the win and it wasn’t possible the last 3 years…
We still achieved a win in Budapest with Trident in 2013, this was like we had won the championship – it was perhaps one of my best achievements of my career. Another fantastic achievement is to have claimed the one and only podium for Lazarus in my last year in GP2. This team was like a family for me; they had very good people that deserved much better results.
You had a brief stint in the FIA Formula E Championship with Team Aguri in the early rounds of the 2015-16 season, but left the team to focus on another racing discipline: endurance racing. Both championships were different to what you’d been racing previously – what was your experience racing all-electric cars, and then switching to LMP-spec machinery and longer-distance racing?
I really loved the Formula E concept. I loved working on the engineering side with all the development that we needed at this time. Formula E was very new and at each race we came up with new things to test, new ideas, new concepts. Unfortunately, despite claiming points in my first race, the team decided to take another driver after three races.
Endurance and especially LMP-spec racing is something I like too because of the need to share your car. It’s a completely different spirit from single-seaters where you have to beat your teammate. In endurance racing you win together and you lose together – the team spirit is very, very important. I have to say, the LMP cars now are really fast and they are proper racing cars with power and aero, I enjoy racing with those cars a lot.
You’ve now contested five 24 Hours of Le Mans in the LMP2 class. It’s the classic team and endurance event on the calendar. Why is it so special for a racing driver and what has been your experience?
Le Mans is magic. It’s completely different from all others races. This year I had the chance to be on a very fast car, setting the fastest lap of the race in the LMP2 class. This feeling is incredible, when your car is able to go through Porsche Curves almost flat. Monaco aside, Le Mans is the most enjoyable track for me!
What targets are you setting for yourself for the remainder of the year?
I want to give a race win to Comtoyou and Audi. We are working hard for it!
What are your plans for the 2019 racing season? Do you intend to remain in the WTCR, explore endurance racing further, or juggle both?
I honestly don’t know at this stage. I’m focused on the present, to do my best and hopefully the opportunities will come.
What is left on your ‘bucket list’ in terms of championships to race in or circuits to race at?
I would honestly love to race in Australia! Do you have any Supercars Championship contacts?
If you’d like to explore media or sponsorship opportunities with Nathanaël, please email his manager Romain Vennat at firstname.lastname@example.org
Images via FIA Formula 2 Championship (GP2 Series), FIA Formula E Championship, FIA WTCR Media