After a tough 2019 season in FIA Formula 3 and subsequently losing his place in the Renault Sport Academy, Yifei Ye took a step back and won the Euroformula Open title in 2020 in dominant fashion. This year the Chinese driver made his endurance debut and went on to win the European Le Mans Series on his first try. And he hasn’t given up on his Formula 1 dream.
By Perceval Wolff
Yifei Ye was recruited by the Renault F1 Sport Academy before starting his maiden FIA F3 season in 2019. However, it didn’t work out as he expected, finishing only 21st in the final standings: “There were a lot of drivers who had the money to do more tests with the F3 car”, he told F1 Feeder Series. “If I had the financial backing, I would also have done that. But I could only manage to do the official testing sessions with everybody.”
“With FIA F3, we only have 45 minutes of testing (for only three or four push-laps because of the Pirelli tyres) before the qualifying. It’s really hard to master a car with so little testing. And I know I need a bit more time than some others to be fully confident with a car. I know myself, I know that once I’m confident with my car, I can really be strong.”
New opportunity in Euroformula
After that difficult season, the Chinese driver had to find a way to bounce back, despite losing the support of Renault: “When you lose financial support following a bad season, it’s really difficult to negotiate with other teams. And the road to higher categories is now really narrow: now, it’s only FIA F3, F2 and F1 so I didn’t have many options. We got an opportunity to continue in Euroformula Open, a series that uses former generation F3 cars. Even though the level was less high, I wanted to go there. First, to learn and to improve my driving. Second, to show my speed, to show I could still win.”
Eleven wins and sixteen podiums later, Yifei Ye won the Euroformula Open Championship, beating the likes of Zane Maloney, Lukas Dunner or Manuel Maldonado. Despite his domination, the Chinese driver was never in the frame to come back to FIA F3 in 2021: “The main problem was still budget. And we all know there are some drivers who do two, three, four years in F3/F2, hoping to get to F1, to finally go to endurance, GT, or even to retire. I didn’t want to have that kind of career.”
Winning in endurance
“We considered the offers I got and I decided to give endurance a try during the winter, in the Asian Le Mans Series in the United Arab Emirates. And after winning the title, I wanted to stay in this category and do a full season in the European Le Mans Series.”
Since his debut in endurance racing this year, Yifei Ye has impressed many: he has won both the Asian Le Mans Series and the European Le Mans Series (ELMS). How does the reigning Euroformula champion explain his winning debut in endurance? “Fortunately for me, the way to drive an LMP2 car and a single-seater is quite similar, with a lot of grip, lots of aerodynamics, etc. I had no need to ask myself how to drive the car, it was quite natural.”
“The most important change was obviously the visibility, to drive in a closed cockpit. But I was able to cope with all these changes quite quickly and get a good result in my first race. The LMP2 category is still highly competitive this year, especially because drivers want to show how good they are so they can possibly join constructors in the next few years with the Hypercar program.”
Heartbreak at Le Mans
But even though the young Chinese driver is having a dream debut in endurance, he also went through a real heartbreak last month. He nearly won the 24 Hours of Le Mans in the LMP2 category, but encountered a mechanical failure on the final lap.
“At the 24 Hours of Le Mans last month we were so close to winning, we had the pace for it. It was the first time I drove there, even though I lived there for five years. It was really special for me. But, you always have to cross the finish line.”
Now that Yifei Ye is in endurance, is the F1 dream totally over? “Well, you can never say it’s over, we have already seen some WEC drivers going to F1 later in their career, so if I get an opportunity at some point, I’ll obviously take it. But my focus remains on endurance. With that new LMH/LMDh program, I need to continue showing what I can deliver.”
“It’s only by working hard, being quick and consistent at a top level that I will receive opportunities. We’re already started negotiations with some teams for next year, but I stay focused on what I have to do: score good results and try to finish the races (laughs). Even if we are quick, I’ve learnt that we always have to cross the finish line.”
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