Let’s be honest, it’s not been a great year for Germans driving red racing cars . . unless you happen to be called Lars Hoffmann, in which case, it’s been pretty bloody awesome . . . again.
The 25-year-old from Neuwied arrived at Snetterton last weekend trailing in the Caterham 270R standings; an errant lunge from behind at the previous round punting him into retirement and out of the points. It left the former table-topper in a seemingly hopeless position – he’d slid from first to fourth in the title fight (third on dropped scores) and needed nothing less than a display of total dominance to even stand a chance of claiming the silverware.
It takes great nerve, skill, and often a little luck to win in motor sport; it takes much, much more to become a champion: This might only be Hoffmann’s third season of car racing but he’s already versed in both. He was a race winner in his debut year in Caterham’s Academy (where he was runner-up) and progressed to take the Roadsport title in 2019. But what we saw at Snetterton went further still. He did absolutely everything asked of him, starting with a dominant pole position for the mixed class race, to carving a remarkable 3.4 seconds lead (in atrocious conditions) on the opening lap of the final.
His command of the weekend was so complete that the points deficit was dispatched with the surety of the grip exploited through each and every turn. ‘Yes’, there were challenges from title-rival Ben Lopez-Appleton throughout the opening encounter, but Hoffmann was simply setting himself up for the win, encouraging the Speedworks man to show his best moves well before the bout’s end. It was both sublime and supreme; a statement of fact that captivated those brave enough to stand through wind and rain on the raised and muddy banking.
Afterwards, I spoke with Hoffmann, his father Kurt (himself a past Caterham Deutschland Champion) and with Jon Barnes, a multiple Caterham champion and title winner in both Formula Palmer Audi and British GT (and here, the driver coach who has worked with this year’s champion and runner-up in the 270R class). I started by asking Lars Hoffmann about the attraction of racing in the UK instead of Germany:
LH: “Through my father, I was brought-up on both Caterham racing and racing in England. It’s important to us that you race with talent and not money, the structure of Caterham’s championships allows us to do this. But also, it’s the quality of competition that we face and the tracks that we race at that I love. The competition is hard, really hard, and this pushes me forward. And I love the short, tight, twisting tracks you have here; they’re perfect for cars that deliver more fun than power. In Germany, you have to think big. Here, everything is more accessible and more scalable, and the levels of organisation and support are simply the best – from the spares team in the paddock to the marshals, the BRSCC and the other guys and girls on track. Everybody knows their job and does it well and this lets us focus on what we come here to do.“
By day (and sometimes night), Hoffmann works with his father at their Caterham dealership and Land Rover service centre. The hours can be long and whilst he’s proficient with a spanner, I ask how he manages with the time and distance required for training and testing: –
LH: “Someone once told me (he looks pointedly at me) that when I started racing, I had to test, test, test; to get to know the tracks and to feel at home with right-hand-drive. This was just beyond us, because of the distance and because of the cost, but I still finished second at the end of the year. I didn’t really test at home either; a day at the Nurburgring is significantly more expensive than, say, Brands Hatch, plus on every lap, you have to deal with a dozen or more GT3 Porsches, so lapping consistently is difficult . . as they all brake way too soon (he laughs). Nevertheless, I also saw the improvements that others were making, so we settled on turning-up and testing the day before the race and working with Jon (Barnes) to build my skills and technique. This bit isn’t easy either as I’ve had to learn lots of new circuits at the same time, but it’s definitely kept me at the front of the grid.”
And what about professional support for the car, set-ups, handling and repairs?: –
LH: “I do all the preparation and set-up myself in our workshop, and then we transport it to and from each event. I think it helps to know what feels right and what feels wrong with the car, and how I can make the right changes. Afterwards, if there’s minor damage, I repair this too, but if it’s serious, then we take it to Caterham at Gatwick. The guys there are really good and quick to turn around even a major issue – it’s not expensive either (he says turning to his father), we pay a retention fee which covers the labour and then simply cover the cost of the parts.”
Affordability has always been at the heart of Caterham racing. There are going to be accidents and bits are going to break, so offering professional off-track support to fledgling racers is a key strength that the likes of Caterham and Ginetta can use to not only attract new racers into their fold but to keep them and develop them too.
This leads us on to talk of ‘what next?’: –
LH: “I would love to move one step up the ladder and upgrade my car to the 310R class. This is one of the best features of Caterham’s tier structure. I started with the basic Academy car and support package and have already taken it through to Roadsport and 270R. Next it’s the 310R, but there’s work to do at Caterham first: The engine gets more power and a new limited slip differential is added (for better traction and faster cornering). We also have longer races, which means much more fun . . I can’t wait!
After this, who knows? My immediate goal is to win my third consecutive title, and then look at changing-up to a new 420R car in the Seven UK Championship. I’d also love the opportunity to test both a formula car (single seater) and sports car, but for the moment, I see both the UK and Caterhams as my racing home. In Germany, we don’t have these opportunities for rookies on ‘everyday’ budgets, and the media aren’t interested if you’re not in a major series spending big money. Interestingly though, my success has now brought a fellow German, Dom Mannsperger into the Caterham family, so maybe we’ll be the first of many.”
He’s right about the importance of drivers finding the right opportunity to progress within sensible budget structures. Here in the UK, we’re spoiled with a prevalence of low-cost formulae and low-volume manufacturers who understand grass-roots racing, but it’s not always the case across much of Europe, and it’s not a business model that can easily be translated into export opportunities. So for now, Germany’s loss is our gain and Lars Hoffmann is another name that is going to be heard in ever increasing circles.
But I’m going to leave the last words to Jon Barnes, a racer who is amongst the finest that Caterham has ever seen and who is undoubtedly one of the top GT drivers we have today, ranking equally alongside the likes of Jonny Adam, Rob Bell and Phil Keen: –
JB: “I’m going to be honest, it wasn’t an easy watch today, seeing Lars and Ben (Lopez-Appleton) going wheel-to-wheel in the braking zone (Barnes coaches both), but it was also an incredible reminder of the quality of racing that Caterhams can offer and the tremendous potential of graduates from the Academy series. I’m not finished with either of them yet, and who knows, maybe one day we’ll be partnered together in a GT3, or LMP2, or even a 1965 Mustang . .”