Subscribe

Sign up for free

  • Get quick access to your favorite articles

  • Manage alerts on breaking news and favorite drivers

  • Make your voice heard with article commenting.

Autosport Plus

Discover premium content
Subscribe
Special feature

The unheralded “leader” helping Jota to new heights in the WEC

Remaining loyal to a World Endurance Championship privateer team over pursuing a manufacturer gig in the IMSA SportsCar Championship is testament to the squad in question but also the ex-Formula 1 driver making the call. Now eight years on from the start of his journey with Jota, Will Stevens is relishing his leading role in taking on the factories

#12 Hertz Team Jota Porsche 963: William Stevens, Callum Ilott, Norman Nato

Photo by: Gruppe C Photography

Twelve months is a long time in motorsport. Plenty has changed since the last time the World Endurance Championship descended on Spa a little over a year ago. There’s a new system for calculating the Balance of Performance, Peugeot now has a vastly revamped 9X8 Le Mans Hypercar, Ferrari and Porsche have proven winning pedigree, while new LMDh protagonists from Alpine, BMW and Lamborghini have helped swell the Hypercar grid to 19 cars.

Much has changed too in the Jota camp. One year on from the debut of its Hertz-liveried customer Porsche 963 LMDh, it has expanded to run two Hypercars with a driver line-up headlined by 2009 world champion Jenson Button, and achieved the first outright podium for its 963 in Qatar. With Button and four more new drivers to bed in, as Ye Yifei joined Ferrari and Antonio Felix da Costa prioritised his Porsche Formula E drive, the significance of its sole remaining driver from Jota’s first season in Hypercar has grown further.

The element of continuity provided by retaining Will Stevens has no doubt helped Jota in its push to add outright Le Mans glory to its three previous class successes. But speak to insiders at the team and it’s immediately apparent that the Briton, who placed second in Qatar aboard the #12 963 he shares with Callum Ilott and Norman Nato, offers far more than simply a point of reference from 2023.

Stevens has, over the years, established himself as Jota’s Mr Dependable. Since his first race for Sam Hignett and David Clark’s squad in 2016, he has won at least once in its cars in every season he has competed for it. That includes back-to-back LMP2 victories in 2016 when Jota fielded G-Drive Racing’s entry, and on his return for the team now entered under the Jackie Chan DC Racing banner at the Sebring round of the 2018-19 WEC ‘super season’.

The run continued by claiming the 2019-20 Bahrain finale, and then after a year away, he was part of its 2022 WEC title/Le Mans P2 double alongside da Costa and Roberto Gonzalez. Don’t forget also the P2 victory at Sebring’s WEC season-opener last year - not recognised with points as the car he shared with Ye and David Beckmann was an invitational entry because it wasn’t doing the full season in the secondary prototype class.

The esteem with which Stevens is held by Jota couldn’t be much higher. Hignett rates him among “my top sportscar drivers” and believes Stevens’s role in the team’s 2022 success was “down to Will more than anybody else”.

Stevens won the LMP2 class at the Le Mans 24 Hours on his way to securing the WEC P2 title with Jota in 2022

Stevens won the LMP2 class at the Le Mans 24 Hours on his way to securing the WEC P2 title with Jota in 2022

Photo by: Nikolaz Godet

“Roberto and Antonio would say that as well,” Hignett tells Autosport in the team’s smart hospitality unit at Imola, where two off-road excursions dropped car #12 out of the points. “He was the one that gelled the whole thing together and made it work.”

This business-like attitude is also welcomed by Jota’s team principal Dieter Gass. The former Audi motorsport boss observes that Stevens’s “very demanding” approach makes him “the natural leader in the #12 car with the experience he has in the team, and in endurance racing”.

“He’s always thinking and willing to improve,” Gass tells Autosport. “I would tend to say he’s never happy. After a podium, he probably was in Qatar! But you know what I mean. It’s good because he’s always pushing everybody in the team to do better.”

"I did a lot of racing for a lot of different teams, so I really had to build my reputation up in sportscars which hopefully I’ve done"
Will Stevens

Now 32, Stevens has quietly built up a formidable reputation in sportscars since his brief tenure in Formula 1 concluded at the end of 2015. He’d made his debut with the moribund Caterham team in the 2014 Abu Dhabi GP, before a season of toil in 2015 with the resurrected Manor-run Marussia squad yielded a best finish of 13th at Silverstone.

Cut adrift from the rest of the pack in a barely upgraded year-old car, whose supertimes pace deficit to its next slowest rival McLaren (in the disastrous first year of its link up with Honda) was greater than the gap covering the rest of the field, Stevens was on a hiding to nothing and for 2016 hit reset as a sportscar driver.

Recognising his previous career “really meant nothing, I had to prove myself here”, Stevens combined prototype racing with GTs from the outset and spent three years with WRT alongside Audi factory drivers in the Blancpain Sprint Cup before focusing on prototypes from 2019 onwards. Along the way, four full years were devoted to the European Le Mans Series with the Panis Racing team fielded by Tech-1, but since 2022 (only his second full season for the team he’d first joined six years previously) Stevens has been a Jota ever-present in the WEC.

“I did a lot of racing for a lot of different teams, so I really had to build my reputation up in sportscars which hopefully I’ve done,” he tells Autosport. The stats bear that out.

Stevens had a forgettable time in F1, with his Manor machinery comfortably the slowest on the grid in 2015

Stevens had a forgettable time in F1, with his Manor machinery comfortably the slowest on the grid in 2015

Photo by: Steven Tee / Motorsport Images

A two-time Le Mans class winner (GTE Am in 2017 and LMP2 in 2022), Stevens was second in LMP2 on his debut at the 24 Hours and on his first start for Jota in 2016. Sharing with Rene Rast - his partner that year in the Sprint Cup - and Roman Rusinov, their ORECA 05 finished on the same lap as the winning Signatech-run entry despite an unscheduled stop for a slow puncture and two penalties; a one-minute stop-go for speeding in a slow zone that Hignett believes cost them the race was added to a drive through for turning the engine on while refuelling.

Then alongside Rusinov and Alex Brundle, Stevens won on each of his next two appearances for Jota at Fuji and Shanghai later that year. At the former, he had to defy a broken right-rear damper and pass Bruno Senna twice for the win in the final stint, after being ordered to cede position when the stewards ruled Stevens had violated track limits by crossing a while line on the pit straight, before in Shanghai ending up a full lap clear of the pack.

“I’ve shown I can compete at the front and that’s why Sam and David here at Jota gave me an opportunity early on in sportscars and they’ve continuously believed in me all the way to now,” reflects Stevens. “The differences in the team from then to now is huge, but the core group of people are still here. It’s cool.”

Among them is his race engineer Olivier Berta. Aside from Le Mans 2019 (when he rejoined Panis) and the 2021 season in which Stevens only raced in the ELMS, they have worked together almost continually since Sebring 2019.

“Obviously, I know the car, is one thing, but I also know everyone in this team super-well,” says Stevens. This ultimately was a factor in deciding to commit his future to the team at a crucial career crossroads two years ago.

He’d joined Acura squad Wayne Taylor Racing for the 2022 IMSA SportsCar Championship endurance rounds at Daytona and Sebring, with a view to continuing into the current GTP era. Runner-up at Daytona on his debut in the ARX-05 DPi, his plans to position himself for a full-time gig in 2023 were progressing well.

“I wasn’t there just to do the [one-year] DPi programme,” he confirms.

Stevens had to pass Senna twice to secure his first WEC victory on his second appearance for Jota at Fuji in 2016

Stevens had to pass Senna twice to secure his first WEC victory on his second appearance for Jota at Fuji in 2016

Photo by: JEP / Motorsport Images

Plans were set in place to combine an IMSA deal with racing Jota’s 963 (when it became available), but it soon became apparent to Stevens that “it was sensitive to be driving two different cars” and he would have to “decide where I felt my long-term future would be.” Jota won out and for Stevens, it wasn’t a difficult choice.

“I like continuity, I like working with the same people, I think that brings a lot of performance,” he says. “And I honestly love being a part of this team.

“I feel home, I feel super-comfortable, it’s the happiest I’ve probably been in my career. And ultimately, that brings performance. It’s cool, I’m enjoying it and hopefully, I’ll continue for many more years.”

"I like to understand what’s going on with the car. Some drivers don’t want to know exactly what’s going on with the car, they just want to drive, but I feel when I know more I drive better" Will Stevens

It says a lot about Stevens that Jota’s customer team status was not a factor in his decision, whereas many might have been motivated by the status of a factory drive. Gass is quick to point out that this attitude makes him a good fit for the team. While stressing that “what he’s doing in the car is excellent as well”, Gass singles out his mentality for special praise.

“One of the reasons why we could do the triple stints in Qatar was because we don’t have egos in the car,” he says. “You don’t have a first driver of the car saying ‘now I’m getting in the car and I have to be fast’. No, they think about there are two other drivers having to use the same tyres.”

This willingness to help team-mates is also attested by Hignett. He observes that Stevens doesn’t use his status as a Jota stalwart to his advantage and praises him for being “always very honest” in his dealings. That is a point Stevens himself addresses.

“Because I know the car, I obviously try to share my knowledge with everyone in the team,” he says. “Ultimately, we need to help each other to improve the package we have.”

Stevens joined WTR for the first two IMSA endurance rounds of 2022, but couldn't combine racing a 963 with a GTP deal for Acura

Stevens joined WTR for the first two IMSA endurance rounds of 2022, but couldn't combine racing a 963 with a GTP deal for Acura

Photo by: Michael L. Levitt / Motorsport Images

It is in this technical application that Stevens believes is “where I feel strong”. What he describes as his “good foundation from a lot of different cars” is complemented by his test and development driver role for McLaren’s F1 team, which included sampling a 2022-spec car in Barcelona in February.

“It’s always something that I’ve felt confident in,” reflects Stevens. “I like to understand what’s going on with the car. Some drivers don’t want to know exactly what’s going on with the car, they just want to drive, but I feel when I know more I drive better.”

Stevens reckons the biggest things Jota has gained over the past year “is just understanding” the package to extract more performance from it. He believes “we all have a very good understanding of what the car needs” despite continual software updates moving the goalposts.

“As much about understanding the car, it’s also about the whole team gelling and understanding roles and responsibilities of who is in control of what,” he explains. “You need to work to each other’s strengths and weaknesses to identify who goes in what position.

“Now we’ve got the car, we know it pretty well and we know where we want to operate it. But there’s no question, we are still learning things and, obviously, the car from a system view is constantly being updated.

“With LMP2 it’s a known quantity at every race, whereas now you turn up and it’s always an evolution of what was happening before. It’s a product that you can develop and keep moving forwards to end up where you want to be.

“Obviously, we’ll try to push our information to Porsche of what we feel can be improved. At the moment most things we can change are from a systems point of view, but now that is so complicated in the car, it has a huge influence on balance and what we can manipulate.

“That is a constant evolution that as drivers, we have to push the engineering in a direction where we want to go from a balance perspective. That’s what’s actually quite cool and the part of it that I also enjoy.”

Stevens (middle) began the year by finishing second outright in Qatar alongside Nato and Ilott

Stevens (middle) began the year by finishing second outright in Qatar alongside Nato and Ilott

Photo by: Gruppe C Photography

It’s clear that Stevens relishes making a difference and stepping up to the plate for the big occasions. Remember it was he, not works Porsche ace da Costa or Ye - then a Porsche Motorsport Asia Pacific Selected Driver - who gave the team’s 963 its qualifying bow at Spa last year, splitting the factory-run Penske Porsche Motorsport cars in seventh.

That occasion was the first time the ban on tyre heaters had carried a significant element of jeopardy – conditions at Spa were far more tepid than at either of the previous rounds in Sebring or Portimao, and Toyota ended qualifying with one of its cars in the barriers. As Jota’s car had only done a brief shakedown at Weissach before rolling out for FP1 at Spa, Gass at the time hailed the effort as having exceeded expectations.

“It was like ‘who wants to do this’ and nobody wanted to do it,” recalls Hignett. “So Will jumped in, ‘alright, I’ll do it’. What a thing that was, to get out and do. His ability to cope with that and manage that pressure, that’s mega.”

"I’ve always believed in myself that I can do the job at this level. It’s taken a while to get to the position I’ve been in, but now I hope I can still prove that I’m meant to be here"
Will Stevens

“I’ve always believed in myself that I can do the job at this level,” Stevens says. “It’s taken a while to get to the position I’ve been in, but now I hope I can still prove that I’m meant to be here.”

Few would dispute that point. But most importantly, nobody at Jota doubts it for a moment.

“The other thing with Will, you watch him walk into the paddock, the respect he’s got from everybody – drivers, team owners, engineers in the paddock is immense,” adds Hignett.

“He’s hugely respected. This is his home really.”

Stevens is highly regarded at Jota and has a key role to play as the private Porsche team seeks to take on the works outfits

Stevens is highly regarded at Jota and has a key role to play as the private Porsche team seeks to take on the works outfits

Photo by: Juergen Tap / Porsche

Be part of the Autosport community

Join the conversation
Previous article Rossi reveals continued WEC and GT World Challenge plans
Next article Toyota expects Ferrari to remain quickest in Spa WEC despite BoP hit

Top Comments

There are no comments at the moment. Would you like to write one?

Sign up for free

  • Get quick access to your favorite articles

  • Manage alerts on breaking news and favorite drivers

  • Make your voice heard with article commenting.

Autosport Plus

Discover premium content
Subscribe