The Swiss F2 racer discusses the unusual start to his career
Most motor racers learn their trade in go-karting, competing against kids of the same age across tracks in their home country, but Louis Delétraz went against the grain. He learnt his by hurtling downhill at 96kph in a soapbox, built by him and his dad in their garage.
As a former F1 driver himself, Delétraz’s father, Jean-Denis, initially saw it as the safer option for his son – refusing to let him kart competitively before he was 10-years-old. That was, until their strive for perfection and naturally competitive instinct saw them build a soapbox which hit dangerously high speeds.
Ultimately, Delétraz was always bound for go-karts though, even if it required a little patience. “As soon as I got into a kart, I wanted to race,” he recalls. “I think that it was for my birthday with a few friends and I was maybe six or seven years old. They were mini karts - really slow things. The track was in France, just on the border. I love Switzerland: I was born there, went to school there and I love the environment, but there are no racetracks.
“Initially, my father didn't want me to race karts, so we did soap box instead. There was no engine and we built the soapbox in the winter together in our garage. Then, in the summer we'd race with it. That was my first experience of racing, it was really cool to share that with him and it helped me to learn the basic dynamics.”
A soapbox, or “gravity racer,” is a motorless vehicle, often made from wooden crates placed on roller-skate wheels. However, they can range from the simplistic to the sublime. The more intricate soapboxes are constructed from steel with great emphasis placed upon weight and aerodynamics.
At first, Delétraz competed for fun, racing against children his own age in Switzerland. However, the longer they raced, the more competitive they became and him and his father soon found themselves chasing higher quality and faster speeds.
“Because you are building your own soapbox, you want to try it even more,” Delétraz continued. “In the second year we did soapbox, you see the other cars and you kind of understand a bit more about them. We realised that it was the opposite of racing in a way, because there is no engine and you need the car to be super heavy, so that it can go downhill fast.
“We put in a roll cage for extra weight and also looked on the internet for the thickest and heaviest wood possible. We made the car quite high and put a 7cm wood plank of the heaviest wood possible on earth underneath - the thing was like 120 kilos!
“We couldn’t lift it and we needed a lift to get it into our car. It was so fast though, I remember we got flashed by speed cameras on the roads, because these were open roads we were racing on. My father saw that and suddenly thought 'ahh, this is a bit dangerous...maybe karting is better!' I have very good memories from it.”
The now Charouz driver had grown up watching his father race. Delétraz snr. briefly raced in Formula 1, but spent the majority of his career in sports car racing, achieving two class wins at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. It was on those tracks, watching his father compete, where the 22-years-old’s love for racing was born. The passion gradually grew into an obsession as Delétraz became hooked on the thrill and the adrenaline.
Even now, there is an in-built, natural desire to drive anything he can get his hands on. Sat in a golf buggy in the burning sunshine of Yas Marina, the temptation to go for a spin takes control, “can we talk and drive?” he laughs.
“It was always my input that I wanted to race,” he clarifies. “But for sure, watching my father race was part of it - he always took me to his races with him. I can always remember myself playing with the tyres and being around the cars. I used to sit inside of them, and I couldn’t see out of the car because the seat was so low, and the car was too high for me.
“Most of the races I saw were in World Championships like GT1, which were two- or three-hour races. I remember all of his teammates as well, really good teammates. I went to pretty much every Le Mans that he did - in the rain, in the dry, I was there, and I always wanted to stay up 24 hours but I could never manage it.
“We also went to Bahrain, China as well - we done a lot of travelling and it was amazing. He never pushed me into racing though, I actually had to really push to go proper racing in karts.”
Born in Geneva, Switzerland, with its famously cold, snowy winters, Delétraz was naturally a keen skier – he has been spotted on the slopes throughout the off-season – although it never came close to racing. Skiing was fun and enjoyable, while the competitive element undoubtedly came into play, but it was never anything more than a hobby. Racing was always much, much more important to him and when his father finally allowed him to compete, things quickly clicked.
He began karting in 2008 and won the Vega Trofeo Super Mini class in just his second season and would also go on to win the Vega Trofeo Junior category too, in 2011. He eventually made the step up to single-seaters in 2012, which is when his career truly began to gather momentum.
“In karting, I only competed in the Swiss Championships because there was a lot of money needed to enter world championships, but this meant that the level wasn’t as high. These Championships were also happening in France because as I mentioned, we don't have tracks.
“At 15, I stepped up to single-seaters in Formula BMW, which was a rookie Championship and I was competitive straight away - a lot of pole positions and wins. Then it was Formula Renault and the first year was a learning year with good results, but not an optimal Championship position. The year after, I won it.”
The lessons learned from soapbox racing have put him on a pathway to emulating his father and racing in F1. Delétraz is the proud holder of a Super Licence, due to his single-seater title victories, and in 2019 enjoyed a full-time simulator role with the HAAS F1 team.
He continued: “Just working in the F1 environment and being close to all of the engineers, having so many people to chat with helps. You really do have an impact on things, and on the sim, if there is a problem with the car, we are going to sort it out and it feels great if you do sort it out.”
Delétraz has recently signed a deal with Charouz Racing System for the 2020 F2 campaign and intends to use the experienced gained from 2019, in both the championship with Carlin and with HAAS in F1, to fight for the drivers’ title and realise the dream him and his father fostered in a soapbox on the streets of Switzerland.