The announcement that Emil Frey Jaguar Racing will compete at the 70th edition Total 24 Hours of Spa brought the number of brands contesting the Belgian endurance classic to 13.
This is a significant addition to the field. Because, as a highly competitive Silver Cup entry, the #54 machine of Alex Fontana, Mikael Grenier and Adrian Zaugg is a strong contender for class honours in what will be the Jaguar G3’s final year of Blancpain GT Series competition.
All three members of the Jaguar crew are hungry for success. They are recent single-seater graduates who have competed against the best in the world during their short careers and are now beginning to forge their own reputations in GT racing.
In Blancpain GT Series terms, Fontana is the most experienced of the trio, though at 25 he’s anything but a veteran. Born and raised in Switzerland and with strong Greek ancestry, he is building his career in the series as a versatile young driver – and one with an appreciation for the history of the sport.
LEARNING THE ROPES
Like so many racers, Fontana inherited his passion from his father, who competed in go-karts and briefly dabbled with single-seaters. The son was just three and a half years old when he first sat behind the wheel of a go-kart, but he quickly progressed to winning national titles in Switzerland and competing internationally.
That kind of experience would suggest that a move into single-seaters was inevitable. But, while his father has been a vital part of Fontana’s career, he was not initially convinced that this was the right way to go.
“In the beginning, my dad wanted me to stay in go-karts, because it was something he knew very well,” explains Fontana. “He had a club called Lugano Karting, which included Sebastien Buemi, Raffaele Marciello, Nico Muller – all of these guys came from this club.”
But while his father may have hoped to see Alex turn professional in karting, the chance to test himself in cars was too good to pass up.
“Some friends pushed for me to go into single-seaters and, after I did some testing, I decided to keep racing in formula cars.”
His introduction came in Formula Azzurra, followed by Italian F3. Next came a switch to European F3 Open (now Euroformula Open), where Fontana became champion in 2011, ahead of future Blancpain GT Series competitor David Fumanelli.
“It is the biggest championship I’ve won,” he says of the series. “After that I was lucky enough to become part of the Lotus F1 Junior Team; I raced in GP3 and tested their F1 car in 2013.
“From there my single-seater career looked good, though it was always tough with budget as I never had a massive amount.”
There were further single-seater outings, including appearances in Formula E, FIA Formula 2 and Formula Renault 3.5, but like many forward-thinking young drivers Fontana was already considering the bigger picture.
SWITCHING TO GT RACING
“There came a point where I was thinking that this wasn’t the future,” Fontana says of his later years in single-seaters. “I wanted to stay in motorsport and I realised that there was not a real chance to do Formula 1 full-time. I was old enough to decide by myself that I wanted to move to GT in 2016.”
He moved into the Blancpain GT Series with the Garage 59 squad before switching to AKKA ASP Team in 2017. At the end of that year he got an opportunity to drive the Emil Frey Racing outfit’s Jaguar G3 at the season-closing race and grabbed the opportunity with both hands.
2018 has seen him remain in the veteran car. The #54 crew is contesting the full Endurance Cup schedule this term, while Fontana and Grenier combined to score a brace of class podiums at the recent Sprint Cup event at Misano.
“It’s really amazing at Emil Frey Racing; it’s like a family,” says Fontana. “Everyone works for the same thing and you can tell that the mechanics, the engineers and the PR guys are happy in their jobs.”
The #54 Jaguar G3 has been impressive thus far, taking Silver Cup pole at all three Endurance Cup events and winning in style at Monza. Their pace has never been in doubt and many will consider them to be strong class contenders at Spa.
“I think we had made very good improvements with my team-mates, Mikael and Adrian. They’re both very fast drivers, but to be honest we cannot take all the credit because this car was developed by the engineers, mechanics and previous drivers, some of whom are now in the [Emil Frey Racing] Lexus. So it’s work that has been going on year after year. It’s nice to finish the last season for the Jaguar in this way.”
BUILDING A CAREER ON AND OFF THE TRACK
The role with Emil Frey Racing is Fontana’s main focus this season, though it is by no means the only thing that keeps him busy.
Indeed, his mixed programme highlights the diversity that a young driver must possess as they look to build a career in motorsport. Only some of this means time behind the wheel, with other commitments off the circuit also playing a part.
“My main championship is the Blancpain GT Series and thanks to Emil Frey Racing I have quite a solid programme, especially now that we're confirmed for Spa.
“If I had 30 races in a season I probably wouldn’t have time to do anything else, but at the moment I split myself between the Blancpain GT Series, racing in the China Touring Car Championship, and some extra races in prototypes and GT cars.
“I also work as a commentator for Swiss TV on F1 weekends and I have worked on Formula E as well. If I still have free time, I do coaching and instructing work.
“It’s a nice part of the job, because it takes you out everyday. My dad always taught me that if you stay at home doing nothing, then nothing will change. But, if you’re out, you meet new people and new opportunities will follow.”
TAKING INSPIRATION FROM THE PAST
It is fair to say that Fontana has one of the most distinctive helmet designs in the Blancpain GT Series paddock. It is predominantly white with black spikes at the front, and the flags of Greece and Switzerland on either side.
Its origin is anything but ordinary. It is inspired by the late Tom Pryce, a Welsh driver who competed in Formula 1 during the 1970s. A hugely promising competitor who had already scored two podiums, Pryce was just 27 when he lost his life at the 1977 South African Grand Prix.
Many who were watching at the time remember Pryce’s talent. But why does a Swiss-Greek driver born 15 years after his death still carry the Welshman’s colours? Like many aspects of his career, Fontana owes it to his father.
“Many people use the helmets of famous F1 drivers, so we see a lot of Senna and Villeneuve designs. My dad chose the helmet of a driver who was one of the best of his time, but who never achieved what he was supposed to because he sadly died very young.
“When I started – and I could barely understand which was the throttle and which was the brake – he gave me the same helmet. To me, it was only the same helmet as my dad, but later on I discovered that it was Tom Pryce’s design.”
Fontana admits that he did once consider making a change, but by this time people had already come to associate him with the distinctive black and white helmet.
“So I decided to keep it and make it more my own. The Welsh flag on the side became only a dragon, with my own flags added, and the black stripes became a crown of pointy black lines.”
Indeed, he is now glad to have retained the design throughout his racing career.
“The helmet is part of the soul of a driver, and I don’t like to see people change their design. When people think of me, they think of this design. I have a very close feeling to Tom Pryce and I like to think that we have carried on racing together.”
As racing heroes go, it must count as one of the most unique in the paddock. Fontana will now be hoping to carry the colours he shares with Tom Pryce to a Silver Cup victory at the Total 24 Hours of Spa – and a long-term future in the Blancpain GT Series.