Earl Bamber: A Le Mans winner unable to defend his crown
Earl Bamber is a name which most racing fans are still not familiar with, even though they probably should be.
Having worked his way up through the ranks at Porsche Motorsport, the New Zealander was handed the opportunity to drive its third LMP1 (Le Mans Prototype 1) 919 Hybrid at the 2015 Le Mans 24 Hours – a race he won outright alongside fellow Le Mans prototype rookies: F1’s Nico Hulkenberg and fellow Porsche up-and-comer Nick Tandy in the same car.
“Get out your diary, look at June and write in there that you have to drive the 919 Hybrid at Le Mans”
But due to the VW emission scandal, Porsche (and sister brand/rival Audi) opted to scale back its effort for the 2016 edition to just two cars at the big race in an effort to cut costs, leaving Bamber and his team-mates without a chance to win again.
After winning ‘the world’s greatest motor race’, it’s bitterly disappointing for Bamber and his fans alike, that he won’t be able to return to the race at the top level and do the double.
Elephant Sport sat down at length with Bamber, to get some personal insight on the #19’s incredible and in some ways unexpected triumph, scoring Porsche’s record 17th win at the Circuit de La Sarthe and how hard it was to hear the news that he wouldn’t be driving in LMP1 again this year.
Bamber’s Le Mans story began while he sat on the floor at a crowded airport gate, waiting to board a plane from Orlando Airport after the Daytona 24 Hours in January 2014. His phone rang – it was Dr Frank Walliser, vice president of motorsport at Porsche AG.
“Earl, I have something important to tell you,” he said. “Get out your diary, look at June and write in there that you have to drive the 919 Hybrid at Le Mans.”
That was how Earl Bamber found out he was going to be at ‘the world’s greatest motor race’ for the first time in an LMP1 car, competing in a race that would turn out to be the most remarkable of his career so far.
New Zealand continues to provide talent in sportscars, and Bamber is proof, becoming the third Kiwi to win the race after Chris Amon and Bruce McLaren back in 1966.
Bamber took up go-karting at eight years old and at the age of 12 was already winning titles. The competition back then was familiar, as Bamber competed, socialised and travelled with his now team-mate Brendon Hartley, which only added to the emotion of standing atop the podium at Le Mans.
“It was great to have Brendon on the podium (after finishing third) with me at Le Mans, as we grew up racing together in the same go-kart club,” he said. “We talked about it when we were karting, we used the same trailer, our families were together and we raced together. But you’d never think aged eight that you’d both be on the same podium at Le Mans together!
Bamber’s career took a path similar to many young drivers, racing in just about every series on the ladder before winding up as a Porsche factory driver. He’d have to wait a few years after being spotted by Porsche for his talents to really be recognised.
“I couldn’t celebrate, I couldn’t tell anybody, not even my parents.”
“I remember the first time I got called to do a test in the 919, it was just before Christmas. Dr Frank Walliser called me and said: ‘I have a Christmas present for you.’ As I’d just signed I didn’t think I’d get the chance so quick, I was just looking to get to grips with my GT career,” he chuckles.
“Frank then called again two weeks after the test and from there the journey started with the preparations for Le Mans. It was weird,” he revealed. “I couldn’t celebrate, I couldn’t tell anybody, not even my parents. It was hard to contain my excitement, it was a dream come true.
“So many Indy Car drivers, F1 drivers, you name it, contacted Porsche and ask if they could drive for them at Le Mans, and instead they chose me to fill that seat at the world’s biggest race.
“Together we merged our ideas and experience and pushed each other in testing and every aspect”
“It’s really special, you don’t quite believe it. When I was waiting for that first test, I was nervous, I did loads of simulator training and the moment I closed the door on the car it was a special moment.”
Getting in the car for the first time was a nerve-racking experience for Bamber, but he quickly adapted.
“The biggest thing for me was the vision,” he says when asked about his first impressions of the car. “It’s a really small box of a window in front, with pillars and stuff. It’s difficult in that sense, but aside from that it felt normal, it’s still a racing car, it still has a steering wheel, pedals.
“It was really nice to have proper downforce again as I haven’t really driven a car like that since I drove for Team New Zealand in now defunct A1GP (the World Cup of Motorsport) series. I adapted to it well, I enjoyed it.”
Alongside him in his two-round contract for the WEC in the #19 would be Nick Tandy and Nico Hulkenburg. Being effectively a third bullet for the team though, meant team-building and chances outside of the few weekends spent testing and racing to get to know his co-drivers were few and far between.
Tandy was alongside Bamber in the US but Hulkenburg was consumed by Force India, meaning the trio had to gain chemistry together on the job.
“Race week can be overwhelming for a driver, but Bamber seemed to just soak it all up”
“When I got the call that I’d be driving, I was told immediately I’d be with Nick and Nico. I think it was a great combination, as Nick and I had come from GT racing and obviously Nico has an F1 background. So together we merged our ideas and experience and pushed each other in testing and every aspect,” Bamber says.
“We trust each other, we get on well so all the important stuff was easier to get on with.
“We kept in touch via WhatsApp all the time, but we didn’t get the chance to really get out and meet with each other much. During the races and longer tests though we spent so much time together and we got to know each other in difficult situations.
“When we came to Le Mans, it just felt like another test day.”
But when I met Bamber at Spa, and spoke to him for the first time face-to-face, he didn’t seem quite as confident. “I’m here for Porsche,” he said, giving the impression he was very much considered the new kid on the block.
“This weekend is all about learning, we are all so new to this. After doing so much running in GTs, it’s taken a bit of time to get comfortable dealing with the traffic.”
After downplaying his chances, he finished sixth in his P1 World Endurance Championship debut at Spa in Belgium, headed into the Le Mans test day, and then the race.
He treated Le Mans – a race with over 260 thousand spectators in the stands – as if it was just a normal race weekend, so when he found himself leading the race in the closing stages after a costly penalty handed to Mark Webber gave the #19 crew a healthy margin, he was able to watch Nico cross the line with his nails in tact.
“It was just a nice drive through the French countryside really.”
“It was clear that all three cars were there to win, it was important that Porsche won. Porsche were clear to us, it didn’t matter which car, Porsche needed to win. We did the test day, and we realised that the trio we had were quick and capable.
“We qualified third and said to each other that we’d have a shot at a podium if we kept it clean. We didn’t have a special tactic, we just relaxed, and did what we love doing, which is driving race cars fast!”
“I remember when the sun came up that we had it, we had a lap lead it was our race to lose, we just had to be careful. It was still massively enjoyable though, I can’t believe how relaxed I was.
“Porsche is one big family, that’s a big part of the reason why I won Le Mans, and why I keep winning things”
“My stint at lunchtime on Sunday was amazing, it was just a nice drive through the French countryside really.
“Everyone asks me to describe how I felt at the end of the race, but I can’t. Just look at the images of it, you can’t put into words how happy we were and what it meant to us. As a kid I dreamt of it, and when we crossed the line I realised it. It was also our first time in LMP1, we were rookies, it was a risk to be there and it paid off.
“I was also so tired, it was unbelievable. I was up from 6am Saturday until 10pm Sunday. I don’t remember much, it was all adrenalin. I remember going to the Porsche employee camp in Weissach after and seeing all the workers, and how excited and proud they were to have been a part of it.”
Since the big win, Bamber hasn’t driven an LMP1 car. He had to go back to his roots with Porsche, driving GT cars during the second half of 2015, before being told his dream of driving at the top of sportscar racing in LMP1 with the marque would have to be put on hold for the year.
“Hopefully I’ll get another shot in the future, I’m eager to win the race again”
He know’s he’s in a good position, with so much left in his career. So what’s next?
“I don’t pay much attention to my future and speculation surrounding that,” he admitted. “At the moment I represent Porsche, and I want to represent them the best I can. I’m not worried about where I’ll be, I’ll let the guys above me decide. Porsche is one big family, that’s a big part of the reason why I won Le Mans, and why I keep winning things.
“Sure, I’m very disappointed that I’m not driving in a prototype this year, but that’s how things go. Things change quickly.
“Hopefully I’ll get another shot in the future, as I’m desperate to win the race again.”