Earl Bamber – Porsche Pilot

Earl Bamber. [Photo by Jack Webster]

Earl Bamber. [Photo by Jack Webster]

By Jack Webster & Eddie LePine

We had a chance to spend some time with two time Le Mans winner and current IMSA WeatherTech GTLM championship point leader Earl Bamber at the Road America round of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship to discuss how things are going.

Obviously, the first question for this talented Kiwi, was why have so many top drivers come from the small country of New Zealand in the past and continue to do so presently? Just a quick list would include Bruce McLaren, Denny Hulme, Chris Amon, Brendon Hartley and Scott Dixon. And of course, Earl Bamber.

Earl said: “I think competition is built into the culture. I think we’re naturally competitive, regardless of sport, whether it be rugby, sailing or motorsport. When it comes to motor racing, we are blessed with great tracks, a bit like America. We also have a good base of go karting. And importantly, we have a good sponsorship arena – motorsport has a good base of support. It’s like the whole country gets behind a couple of kids, wanting them to go well. Over here (in America), you have a lot of talented kids but the sponsorship gets diluted as there are so many participants and limited funds.”

A question we like to ask drivers is what would they be doing if they had not become a racing driver. The answer is almost universal, but perhaps not for the reason we would first suspect. Most drivers tell us they would be farmers. You might think that is a logical answer because it involves being independent and working outdoors. Earl has a more down to earth answer: “I would probably have ended up the same – because we all grew up on farms.” He went on to tell us that he grew up in New Zealand (born in 1990 in Whanganui) and lived on a farm just about 40 minutes away from Chris Amon’s farm. Perhaps there is something special in the water in New Zealand that has produced such a large class of legendary race drivers. We need to take a trip to the island nation someday to check out that theory.

Earl joined Porsche as a factory driver in 2015, and in that maiden season with the world famous German manufacturer won the 24 Hours of Le Mans in the Porsche 919 LMP1 car. He would repeat that feat again in 2017, again in the Porsche 919. To cap things off in 2017, he won the FIA-WEC World Championship for drivers in the LMP1 category, along with Timo Bernhard and fellow Kiwi Brendon Hartley.

His thoughts on driving the Porsche 919 and comparing it to his current ride, the 911 RSR?

“It does take a bit of adjustment. The first time I got in that thing (the 919), I was like – oh Jesus. I would say you can get up to speed in like ten laps, but what you miss are all the details in the car. Once your head is in the game during the season you get every detail of the car – how to tune it, what it will do in certain conditions, or in the rain. The driving technique is still the same (as the RSR) – it’s driving. You just need to know the idiosyncrasies of the car – the little details – to go really fast.”

Earl is currently leading the IMSA WeatherTech GTLM driver’s championship points (along with co-driver Laurens Vanthoor) with just one race remaining in the season (Motul Petit Le Mans at Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta). Not only is he atop the driver’s championship points, Porsche is leading the manufacturers battle and his Porsche team (car #912) leads the team championship. Since he is doing so well in the US, what does he think about racing on American circuits?

“American tracks are great, because they are what I would call “old school”. There are runoff areas still with grass, and you go off and hit walls. There are consequences to making mistakes. In Europe now it is a bit too much like a car park with all the asphalt runoff areas. In New Zealand, our tracks are pretty much like they were in the sixties, since we don’t have the money to modernize them – grass runoff areas and earth banks, the consequences are pretty huge if you go off.”

“It has made the transition from racing from there to here pretty easy as the tracks are similar. In Europe now, racing is too much like doing a gymkhana. I much prefer racing on American style circuits.”

His thoughts on racing at Road America, one of our favorite tracks in the US. “For me, it’s my favorite event on the calendar. The style of the corners – you have fast corners, you have slow corners, you have a bit of everything. Road America is very unique. It is a combination of everything, with small runoff areas and big elevation changes as well.”

While on the subject of Road America, the topic of comparing cars from different eras was discussed. The modern-day sports car track record at Road America is the Audi R10 TDI with a lap of 1:46.9, while the overall track record is held by Dario Franchitti in an IndyCar at about a 1:39. Porsche 962s were circulating in the 2:02 range in 1988. Going back even further, we discovered that Mark Donohue muscled the 1500+ horsepower Porsche 917/30 around Road America at a time of 1:57. For comparison, Earl’s Porsche 911 RSR is covering Road America’s 4-mile circuit in about 2:00 – only 3 seconds slower than the most powerful sports car ever built – the Porsche 917/30. Why?

Earl knows his stuff. “Tires are a massive step forward. If you follow historic racing, you see that they have major problems with they run those old cars with the new generation tires, because the suspension is not designed for that kind of grip. You also need to look at how long they can sustain those times – qualifying versus race laps. Today’s cars can be much more consistent in performance. I would say that in a 2-hour race, head to head, our RSR would likely beat both the Porsche 917/30 and Porsche 962.”

Finally, we discussed BoP and the Porsche 911 RSR with which he has been so successful this season. How well would the RSR really do if it were unchained from BoP like the Tribute version of the Porsche 919 was?

Again, Earl knew his stuff. “Not that much different than we are running now. The reason is that Porsche builds the car that way. One advantage is that we have a flat 6 engine, which is better for weight distribution. Our car was designed to run to the limit of the rules. We all have idiosyncrasies, as we are a short wheelbase car which is better on a tight circuit whereas BMW is a long wheelbase car, which is better on a track with high speed corners, like Road America. Our car is well suited for the variety of tracks we run on in IMSA. You can’t be good everywhere. That’s why we do a championship, right?”

Right he is, that is why there is a season long championship. With IMSA’s unique blend of race circuits, from the high-speed banks at Daytona, to the rough runways at Sebring, to the tight confines of the Long Beach street circuit, to historic Watkins Glen, high speed Road America or huge elevation changes like Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta, the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship is the perfect test for car and driver.

We are looking forward to seeing how it all turns out for Porsche and Earl Bamber and company at the fitting end to IMSA’s historic 50th anniversary season – Motul Petit Le Mans.

See you there.

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