Earl Bamber: From the farm to racing ‘magical’ Le Mans

Le Mans, France CNN  — 

He grew up on a farm dreaming of becoming a Formula One star, but Earl Bamber has found another route to the top of motorsport – and he couldn’t happier.

On June 13-14, the New Zealand driver will line up at one of the world’s most prestigious races, making his debut at the Le Mans 24-hour endurance event.

“The first time I drove the track was last year, and it was something special,” the 24-year-old tells CNN’s Human to Hero series.

“I remember hopping out of the car and I said, ‘Please give me more, I can be out there for four or five hours and I’ll still come back with a huge smile and won’t have enough of Le Mans.’ There’s something magical about it.”

03:15 - Source: CNN
Kiwi driver racing to the top of his sport

Le Mans is one of the great 24-hour events, alongside Daytona and Germany’s Nurburgring.

First staged in 1923, it’s a test of speed and stamina that attracts some of the world’s greatest drivers, with the car that completes the most laps winning – most years the total is above 5,000 kilometers (3,100 miles).

It’s very much a team race, and Bamber will be sharing duties in one of the three Porsche 919 hybrids, alongside F1 driver Nico Hulkenberg and Britain’s Nick Tandy.

Former F1 star Mark Webber will drive one of the others, and Bamber’s childhood friend Brendon Hartley will be one of the Australian’s co-pilots.

“I grew up on a farm so I started driving there on my dad’s knee,” Bamber recalls of his early life in the west coast North Island region of Whanganui, where they’d ride quad bikes and pickup trucks around the property.

“We used to go sliding around in the paddock, learn how to do some drifting and stuff like that.”

He followed his father into go-karting – and Hartley, who was a member of the same driving club.

“We didn’t intend to make a professional career out of it, we did it for fun, and then started winning races and it became more and more and more to where it is today.”

The duo are continuing New Zealand’s strong tradition in motor racing – Bruce McLaren formed his own F1 team in the 1960s, which still competes today with world champions Fernando Alonso and Jenson Button as drivers, and he also won Le Mans.

Despite its small size, the country has produced an F1 champion in Denny Hulme, while in more recent times Scott Dixon is a triple IndyCar titleholder in the U.S. and has won the prestigious Indianapolis 500.

“We’ve got a fantastic heritage of racing,” says Bamber. “We used to have all the Formula One drivers in the off-season come down and do the Trans-Tasman series, racing in New Zealand and Australia, and this was really huge back in the day.

“We used to have a really big grounding of motor races when myself and Brendon came through. It’s amazing that you see so many Kiwi drivers right now at the top of world motorsport for such a small country.”

While touring cars and rallying are popular Down Under, Bamber dreamed of becoming the next Michael Schumacher – and he progressed from go-karts to single-seater racing.

He represented New Zealand as a teenager in the penultimate season of the short-lived A1 Grand Prix international series, and also competed in the GP2 Asia competition.

In 2010 Bamber won his national GP, while a chance entry as a late replacement in the Superleague Formula series – in which teams had the names of top football clubs – meant he gave up his role as a TV commentator and claimed two €100,000 ($110,000) prize checks in the China rounds.

But the most significant stage of his career began in 2013 when he entered German manufacturer Porsche’s Carrera Cup Asia series.

He won that title and secured a scholarship to race in Porsche’s 2014 Supercup series – which runs on the undercard of selected Formula One grands prix.

“You drive right at some of the most iconic racetracks in the world … Places like Monaco, Spa, Monza, Singapore,” he says.

Bamber won both the Supercup and Carrera Cup Asia series last year, which led to an invite for him to test in Porsche’s 919 hybrid in Abu Dhabi last November ahead of the 2015 World Endurance Championship season.

Unlike F1, where drivers often need to bring lucrative sponsorship deals to win a race seat with a team, the “Porsche pyramid” – with its scholarship schemes – allows young talent to progress on a limited budget.

“Earl was incredible on the second day in Abu Dhabi,” Porsche LMP1 vice-president Fritz Enzinger told Autosport. “He was at the same level as the regular LMP1 drivers after only an hour in the car.”

LMP1s (Le Mans Prototypes) are the fastest closed-wheel cars in circuit motor racing, and Bamber expects to reach speeds of 340 kph (211 mph) on the straights at the famous French track, taking the curves around 250 kph (155 mph).

“The acceleration is like nothing else on the planet,” says Bamber, who was sixth on his LMP1 debut at Spa in Belgium last month.

“People still see Formula One as the highest level of motorsport but I think now when you see the level of drivers now coming to the WEC and the LMP1 program, it’s world class and probably one of the toughest fields in the world with all the different manufacturers.

“You need to have good judgement with the traffic because there are 56 cars on the track (in different categories) – some are up to 50 seconds a lap quicker so we pass a lot of cars every lap. Then you need to be able to work as a team.”

At Le Mans, each driver can only race for four and half hours out of every six (“Which is still a huge amount of time,” Bamber says) and they usually take naps between each stint at the wheel as the race transitions from afternoon to evening, night and morning.

“It’s quite a challenge to re-engage yourself after being asleep for a few hours,” he adds.

Though the LMP1s are not quite as quick as F1, Bamber believes they are “the most advanced racing cars in the world” – citing engine innovations which have allowed similar speeds at 30% fuel reduction.

“Different manufacturers can choose any engine. Everyone has a different type of hybrid system – this allows a lot more ideas.”

F1 drivers these days seem more concerned with conserving tires than racing as fast as possible, but it’ll be the opposite for Bamber at Le Mans.

“It’s a 24-hour sprint race where you have to go flat out, and you really have to be the fastest car to win,” he says.

His ride at Le Mans is a big chance to stake a place for a full place in Porsche’s top ranks next year – after the French event he will switch to the U.S. Tudor United Sportscar Championship in a Porsche 911 RSR, while also competing in GT races.

Bamber says he has no immediate intention to emulate Dixon and compatriot Hayden Pedersen by driving in IndyCar or NASCAR.

“This is the best racing I’ve ever done. I’m learning a lot at the moment. I want to enjoy the position I’m in right now.”

Editor’s note: Bamber’s team subsequently triumphed at Le Mans – see here for details

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