“What happened to me is surreal”The Kiwi driver Earl Bamber explains how he went from working as a driving instructor to winning Le Mans in the space of three years
Serendipity, self-belief and playing Gran Turismo helped Earl Bamber get his racing career back on track after it looked to have stalled before it really got started. The 25-year-old was tipped for great things as a teenager, but a lack of funding and opportunities forced him to move to Asia in 2010 to work as a driving instructor and TV commentator. A chance meeting with a team owner led to a drive in the Porsche Carrera Cup Asia series. Bamber won the 2013 championship and backed it up the following year by winning the Porsche Supercup. At the end of last year Bamber joined the Porsche factory team, and in June he teamed up with Force India Formula One driver Nico Hülkenberg and Nick Tandy to win the 24 Hours of Le Mans, one of the world’s great motorsport events.
THE RED BULLETIN: What are your abiding memories of racing at Le Mans?
EARL BAMBER: Watching grown men crying in the pits after the race made me realise the enormity of what we’d achieved. We took the trophy to the Porsche factory in Stuttgart and the joy on everyone’s faces was special. We get all the glory, but without the engineers and mechanics, we’re nothing.
Sharing the podium with your childhood friend Brendon Hartley (who was second in another Porsche) must have been special.
It was crazy. Porsche last won Le Mans in 1998. I was eight years old and had just started racing go-karts with Brendon. We used to play on the swings together and Brendon taught me how to overtake. We could never have imagined that 17 years later we’d finish first and second at Le Mans.
Were you fast from the start in a go-kart?
After six months my dad asked, ‘Do you really want to do this?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I love it.’ He said: ‘You realise you’re useless, don’t you? You’re getting lapped in every race.’ Soon after that we went to a race and I saw this big trophy and I told my dad, ‘I’m going to win that trophy.’ He laughed, but I won the race and kept on winning after that. It just clicked.
You struggled to find a drive in your early 20s. How tough was that?
Moving to Asia was a gamble, but if you don’t roll the dice your life won’t change. It was difficult when I wasn’t driving, but I focused on other things. I read The Winner’s Bible by Dr Kerry Spackman and worked on goal setting, time management and other tools to make life easier.
How did you stay sharp when you weren’t racing?
I watched a lot of races and played a lot of Gran Turismo. I was lucky that I still got to play with race cars in my day job as a driving instructor. In my first race back I was rusty and struggled with fitness, but you never forget how to drive.
Did you ever give up your dreams of making it?
Never. I knew that I just needed an opportunity. I’ve always believed in my talent, but motorsport is so unpredictable. It’s quite surreal what happened to me and the way it played out.
What was the turning point?
I was doing driver training with Adrian D’Silva, the team principal with Nexus Racing. I tried to tell him what he was doing wrong in the car and he said, ‘You don’t know what you’re talking about. You think you can drive quicker than me?’ I jumped in his car and when he saw my lap times he sponsored me to race in the Carrera Cup Asia series in 2013. That was the start of it.
After your first test drive for Le Mans, Porsche vice-president Fritz Enzinger said: ‘Earl was incredible. He was at the same level as our regular drivers after only an hour in the car.’ How did you manage it?
I think that my obscure career path helped. I’ve driven nearly every kind of car, so I’ve lots of experience. The Porsche LMP1 [that Bamber drove to victory at Le Mans] has a steering wheel and four tyres, so it’s like any other car. As a driver you dream of challenging yourself against the world’s best. I’m living that dream with Porsche.