Home Featured Earl Bamber’s epic racing journey: From A1GP teen to Le Mans great

Earl Bamber’s epic racing journey: From A1GP teen to Le Mans great

by Alejandro Alonso Lopez

Photos: Porsche AG

Earl Bamber has come a long way in his career. He may not have appeared in F1, but he raced professional single-seaters as a teen and has since become a sportscar great as he recounted to Alejandro Alonso Lopez

Formula Scout sat with Barber to discuss his career from his early days in single-seaters to his Le Mans glory and more.

“I started off in New Zealand in in go-karts and then Formula Ford. Asia was a more affordable way to be able to make the step to Europe. We didn’t have the budget to come immediately to Europe, so that was sort of an intermediate step,” he said.

“From there, I managed to win the Formula BMW Asia championship and get some recognition. Unfortunately, we also didn’t have the budget to even go to the World Finals that year, which was a bit of a shame.”

Bamber’s early years in motorsport were significantly influenced by the lack of funding. Although he chose to follow the Asian path to Formula 1 because it was cheaper, there were several moments in his career where not having enough budget prevented him from fulfilling his potential.

After coming second in Formula V6 Asia and the Toyota Racing Series in 2008, he competed part-time in GP2 Asia and the professional level A1GP series (driving for Team New Zealand) and impressively was able to score podiums in both aged 18. That year’s A1GP car was based on the Ferrari F2004 that had dominated Formula 1 in 2004 and with its clutch of lap records is a dream car for any driver. This posed Bamber a big challenge, but nothing the young Kiwi couldn’t cope with.

“It was absolutely incredible. I mean, it was one of the fastest cars on the planet at the time. I just wish I was a few years older because just being 18 years old, coming directly from nearly Formula Renault, was a big big step and, for sure, I did not have the experience to do a great job. I was fast, but I didn’t have the experience.”

However, Bamber is happy with how life developed from his early introduction to such powerful machinery. “I wouldn’t change it for anything that I went there that early because it taught me a lot in my racing and made me a much stronger driver.”

Bamber’s single-seater CV
Series Starts Wins Poles Podiums
A1GP 10 1x 2nd 1x 2nd 3
Superleague Formula 8 1 1x 2nd 3
GP2 Asia 5 1x 2nd 1x 9th 1
Auto GP 2 2x 4th 1x 5th 0
Int. Formula Master 8 1 1x 3rd 1
TRS 70 17 5 27
Australian F3 3 1x 3rd 2x 2nd 1
Formula V6 Asia 8 1x 2nd 1 1
Formula BMW Asia 23 10 3 14
NZ Formula Ford 17 3 1 6
South Island FFord 5 5 ? 5

Developing set-ups, understanding how races run, managing tyre degradation and the strategy were the main challenges of A1GP’s final season according to Bamber. Remarkably two of his three podiums came in his debut weekend at Zandvoort. After that, he had to sit out the next event in China but finished third on his return at Sepang before skipping his home round in his seat share. Bamber did the remaining three events after, but wouldn’t be able to capitalise on his good speed.

“I think getting podiums immediately was a bit of an issue. Everyone presumes that you know everything and that you are very experienced,” he explained. “At the end of the day you can have some good races where you are quick and you get a win, but in the middle of the season we struggled a bit with swapping the drivers. We lost some performance and at the end of the year we got some really good speed back, but never showed it again.”

After three podiums in his first three races, Bamber’s time in A1GP concluded with a sixth, an eighth and then five successive retirements. The year after he finally made it to Europe on a limited schedule, and lack of budget meant he couldn’t race outside of his native TRS.

In October 2010, Bamber cameoed in Superleague Formula. It was another professional level open-wheel series, and Bamber took the place of Alvaro Parente as FC Porto’s driver as the series headed to China for the first time at the new Ordos circuit. Once again Bamber adapted quickly to the car, qualifying eighth then making up four places in his first two racing laps before making more passes to finish on the podium on debut. That qualified him for the short ‘super final’ at the end of the weekend, which he won €100,000 in against the title contenders. But the weekend was far more remarkable than just that.

“Actually, it was by pure luck,” Bamber recalled of how he debuted in SLF. “I was working as a television commentator and one day [before] Alvaro Parente didn’t get a visa for China. They knew that I could drive and they needed the car on the grid, so they selected me to drive. I hadn’t really driven a car for nearly half a year and jumped straight in and qualified I think it was in the top six and raced to the podium in the first race.”

Photo: Superleague Formula

Bamber had to borrow race gear from across the paddock to be able to drive, so was lucky there was key kit in his size, and the victory he ended the weekend with came after the on-the-road winner was penalised for starting from his grid spot.

Parente got his visa sorted for the races on Beijing’s streets a few days later, and Bamber was set to commentate before being asked to race the PSV Eindhoven car run by the same crew as Porto’s. Again he claimed the jackpot, and in dramatic style, as track safety concerns led to the event losing championship status, the super final being cancelled and sixth and second places for Bamber – despite qualifying 18th after a compromised session – making him the weekend’s top performer.

Despite success in F1-level cars, Bamber still lacked budget and a reputation in Europe. He started 2011 by competing part-time in TRS, did the SLF season opener but was then in commentary again by round two. And so it was time for Bamber to shift focus from single-seaters to GT racing.

“My aim was purely to get back into racing because I was not really racing that much at the time. The biggest struggle was always to get the seat and find the funding. I went into GT racing, as I got a chance to go into Carrera Cup Asia in 2013.

“I had one goal which was to become a Porsche junior. My first year, my goal was not actually to win the championship, but to get the scholarship to go to Europe. We managed to win the championship along the way and then in 2014 I did every Carrera Cup I could with Asia, Europe and Supercup. It was great. [Porsche factory driver and team owner] Timo Bernhard gave me the chance and we were leading all championships at one time, so this was really good.

“The opportunity to test Porsche’s LMP1 car came on the back of the good results of the Carrera Cup, but also came on the results of what I had done in single-seaters before, showing the speed, because they knew that I knew how to drive a high-downforce car. When I got back into it, it was immediately natural and at home, so it was quite nice.”

This tuned out to be the beginning of a long and very successful relationship between Porsche Motorsport and Bamber, which continues today. The highlight is his 2015 and ’17 Le Mans 24 Hours wins, the first of which occurred seven years ago today.

Photo: Superleague Formula

“The biggest challenge was winning Le Mans, and especially the first time in 2015. This was the biggest pressure because Porsche was coming back and we all wanted to do it.

“A lot of people ask me what it is like to win Le Mans. I always say Le Mans wouldn’t be special if you don’t do everything leading up to it.

“When you work with such a big team of people whose goal is to win Le Mans for one year in advance, and that’s their only goal, when you finally achieve it, it feels special, not just for the drivers, but for every single individual in the team.

“I think that’s what makes Le Mans special. Some people hunt it for their entire career as a driver, as a team owner, as an engineer, and some never achieve it. So, when you manage to achieve just one victory there, it’s something special. And I think the first is always the most special, but it’s also the elusiveness of Le Mans that makes it also a big challenge. You cannot test there. It’s only one weekend a year that we can all go there and try to master it.”

Bamber shared his winning Porsche 919 Hybrid in 2015 with Nick Tandy and then-Force India F1 driver Nico Hulkenberg, and then in 2017 he conquered the biggest race in the world for the second time on his way to become World Endurance champion with Bernhard and fellow Kiwi Brendon Hartley as team-mates.

Formula Scout asked Bamber whether he felt that he should have had the chance to go to F1 as happened with Hartley, who was signed by Toro Rosso to do the final four grand prix of 2017 as then the whole 2018 season. From his answer, it is pretty clear that having the chance of winning is everything for Bamber.

“In all honesty, I did not really have the desire to go to F1 at the time, especially if I couldn’t go in a good team. If you’ve won everything, I don’t think you want to go to F1 just to be on the grid.

“I don’t think it’s something that really interests me. It’s only interesting if you can drive one of the good cars, a Mercedes, a Ferrari, a Red Bull. Something like that would be interesting or if there was a real way to go from a mid-pack car into this direction going, but just to go for being at the back is not really something of interest.

“With my age, it was not really possible to have the time to do two or three years in a mid-pack car and then go up. So, to be honest, I did not really look at it. The most enjoyable racing for me was GTLM. It was still factory racing, and there was development with the manufacturer.”

After his first Le Mans win, Bamber didn’t actually get another chance in LMP1 for almost two years. Instead, Porsche placed him its works-supported teams in GTs and he competed in WEC and IMSA before his full-time LMP1 call-up. That programme came to a close after 2017, and they returned their focus to GTs again. Bamber was IMSA’s GTLM champion in 2019.

Apart from racing himself, which he now does as a factory Cadillac driver in IMSA’s top prototype class with Chip Ganassi Racing, Bamber and his brother Will – also a racing driver – run their own Earl Bamber Motorsport team which primarily competes in spec Porsche series. The aim of this project is to support young drivers, particularly those from New Zealand.

“I struggled for funding at that early part of my career, so we are trying to create a scholarship so there’s a platform and a pathway where young kids, who don’t have the funding or the millions of dollars that it costs to go to F1, can look to aspire to go into this Carrera Cup,” Bamber explained.

“We have an open seat where we don’t look for politics, we don’t look for anything, we just look for the best drivers that we can find to give them a chance to have a racing career, and to find the best drivers and give them this chance and mentor them.

“Then, once they have this opportunity, they can find their way in GT racing or maybe go back to single-seater racing. That’s the pathway for us. It’s nice to have a small impact on their careers by giving them that opportunity.”

Bamber’s sportscars CV (additional class wins in brackets)
Series Starts Wins Poles Podiums
IMSA 65 1 (6) 2 (3) 8 (20)
WEC 14 5 1 10
GT World Cup 8 2x 2nd 2x 3rd 3
Bathurst 12 Hours 4 1x 5th (2)   0 (3)
Porsche Supercup 13 2 3 8
Porsche Carrera Cup DEU 10 2 1x 2nd 5
Porsche Carrera Cup Asia 23 15 8 22

Reigning TRS champion Matthew Payne did Porsche Carrera Cup Australia with Bamber’s team last year and his career has blown up since. He’s already got a deal to race in Australian Supercars, is leading its Super2 support series, has starred in the European Le Mans Series too in 2022 and reunited with Earl Bamber Motorsport this month in GT World Challenge Europe.

For now, Bamber’s focus for his team is GTs due to the close working relationship with Porsche, but he doesn’t rule out offering coaching to young drivers who are starting their career in single-seaters.

“I have looked at purchasing some single-seaters to bring some drivers in and do some coaching with them and stuff like that,” he revealed.

“Our goal was starting with Porsche in the Carrera Cup. We have the 992 [version of the 911] coming in Australia and we also have two GT3 cars in Asia. That keeps us busy enough for the moment. I would like to get one or two single-seaters, but this is the main thing for the moment.”

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