New Zealand has its strongest representation at the iconic 24 Hours of Le Mans in many years with four young drivers lining up to start the race this weekend.
Racing for the three-car Porsche LMP1 team, Brendon Hartley of Palmerston North and Earl Bamber of Wanganui are part of a lock-out of the front three grid positions and thus stand a good chance of winning the world’s oldest motor race.
Hartley has a whole season racing in the top category behind him, and takes the start in a three man team with Mark Webber and Timo Bernhard. In 2014 Hartley and team-mates Mark Webber and Timo Bernhard were leading with Webber taking the final stint but the car suffered a mechanical failure and had to be retired
Earl Bamber is on the rise, with multiple Porsche Carrera Cup titles to his credit, and has been allocated a seat in Porsche’s third 919 Hybrid LMP1 car, racing alongside with German F1 driver Nico Hulkenberg and Brit Nick Tander. Bamber raced at Le Mans last year in a Carrera Cup support race, he was battling for the lead when he cut a tyre and had to pit, dropping down the field to DNF.
In the LMP2 and GT classes Kiwi drivers Mitch Evans (Auckland) and Richie Stanaway (Tauranga) come to the legendary race fresh from having won their classes at the six-hour warmup event at Spa-Francorchamps, Belgium, last month. Both are new to the 13.6 km Le Mans circuit, where the top LMP1 cars will reach speeds of 335 km/h and more.
Evans will be in the Jota Sport LMP2 with Brits Oliver Turvey and Simon Dolan.
Stanaway secured pole early in the 1st qualifying session for the GT class, and will start from P34. He shares the Aston Martin LMGTE with Brazilian Fernando Rees and Brit Alex MacDowall.
The four kiwis are all alumni of Toyota New Zealand’s unique single seater category the Toyota Racing Series, 10 years ago at the age of 15 yrs Hartley won the very first TRS race, Bamber competed at the front finishing on the series podium twice and winning a NZ Grand Prix Title, Evans is a double TRS champion and Stanaway won on debut on the streets of Hamilton. The series has provided many of New Zealand’s current talent with the opportunity to hone their skills against international talent as they head up the ladder of world motorsport.
These young kiwis will be trying to emulate the efforts of Chris Amon and Bruce McLaren who crossed the line to win Le Mans in 1966 finishing ahead of another Kiwi, Denny Hulme, and his American team-mate Ken Miles. Both were driving the classic Ford GT40 MKII.
Chris Amon told the NZ Herald this week he is delighted to see four young New Zealand drivers line up this year.
"I didn't think there would be four Kiwis racing at the same time and all with a chance of a good result. It's great to see. It's possible you might see more than one Kiwi on the podium [in different categories] at the end of the race.
"It's an amazing event and it's got so much history and so many stories. It's like the Indy 500 and Monaco Grand Prix with so much tradition and atmosphere. In terms of Le Mans, qualifying isn't that important, although you want to be somewhere near the front so you don't get caught up in a mess on the first lap in the middle of the field.
"One thing you can say about Le Mans is that you can't bet on anything. Things have changed a bit since I was racing there but getting to the end on the lead lap is the hard thing to do - so many things can go wrong."