TWO Kiwi Porsche works drivers at the top of their high-speed game say experiencing the New Zealand Grand Prix at Manfeild was deeply influential on their subsequent elevation to international careers.
As respective co-winners with Porsche 919 Hybrid teammates of last year’s World Endurance Championship and the Le Mans 24 Hours, childhood friends Brendon Hartley of Palmerston North and Wanganui’s Earl Bamber are regarded as the Stuttgart marque’s top young stars.
Racing commitments prohibit them attending their home track on February 12-14 for the 2016 Grand Prix, but they each assure biggest race on the domestic motorsport scene at their home track will be in their thoughts when they are half a world away.
The pair, who followed similar career paths in karting then circuit racing – including the ultimate Toyota Racing Series category - but never actually competed against each other at Manfeild hope this year’s competitors make the most of an occasion that, they promise, is very much on the world map.
“For me it was the start – competing in the NZGP, racing in Toyota Racing Series and winning that very first TRS race was what got me noticed in Europe. It was what got me onto the international stage,” Hartley says.
“It was a springboard for me … without having that and without having people in New Zealand who were prepared to support young drivers, it would never have been possible.”
Bamber agrees TRS exposure and achieving an outright GP victory – something his mate missed out on, but only just – was also good for his own CV.
“Winning the NZGP in 2010 was also a very special moment for me … there are some great names associated with that race and it’s a big box to tick,” Bamber says.
Three seasons of TRS involvement was also great. “I was in the A1GP junior driver team under Sir Colin Giltrap and it (TRS) gave me a good stepping stone into that car.”
Manfeild circuit also means a lot.
“It’s still my home track, it’ll always be my home circuit. I have some great memories,” says Hartley, recalling that some of his earliest were actually of when he was a pre-schooler, watching his dad, Bryan, compete in HQ Holdens and Mini Sevens.
“I grew up watching racing there,” adds Bamber. “So it was really incredible for me to have the chance to race there as well. It’s a great track and it means a lot to me.”
Both have busy schedules for their glamour employer this year; after a quick break at home that ended with involvement at a Porsche celebration near Auckland last weekend they are now in America, preparing to race separate cars in the Daytona 24-Hour.
After that Hartley is heading back to Germany to ready for another WEC season with the all-conquering 919 Hybrid, again with Germany’s Timo Bernhard and Mark Webber of Australia.
The main aspiration is to retain the world title but being able to secure a Le Mans win is also highly desirable for a trio who, having been with the 919 Hybrid project since it began, have been most instrumental in its development.
“We have the No.1 on the car this year which is a big target and we know the competition is going to be stepping up a level,” Hartley said.
“There are going to be a lot of new cars whereas we will be racing the same car but with a lot of updates. It is going to be an interesting year but we are confident and in good spirits.”
Porsche's decision to run just two 919 Hybrids at the French classic means Bamber won't be able to defend his outright title, but it has committed to the series of world-class long distance races means he’ll be at Le Mans racing a 911 in the GT3 sub-class. This is in addition to being tasked with contesting the United States’ sportscar championship in the same model and category.
It’s a busy year with lots of travel for a driver now based in Malaysia, but he’s fizzed: The potential of a class win at Le Mans is especially appealing.
“Hopefully I can get back into WEC again but we are very busy with the GT programme, starting at the Daytona race. We are also out to win the Nurburgring 24-hour this year and then chase that class victory at Le Mans. There’s a lot to do.”
As always the NZGP meeting is the last stanza of a five-weekend, 15-race championship for TRS, which this year has a bumper field of young international talent, drawn from 13 countries and including several drivers already on the books of big name racing brands and teams.
The big load of support categories – Toyota Finance 86 Championship, BNT New Zealand Touring Cars, UDC V8 Utes, the SsangYong Race Series, Formula Ford, Formula First and Formula 5000 – means the greater part of practice and qualifying will be on the Friday, February 12.
“With more racing than any other meeting in the series and the NZGP title race as well we’re a truly fitting finale,” Manfeild chief executive Julie Keane says.
Tickets are available at Ticket Direct, with prices and more information on the Manfeild website, www.manfeild.co.nz.
For more information:
Chief Executive Officer,
Manfeild Park Trust.
027 659 9666.