Macau GP, my name is Earl
From the country to the city
Any driver who would like to know a thing or two about climbing up the career ladder – or is wondering which is the best one-make series to embark on – would do well to take Earl Bamber as a case study.
Growing up on a farm in Whanganui, rural New Zealand was about as far away from the epicentre of motorsport as it was possible to get. Yet he did it all, on his own terms. Earl started off his sports car racing career in the Porsche Carrera Cup in Asia. He won that. He then made the big step up to the Porsche Supercup, which supports Formula 1. He won that as well, in his first year. From there, he was taken on as a Porsche factory driver in GT racing, and when the LMP1 project was announced in 2015, Earl was among the driver line-up.
Incredibly, during his rookie year, he won the race in the company of two other rookies: F1 racer Nico Hulkenberg, and long-time Porsche racer Nick Tandy (yet another driver to have climbed his way up the ladder via Porsche's one-make series).
Bamber's epic stints during the night were crucial to the victory; then two years later he did it again. Porsche's LMP1 programme is now over, but Bamber always had many other skills to his repertoire as well as Le Mans. He's been a regular fixture at Macau since 2013, having beaten nine-time World Rally Champion Sébastien Loeb in an identical Porsche. Now aged 29, he's at the top of his game.
The taste of success
Arguably, Bamber won the FIA GT World Cup at Macau three years ago, given that he crossed the finish line first. But in actual fact he wasn't the winner, as the race was stopped following an accident that left Audi driver Laurens Vanthoor on his roof.
The results were declared based on the order at the end of the previous lap, which gave Vanthoor the victory: probably the first time in motorsport history that the race winner has ended it upside down. Ironically, Vanthoor is now Bamber's regular team mate at Porsche for endurance races and the two are best of friends: a well-recognised ‘bromance' within GT circles. This year, they are even team mates at Rowe Racing – in a Porsche of course.
Macau is somewhat different from most GT races though, as the drivers compete individually, with no quarter given to anyone else. It's the sort of close racing that has often led to some spectacular pile-ups, making Macau one of the most gladiatorial competitions left on earth. A number of teams and drivers have suggested in the past that the FIA GT World Cup should be held elsewhere, as Macau is too dangerous and there's too much damage on the cars. But that's sort of the point. It's a true bear pit: the survival of the fittest. At any point, those shiny GT cars that take the start could be reduced to a ball of smoking scrap. But that only adds to the glory for the winner. “It's just an amazing circuit and I love every lap,” is how Earl describes it.
Doing it properly
Coming to Macau for the fifth time, he would desperately love to be first past the flag; for real this time. Last year, he was fourth – just off the podium – so the top step is within touching distance. Recently, BMW has been the team to beat at Macau, thanks to Brazilian driver Augusto Farfus in particular. Macau isn't like any other tracks, as it requires a particularly balanced type of car and driver to get the most out of it, given the mix of flat-out straights and twisty mountain corners. Set up is a real headache, with the best compromise normally delivering the most success, rather than prioritising a particular area of the track. Raw aggression can make up for any shortcomings, but at some point drivers will have to know how to defend too: a car that's quick on the straights will normally be slower through the corners and vice versa.
“I had a very fast car last year, especially in the race, but there was no chance to overtake on this tight and fast circuit, which prevented me from getting to the very front,” remember Earl. “This year we need to do everything we can to achieve a better grid position in qualifying. The Porsche 911 GT3 R will help us with this. I'm looking forward to competing for Rowe Racing with Laurens. We'd like to add another chapter to our BamThor story.”
Strap yourself in…