NZ DRIVERS AT THE WHEEL AS CAR MAKERS PULL OUT THE STOPS FOR ENDURANCE CHALLENGES
Four Kiwis will line up at one of the world’s great races this weekend — the second round of the World Endurance Championship at Spa-Francorchamps in Belgium.
While it is only a six-hour race, Spa is where the big boys pull out all the stops to prepare for the biggest endurance race — the 24 Hours of Le Mans early next month.
Spa-Francorchamps is one of the iconic tracks, with great elevation changes akin to Mt Panorama, fast and challenging corners like Eau Rouge and a long, flat-out straight that lets the cars have their head.
To gear up for Le Mans, Audi is running a third LMP1 car and for the first time Porsche will also field a third LMP1 car.
Kiwi Earl Bamber will share driver duties in the Porsche No 19 car, and fellow New Zealander Brendon Hartley is also in the German manufacturer’s lineup.
“Racing at Spa last year in the Super Cup race was great and winning was even better,” said Bamber.
“The track is phenomenal and I love the place. I can’t wait to race the 919 here and I’m especially looking forward to going through Eau Rouge.
“I’m quietly confident we can do well at Spa, and it’s a great tune-up for Le Mans. Being around the other LMP1 drivers and crew will be good for me as I can soak up the experience and learn so much about passing in heavy traffic, pitstops and all the other stuff that goes on in a factory team.
“A podium would be a bonus. But it’s more about learning about the environment and being able to push the car as fast as I can without over-reaching.
“It’s also pretty cool having other Kiwis in the field and it should ramp up the interest back home in sportscar racing.”
One of Bamber’s co-drivers is Formula One pilot Nico Hulkenberg, the first to race FIA endurance and Grand Prix events in the same year. Third driver is Brit Nick Tandy.
Porsche’s regular WEC drivers will be in the cockpits of the other 919 hybrids. Hartley is with Timo Bernhard (Germany) and Mark Webber (Australia) in car 17; Romain Dumas (France), Neel Jani (Switzerland) and Marc Lieb (Germany) are in car 18.
In his second year as a Porsche works driver, Hartley is confident Spa will suit his car better than Silverstone, site of the WEC opening round in April.
“It has a long straight that will play into our hands as we have a lot of straight-line speed.
“We had a very successful test a couple of weekends ago at Paul Ricard [test track in Provence, France].”
“On paper the track should very much suit our car. However, as was evident at Silverstone, we are expecting a very big fight from the other manufacturers — there were three manufacturers on the podium.
“It’ll also be great to have a couple of other Kiwis racing as I think for the past few years I’ve been the only one.”
GP2 driver Mitch Evans is having a punt at sportscar racing for Jota Sport in a Gibson 015S Nissan LMP2 car, and Richie Stanaway is a factory driver in a LMGTE PRO Aston Martin.