Interview with Porsche LMP1 driver Timo Bernhard
Timo Bernhard has been a long time Porsche driver who has won the 24 Hours of Le Mans in the GT Class as well as the LMP1 class (with Audi in 2010). His many years of racing for both Porsche and Audi have given him the exact sort of experience a team looking forward to a return to sportscar racing would find valuable. We caught up with the German driver at Hockenheim and asked him about Porsche and their 2014 return to Le Mans.
Timo Bernhard is one of six drivers who will pilot the new Porsche LMP1 at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 2014
You've had tremendous experience at Le Mans, winning the GT Class and the LMP1 class too. What is it like for you to be a part of Porsche's return to Le Mans in 2014?
TS: Well, it's many things. For me it's a dream coming true because I became a Porsche Junior in 1999. At that time I had just turned 18, when Porsche gave me the opportunity to grow to a factory driver or a professional racecar driver. Back then in 1999 there was a further goal - that if I succeed as a junior driver that one time in the future maybe I can be a factory driver, part of a full factory effort at Le Mans for overall victory. But then I never expected that it would take 15 years to be in this spot. But I did many things with Porsche - GT races, I won with the RS Spyder programme the 12 Hours of Sebring, the American Le Mans Series. But this programme now, the return back to Le Mans in the sportscar championship in 2014, it's a major milestone in my career. This is something I am really looking forward to. Because it's a programme starting from zero - a white sheet of paper and you have to give all your thoughts, your feedback, your feelings into the programme to really bring your part towards making it successful. This is something that you only get one time in your career.
You've been a part of the project from the very beginning. How much have you managed to contribute in terms of driver development so far?
I mean the driver has for sure some influence in the project so far. Nowadays the cars are very high in terms of technology. Even though the new rules for 2014 mean that you only have a limited amount of fuel per lap (for manufacturer teams) means that the driver plays a big role in that. I mean in terms of development of the car you need good driver feedback. So that you develop in the right direction. You need good driver feedback for small things - correct seat position, switches and buttons, driving style-wise and set-up wise the driver can contribute towards development in many ways. But still, it is a team effort. Nowadays the long distance races have become so quick. It really is a sprint race over a long distance, and I think this has changed over the last few years. I mean Porsche and Le Mans go together for a long time. I mean Porsche is a record holder in terms of victories at Le Mans, and this is a high challenge that we are going to have to face. And I am really looking forward to being back.
Realistically, what are Porsche's chances at Le Mans in 2014?
I mean right now we're in the testing phase. We still have some work ahead of us, that's for sure. We take it very seriously. We really want to work hard to make it a success for Porsche. But I mean next year we want to be competitive. This is our goal. The rest we have to see, because the competition is very hard. I have driven myself for Audi for four years, when I was on a loan from Porsche. I won 2010 overall with Audi at Le Mans, so I know how strong the team is. And Toyota just grew and grew the last couple of years at Le Mans, so the benchmark is there. We know how hard the competitors are going to be. It's motorsport at its highest level. So you need some time for sure to go to that level. I mean next year is definitely going to be quite a challenge. But there are so many Porsche enthusiasts around the world that are going to cheer for us, that gives us extra motivation.
And you've obviously tested the LMP1 prototype as well...
I had the honour to do the first rollout in June with the new Porsche LMP1 car. Since then I have tested many times in the car. Since then we've done roughly about two tests a month. I had a bunch of tests already. I mean I was a part of the 911 RSR factory programme in the WEC until Le Mans. At Le Mans this year we had a double victory. But until Le Mans, I didn't do any racing. I was just focussed on the LMP1. I think we decided we were going to do this properly from the start. I mean it is so detailed and so passionate, this programme, you really can just focus on that.
So far there have been four drivers confirmed for 2014, with two more to go. Have the teams already begun to take structure? Do you know who you'll be driving with?
It's not official yet and I don't know if anything has been written down already. Because there are still two drivers missing and until they are finalised you cannot mix the teams together. But for sure it's very important in long distance racing that you get along with your team-mate very well. This is a major key. So far, of the team-mates that have already been announced, with Romain (Dumas) I have had a relationship for a long time, and Neel Jani I know from many races that we did. I've met Mark Webber and he's a great addition to the team. So far with the four drivers we have the team looks very strong.
We've been told that you're gearing up for a complete simulation that could be as long as 30 hours ahead of the 24 Hours of Le Mans
Well, I don't know how they're going to do it. I know that at Audi they did 30 hour runs and you change drivers, exactly like it was a race. It's part of the preparation. You not only develop the car, but also bring it up to a certain level, go into the small details like driver changes, how the driver changes during the pitstops. Long distance races are so complex. You have traffic, with the different speeds of cars, pitstops itself, strategy, and driver changes. If small things don't fit, then the whole thing can go bad. I think there are a lot more things that have to fit in a long distance race as compared to a sprint race. It's a lot more challenging.