Nick Tandy and Earl Bamber joined F1 star Nico Hulkenberg to win Le Mans – but how did these relative unknowns get there in the first place?
The smile said it all – the big, beaming smile. At Daytona in February, I’d just asked Nick Tandy if he was going to be a Porsche 919 Hybrid LMP1 driver at Le Mans this year. And – once he’d stopped beaming – the words that came out of his mouth were the usual non-committal answer you’d expect from a driver who had been told to keep quiet about it.
Then that smile returned. Of course, I already knew the answer, and then he confessed, off the record natch, that the announcement should be coming very soon…
The driver line-up that won this year’s Le Mans 24 Hours – Nico Hulkenberg, Tandy and Earl Bamber – was categorised as Porsche’s ‘least-favoured’. That sounds harsh, but remember Le Mans counts for double points in the World Endurance Championship – so Porsche naturally wanted its regular championship cars to receive the big scores.
You could also imagine there might just have been an intra-team discussion about allowing the Mark Webber, Timo Bernhard and Brendon Hartley to move ahead in the closing hours…
There’s been a few of examples of the unfancied ‘third car’ taking the big prize – it reminds me very much of 1989, when Mercedes won its second-ever Le Mans with Jochen Mass, Manuel Reuter and Stanley Dickens. Again, it led a 1-2 for a German giant with an illustrious motorsport history. Again, a couple of handy relative-unknowns had backed up a superstar German F1 driver (albeit a retired one) to win.
While the focus was on Hulkenberg this time, winning on his Le Mans debut to become the first contemporary F1 driver to do so since Johnny Herbert and Bertrand Gachot in 1991, spare thought for Tandy and Bamber.
Like ‘The Hulk’, they’re both great guys as well as superb racing drivers.
From Ministox to Le Mans
Tandy’s route to the top has been a strange one. After a successful short oval career in Ministox, he was a star in British Formula Ford (winning the Festival just like Webber) before moving to Formula 3 – winning a race in Mygale at Rockingham against the might of Dallara domination, prompting emotional scenes as it happened just weeks after his brother Joe’s death in a car accident.
After Nick’s single-seater career fizzled out, he switched to one-make Porsche racing – battling for the premier F1-supporting Supercup title with Audi ace Rene Rast in 2010, winning it himself in 2011. From there he became a GT gun for hire, and was picked up by Porsche as a factory driver in 2013.
After taking part in its winter test programme – effectively a shoot-out to become part of the LMP1 plans – the rest became history on Sunday afternoon, as ‘Nick Tandy’ became ‘Le Mans-winner Nick Tandy’ forever.
The flying Kiwi
Bamber’s rags-to-riches story is no less remarkable. His single-seater career was also an irregular one, contesting all kinds of series right around the world.
One crazy break came in 2010 when he turned up for a Superleague Formula race (a soccer team-based open-wheel series – yes, really!) in the Inner Mongolia region of China thinking he was going to commentate for TV. When a regular team’s driver couldn’t get into the country, Bamber donned someone else’s race suit and took his place. By the end of the day, he was a winner – with a EUR100,000 cheque!
Like Tandy, his single-seater career waned through lack of budget and opportunity, but after finding a seat in the Porsche Carrera Cup in Asia in 2013, he netted the championship at his first attempt and finally he’d found his niche.
He won the Porsche Scholarship shoot-out test that followed, taking his EUR200k to a top team and turning it into title success in the headline Porsche Supercup a year later.
Like Tandy, he used that to earn a place on the Porsche GT roster, and ultimately the LMP1 programme too.
Funny how things work out
To conclude, I’ll go back to that Daytona 24 Hours weekend. Just a few hours after we spoke, Tandy’s Porsche 911 GT car (driven by Marc Lieb at the time) was taken out of the race by… an out-of-control Bamber in the sister factory RSR.
What an utterly different outcome their next 24-hour race was together. And how about a tip of the hat to Porsche – drivers have been sacked for less than an intra-team collision, but it had the foresight to back them all the way.
Now has its reward of a 17th overall Le Mans win. There’s a film script, right there!