IMSA: Porsche drivers enter Daytona restart while facing uncertain future
Porsche driver Laurens Vanthoor has a picture-perfect memory of the GT Le Mans championship that he won with Earl Bamber last season in the IMSA WeatherTech Series.
As Bamber crossed the finish line for a fifth in the series finale at Road Atlanta, Vanthoor leapt into the arms of his exultant mechanics.
“We finally achieved a goal we all wanted, and we’re all screaming, and half of us were crying for joy,” Vanthoor said during a Zoom media call Monday. “It just shows the emotion and the power of will we had to achieve that.
SCHEDULE RESHUFFLING: IMSA moves three race dates because of COVID-19
“That was definitely the highlight of (his past three seasons with Porsche). To think about that makes me even more sad now that it will end because we really worked hard on having a really good group and feeling together. But you know, that’s life.”
As IMSA restarts its season Saturday at Daytona International Speedway after a five-month layoff from the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, CORE autosports’ Porsche 911 RSR-19 entries unfortunately will be facing the beginning of the end.
Porsche Motorsports announced June 4 that it would end its factory support of the team, which fields the No. 912 of Bamber and Vanthoor and the No. 911 of Nick Tandy and Frederic Makowiecki, after the 2020 season.
Porsche cited the “economic fallout” of the pandemic, and the impending pullout caught drivers off guard.
“For sure, it’s a big disappointment for everybody,” Vanthoor said. “It came as a very big surprise. It was the last thing we were expecting even a week before that was decided. So it was a bit of a shock.”
Despite initial negative reverberations, Porsche drivers said the close-knit team quickly turned the bad news into a rallying cry.
“So you can say, ‘OK, I’m disappointed,’ and maybe be in a bad mood and everything -- which definitely we were the first couple of days -- but on the other hand, it’s also a moment to prove a point,” Vanthoor said. “There’s nothing better for our mechanics, our team and for ourselves to go out with a boom. And to show last year wasn’t coincidence. It was because we worked hard and well together.
“Obviously with the future unseeable, some of the group will have to pursue new roads in their careers. So we know it’s best to be even more motivated to show what we can do. And there’s nothing holding us back anymore.
“It definitely is going to be a little different. I was a bit worried in the beginning about how the atmosphere would be. Our guys on the 912 have been really surprised how motivated and how keen they are to go back and show everybody who they are. That’s really positive to see, and we can carry that through the season.”
After winning the 2019 title, expectations were high for the 2020 season with a new car whose interior had been completely redesigned (“not even the doorhandles are the same,” Bamber said).
In the Rolex 24 at Daytona, the CORE autosport Porsches both finished on the podium in the GTLM class but lost a nip-and-tuck battle over 24 hours to BMW.
“We’re a little disappointed (at) Daytona; we really had high expectations that was the car to bring us back to the top step of the Rolex 24,” Bamber said. “It was a huge amount of development. We didn’t know that would be our last Rolex 24 with that car as well. It’s a bit of a shame. That’s life.”
Bamber said the team used the unexpected layoff to refine often overlooked parts so “hopefully we have new tools to roll out of the box and will give us an advantage because it’s going to be different.”
Aside from new pandemic-related garage restrictions at Daytona, IMSA teams also will have less than two hours of practice Friday night and Saturday morning before qualifying for the 6 p.m. race (which will be broadcast on NBCSN).
“It’s going to be difficult with social distancing and not being able to have that close interaction,” Bamber said. “Getting the best out of the package in such a short amount of time will be really tough. We’re pretty confident of hitting the ground running but trying not to leave any stone unturned.
“We hope we can (win the championship) again. It’s the last challenge that we want to achieve. You’re only as good as your last race, and we want to be remembered we bowed out as champions. Me and Laurens, we both hate losing and will do anything that it takes. We have the confidence we know how to do it, but the trick is once we’ve won, everyone looks at what we did last year and will be after us.”
With its heavy manufacturer support and high caliber of drivers, the GTLM class typically has been among the most competitive in IMSA.
Tandy, a longtime NASCAR fan and 2015 24 Hours of Le Mans winner who has raced around the world, openly lamented the close-quarters, full-contact racing of the GTs as “the best in the world. Especially the last few years when we’ve had five proper manufacturers at factory-level racing.
“The racing has been the best in the world. It’s been a series that’s been so well supported from IMSA. The races, the tracks, the lengths, the fans and interest. It’s amazing.
“You can probably tell I’m sad this is going to be our last season with this project. I’m just looking forward to be making the most of what we’ve got left this year. If we get to go racing somewhere in the future, then we’ll be very privileged, because the scenery is changing.”
The competition will provide a distraction from an uncertain future.
Though gaining a foothold with Porsche Motorsport (which competes in several series globally) traditionally has been viewed as among the most stable careers in sports car racing, the pandemic’s impact has left the teams’ drivers and mechanics openly wondering about what’s next.
“Honestly, it’s difficult to say,” Tandy said. “It’s very sad this will be our last season in IMSA. What’s going to be ahead for the future is a big unknown at the moment. It’s probably quite similar for a lot of people in the sport and a lot of manufacturers, unfortunately. There’s no real news at the moment.
“I love being with Porsche Motorsport and hope it continues, but you never know. Currently, we don’t really have much to look forward to in the future. But you never know. … We simply don’t know what’s going on from people’s plans at the moment. Life is changing so much. I’m sure motorsport will still be around, but we just need to see to what degree over the next couple of years.”
Said Vanthoor: “It’s normal that one of the first questions that come into mind was, ‘OK, what’s happening next year? What are we doing? What program?’ I think there are a lot of questions. At this point, it’s difficult even for (Porsche) to answer that question. It’s unclear what’s going to happen, and how this all is going to turn out next year. It’s too early to talk on that.
“But Earl and I myself have spoken about it. Porsche is one of the most secure and better places in the motorsports industry to be at; I’m sure something will be worked out, but it probably takes more time, because it’s not just us who have question marks. At this moment, everyone in the whole planet has some kind of question marks, so we’ll see how that’ll evolves.”
Makowiecki, who had joined the No. 911 team for the full schedule this year, said he would try to avoid “negative emotions” as the season restarted.
“We’ll try to do our best for Porsche,” he said. “It’s always hard when the manufacturer removes the plug from a championship, but we don’t want to forget that we got a chance a really long time because Porsche was totally involved and brought as much as possible to be competitive here, and we must say thanks also.”
After months of Zoom debriefings, team members also will be grateful for a quasi-physical reunion (from appropriate social distancing) at Daytona for a team that prides itself on camaraderie. Bamber said the No. 912 team members hail from a similar age group, and that helps foster a shared working mentality.
“It’s definitely like a second family to all of us when roll in the garage,” Bamber said. “It’s going to be exciting to see everyone from a distance at the track, but it’s going to be like getting the band back together.
“That’s what is so special about it. Sometimes we achieve these great victories, but at the same time, it’s about what you’ve created as a group, and some of the things that we’ve done internally that you never see on the track. So I think that’s what we’re probably most proud about is the group of guys we’ve got. There’s not one person on the team that you would ever swap out.”