Sometimes it's the little things that tend to go unnoticed, that give you a huge amount of insight into a person's life. At the 2017 edition of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, one such little thing had to do with Timo Bernhard's helmet. This time, the driver of the No.2 Porsche LMP1 machine was sporting a red helmet at the race. He narrated the story of how he'd ended up with it to a group of journalists at Porsche's pre-race press conference. Apparently, there had been two helmet designs that had been shortlisted one yellow and the other red and it was his son who was to make the final decision. Bernhard said that he asked his son thrice, which helmet he ought to pick. The consensus had been the red one. To be doubly sure, and since children tend to change their minds quite often, he asked his son again after a few days. Bernhard Jr had said to his father very decisively, "Papa, I told you already the red one is nice!" And so it turned out that for the duration of the 2017 edition of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, when Timo Bernhard was behind the wheel of that No.2 LMP1 machine, his head was protected by a red helmet.
If nothing else, this seemingly insignificant fact is important, simply because people often forget that there's more to racecar drivers. They are different people once those helmets come off people with real lives away from the racetrack. The 24 Hours of Le Mans, however, puts things into perspective. It is, if you like, one of the most dangerous races in the world. And it is one of the hardest races in the world. Winning it, then, is a very, very big deal. For Timo Bernhard to win Le Mans with Porsche was something of a dream since he was 18, when he was first signed on by Porsche as a junior driver. Even back then he'd hoped that he might someday be able to be part of the factory effort that would challenge for the LMP1 victory. "But then, I never expected it would take me 15 years to be in this spot," he'd said back when Porsche's return to Le Mans had first been announced. A few years hence, and Porsche had already proved that they could win at Le Mans, not just once, but twice. Which meant that the pressure was even higher in 2017. This, especially with Toyota showing just how competitive they were early on first during the test day, and then during qualifying. All eyes were on the team after Kamui Kobayashi posted a blistering, lap-record-shattering pole time at the track. 3min 14.791sec! But Le Mans is Le Mans. It's a race where anything that can happen will happen. It was true as can be in 2016, and even truer in 2017.
The No.7 Toyota shattered the Le Mans lap record by two seconds on its way to pole with Kobayashi behind the wheel. But the glory was short-lived
When the French flag was waved by Chase Carey, the official starter for the race, and the cars all went barrelling down the start-finish straight, it was the No.7 Toyota in the lead with Nicolas Lapierre at the wheel. He was followed by the No.8 car of Jose Maria Lopez and the No. 9 car of Yuji Kunimoto. The Toyotas would lead the Porsches for the first half an hour of the race, but their No.8 car was the first to run into trouble. Meanwhile, it was Porsche who had to play catch up, with the No.1 car and the No.2 car trailing each other. Bernhard was the first driver out in the car, and he had put in a solid drive all through. A driver change during the pit stop put Earl Bamber into the car for the next few stints. And then, everything started to go wrong. When Bamber was out on track, with three and a half hours elapsed in the race, there was some sort of visible vibration on the car, and he needed to bring the machine back into the pits on the 58th lap. It was obvious that there was serious trouble, because soon the driver was out of the car and at the very back of the garage, refusing to speak to the pit lane reporters. Bamber is a fairly amicable chap, and his silence on this occasion spoke volumes. The No.2 Porsche had issues with a loss of power from the front axle, and the car would spend the next 60-odd minutes in the garage, while the team strove frantically to change the motor generator unit.
Bernhard looks tense as the No.2 Porsche is soldiering on through the graveyard shift
It seemed like we were watching, right then and there, Timo Bernhard's hopes of victory with Porsche slipping away. And this victory that he sought, it was something he had been realistically looking forward to since the day that he was the first driver signed on for Porsche's comeback programme. "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," he'd exclaimed enthusiastically, his eyes shining bright, in an interview we did back in 2013. Which is why in 2017, watching him interact with his family in the Porsche hospitality, trying not to look downcast as the No.2 Porsche was slipping down the order, was heartbreaking. When the car was finally able to rejoin the race, they were in 56th position. It was a far from ideal situation.
The critical pit stop with a driver swap between Bamber and Bernhard played a crucial role in the race
Before the race, I'd asked Bernhard how he felt about being the driver who had been part of the programme from Day 1, but never being in the winning car. Wasn't it high time? He'd laughed. "Yeah, I feel the same. But this race, you can be fortunate to win it at least once. I ticked this box in 2010 with Audi, I mean the dream came true. This for sure would be the icing on the cake it would be a dream come true to win it with Porsche. But this race, I can only prepare myself as good as possible, and then we have to see the outcome at the end." Bernhard had been realistic from the very beginning. He had told us that having a career the likes of Tom Kristensen had managed, that sort of thing wasn't likely to ever happen again. So, he had begun focussing on doing the best job that he could do, without worrying so much about the consequences. "I stopped having these thoughts [of victory]. Because with age you get a bit wiser, so you really focus on the job." The one thing that Bernhard had said he was looking forward to was for the doors on the car to close at 2:51 pm, and for the formation lap to begin. "That's the time I really look forward to, because all the talking stops and you can go and do the race and that's the most important thing," he'd said. Fortunately for him, those early stints in the race had gone well.
Elsewhere in the race, it was the No.7 and No.9 Toyota that were up ahead, while the No.1 Porsche was trying to keep up with the Japanese cars. Things seemed to be going smoothly until the 10th hour of the race. Suddenly the action roused the fans, who were by then slowly getting to the point where they were in danger of drifting off into sleep. Oh, that 10th hour was dramatic! First, Kamui Kobayashi's No.7 Toyota TSO50 retired with clutch issues. And the faces in the Toyota camp were drawn, like they had been a year ago when victory slipped away from their grasp with six minutes to go. Next, after a mere 20 minutes had elapsed, the No.9 Toyota TSO50 had issues with Nico Lapierre at the wheel, after it had been struck by the No.47 Cetilar Villorba Corse Dallara P217 as it exited the pits. The contact led to a left-rear puncture, and Lapierre struggled to get the car back to the pits. But the bodywork was already damaged and a minor fire had broken out in the rear of the car. When he managed to get the car near the pit entry, he was told that he needed to park it by the Toyota pitwall. That was the second car done for.
Terrific sporting gesture from the Toyota LMP1 bosses who stopped by to congratulate the Porsche team on their win
Fritz Enzinger, VP of Porsche's LMP1 project, celebrates on the podium with Brendon Hartley, Earl Bamber and Timo Bernhard
Things seemed to go pretty smoothly over the course of the next few hours. While it was the No.1 Porsche of Andre Lotterer, Neel Jani and Nick Tandy that had moved into the lead, the other LMP1 cars (there were only two more that still survived, given that the ByKolles Racing machine had already retired early on in the race) were trying to catch up. The No.8 Toyota of Sebastien Buemi, Anthony Davidson and Kazuki Nakajima was plodding its way up the order and so was the No.2 Porsche. Then disaster struck the team from Weissach. With Andre Lotterer behind the wheel, the No.1 Porsche 919 Hybrid slowed right down on track. Lotterer tried and tried to get the car going, but eventually limped back to the pits with an oil pressure loss. The No.1 Porsche had retired on its 318th lap. It was at this point that Brendon Hartley, who was then behind the wheel of the sister Porsche 919 Hybrid, knew that there was more than just a podium at stake. They were now fighting for victory. With just a few hours to go, they needed to make up 3-odd laps, and wrest the lead away from the No.38 Jackie Chan DC Racing Oreca that was then being piloted by the Ho-Pin Tung. His team-mates, Oliver Jarvis and Thomas Laurent (already quite a star at Le Mans), were as surprised as the rest of the world when they found that their LMP2 machine was leading the 24 Hours of Le Mans. It was surreal. But it wasn't to last. Eventually, the No.2 Porsche would move past the Oreca and take the lead of the race with an hour to go. Timo Bernhard's dream of winning the 24 Hours of Le Mans with Porsche was about to come true. And it was Bernhard who was behind the wheel of the car during the final stages of the race. It was Bernhard who crossed the chequered flag first, cheered on by his crew and his team-mates.
In an interview a few years ago, Bernhard had spoken about his first LMP1 win with Audi. He'd said that it had been very personal. He felt his childhood dreams coming true, he felt that his parents' hard-work had paid off, he felt satisfied. But when he was up there on the podium, it had felt surreal. He remembered Tom Kristensen asking him whether he wasn't happy. The truth, he had said, was that it was overwhelming. "The late, kind-hearted journalist Gustav Büsing said to me: 'Now you are a Le Mans winner. This stays forever.' I felt very touched. I'm very much aware that no matter how good you are as a race driver, it is not granted you can ever win this race. The dimension, the endurance, the drama Le Mans cannot be planned. I'm very grateful," Bernhard had said back then. He had also said that Allan McNish had told him that he himself had been unable to appreciate his first Le Mans win, and that he only experienced everything properly during his second Le Mans win. Bernhard had said that that was what he wanted to experience with Porsche. Which is why, there probably wasn't a dry eye in the house when he crossed that start-finish line first. Later he would say, "The final lap was very emotional for me. Yes, I cried, and I can tell you it's the first time in my career."
The No.38 LMP2 Jackie Chan DC Racing Oreca that led Le Mans briefly, and eventually took second place at the race, with drivers Thomas Laurent, Olivier Jarvis and Ho-Pin Tung. Their sister No. 37 DC Racing car would be elevated to third place after Rebellion would be disqualified for technical infringements
The atmosphere in the Porsche camp was ecstatic when it was all over. There was a huge cheer as the three winning drivers Bernhard and team-mates, Bamber and Hartley came into the team hospitality. It was equally emotional for Bamber and Hartley, both of whom have known each other since they were seven, and both of whom rose through the ranks of motorsport, having started out as two young racers from faraway New Zealand. But watching Bernhard as he came into the garage and hugged his wife and sons, one of whom had been responsible for that red helmet, was something else entirely. It's in part, because of the sort of racer that he is. Bernhard is very much one of the good guys. He's the sort of racer who commits himself to every aspect of the job, encouraging the team, and being as big a part of it as possible. So much so that Mark Webber, his former team-mate, had said that he was the glue that held the team together, which had contributed to their WEC title in 2015. It's also because Bernhard is a racer with absolutely no airs about him. He's as enthusiastic as a fan, with a huge amount of respect for the racers who went before him. And it's in the little things he does, like sporting a helmet to honour the late Stefan Bellof, of whom he was a fan, back at the 6 Hours of Spa in 2015. It's really the little things...
The little things like humility. After all, Bernhard is so very humble that it's easy to forget just how accomplished a driver he is. He's won the 12 Hours of Sebring, the 24 Hours of Daytona, the Nurburgring 24 Hours five times, and now he's even got a second Le Mans win, this time with Porsche. It's a testament to how good he is, and also how well the Bernhard-Porsche combination works. It's also a testament to the fact that sometimes the good guys do win it all. And that's heartening.