The disruptions caused by current shutdowns reach into every corner of the racing industry. RACER.com is sharing stories of how different entities in the sport are tackling these unprecedented challenges in a special series called The Lockdown Diaries.
Porsche factory driver Earl Bamber is back in his native New Zealand with his family in Whanganui, where he will wait out the current pandemic. The two-time Le Mans 24 Hours winner is busy helping out his father on the family farm where he and his brother Will grew up as the country locks down to help fight the spread of the virus.
For Bamber, the most eventful race of the year so far wasn’t the Rolex 24 or Bathurst 12 Hour – it was the journey home after visiting the ill-fated Australian Formula 1 Grand Prix in Melbourne. He attended the race meeting at Albert Park and ended up doing a lap of the globe, turning zero laps in a race car en route home, while the COVID-19 situation was progressing at a pace.
“I started getting affected by COVID a while ago, I was on holiday in Australia at a mate’s birthday party, the week before the Grand Prix,” Bamber explained to RACER. “I saw it was getting worse in Europe, so I asked Pascal (Zurlinden, the head of Porsche GT Motorsport) if I could skip the VLN (now NLS) BoP test, which didn’t actually run anyway. I asked to miss going to Europe and to go Sebring directly, because you’re asking for trouble going to through Asia, then to the Middle East, then to Europe, then the USA. I didn’t want to get it.
“So I decided to stay in Australia and go to the USA for Sebring. I ended up being a refugee in Australia, and eventually traveled to Melbourne to watch the GP with the Red Bull guys I do Supercars with. It was eerie, because Thursday was normal, with fans everywhere, then the next day people were being barred from entering the track. It was strange walking through the paddock with not a soul to be found, no cars on track… just silence.
“Then they cancelled the event so I got on a plane to drive GT3 cars in Asia – they also postponed Sebring, so I went to Malaysia for a test, because they said there would be racing there. Then the government banned everyone from the race track, we were there on Friday testing, then they barred everyone from testing. So after all that I still didn’t get inside a race car.
“Then later that day New Zealand announced it was going to close the border, so me, my brother and another one of the Kiwi guys got down here on a plane before that closed. It was pretty ‘entertaining’, especially as one of our mechanics couldn’t leave – he lost his passport in Malaysia, so couldn’t go back with us.”
After racking up the air miles, he’s now back living in his childhood home, where he lived until he was eight years old. Unsurprisingly, it’s been a surreal experience for him thus far: not only is he back on the farm, but he is also spending an extended period of time in a single place; a luxury that many members of motorsport’s traveling circus rarely get to experience.
“Me and Willie are giving Dad a hand at the moment, getting used to farm life again,” he says. “It’s rare for me to be here. The most I’ve spent is one week here since I started professional racing. For the first couple of days I actually had to share a room with my brother, because there are other clients that were still here.
“Now I have my bedroom, and I’ve unpacked to be here for the next four weeks. It will be the longest time I’ve ever spent in one place for the past seven years. It’s really strange. But we’re lucky, we’re very isolated, we’re on the farm with seven people. We can work as normal, because farming is considered an essential business here. And it’s quiet, too – we’re eight kilometers away from the next person.”
While the motorsport industry as a whole works to plug the ever-growing gap in the calendar, Bamber is focusing on the positives and taking this break from racing as a chance to recharge.
But he is not just a driver, he’s a Porsche customer team owner too, so there’s been plenty of work going on behind the scenes to ensure that the team – Earl Bamber Motorsport – will be ready to go when racing returns.
“It’s nice to recharge the batteries and take a break from driving and running a team,” he says. “We closed most of the race team down. We’re one of the lucky ones, as nearly every one of our employees is a subcontractor so we don’t have a huge amount of overheads, and most of our customers are keen to go back racing when it blows over.
“Talking to all the guys, most of them are OK, because most other things have stopped in New Zealand, and the government has done a lot in terms of stimulus packages for self-employed contractors, so they get paid when they lost their business.
“My dad also lost his business overnight, and two days later the subsidies for him already kicked in. The rollout is impressive here. But the important thing is that most of my guys are already sorted. We keep in contact with a big WhatsApp chat, and they know that if there’s a problem, we’re all family, they know they shouldn’t go it alone if they get into a tricky place. The team environment is still there are strong.
“We’d planned to renovate the team workshop at the Sepang circuit, but now Malaysia is in military lockdown, so that’s on hold. We can’t really do much.”