In the week leading up to the British Grand Prix, James Newbold asks whether one-make Porsche racing is undervalued.
Shunted into the support paddocks, without the hype surrounding future F1 stars populating the GP2 and GP3 paddock, it’s fair to say that the Porsche Supercup isn’t the most fashionable of series on the F1 support bill. But it could be the most important. It was in Supercup that Rene Rast, Kevin Estre, Norbert Seidler and Nicki Thiim launched their careers as professional racing drivers, and the Supercup that Nick Tandy and Earl Bamber – who won the Le Mans 24 Hours in June – used as a springboard to join Porsche’s factory roster.
So just what is it about one-make Porsche racing that produces such a stellar roster of talent? For Tandy, who finished second in the 2010 Supercup – his first full-season racing Porsches – and won the Carrera Cup Deutschland in 2011 before being promoted to a full works driver for 2013, the enormous pressure of a compartmentalised F1 race weekend goes some way to extracting the best out of drivers.
“You have a very short practice session followed by qualifying and you’ve got to put the lap in,” he says. “It does teach you about handling pressure and preparation for the weekend, and that’s not just in terms of actually driving and testing the car. You have to make sure everything is operating at 100% all the time, otherwise you’ll lose.”
Indeed, such is the strength in depth of the Supercup field that the tightrope walk to success can be determined not only by outright pace, but in whoever makes the least mistakes. Indeed, this season has seen four different winners in as many meetings, with Jaap van Lagen and Christoper Zochling surprising the series regulars in one-off entries at Monaco and Austria.
“I think more than anything that shows what a good level of competition there is within the series,” says Tandy. “You look at Carrera Cup Deutschland for example and there are twelve or fifteen top drivers there capable of winning races, so to come out on top and win championships, you’ve really got to raise your own level, which builds everyone into better drivers. It means that when you go on to do something else you’ve got that good grounding – it’s not like you’re fighting against one or two drivers or teams; you’re fighting against 75% of the grid, so if you have an off-day and you’re a couple of tenths off, it could be disastrous!”
Heading to Silverstone, Carrera Cup GB championship leader Dan Cammish was hoping to become the series’ fourth different winner. After serving his apprenticeship in a GT4 Porsche in the British GT championship last season, an impressive guest appearance in the Carrera Cup at Brands Hatch – where he qualified on pole for both races, winning one – was enough to convince sponsors to back Cammish for a full-season, where he has won six out of eight races and yet to finish lower than second. In preparation for his Supercup debut, Tandy put Cammish in touch with Konrad Motorsport for an eye-opening Carrera Cup Deutschland outing at the Lausitzring, where he took home two twelfth place finishes.
“It’s a great place to be for any driver given the careers it’s launched and personally I don’t think there is a harder one-make championship out there,” says Cammish of the Carrera Cup. “The German series is effectively the same grid as Supercup so it was incredibly competitive – I believe Kuba Giermaziak was the only one missing from the regular Supercup on that weekend – and if you do well there, you deserve to be a pro. If you don’t hook up the perfect lap or you’re just a little bit off your best then you’re nowhere and unfortunately everyone’s so good on the limit that it’s really difficult to overtake. I think there were three and a half tenths between first and twelfth at the Lausitzring, which is just ridiculous!”
Tim Harvey knows more about Porsche racing than most. The 1992 BTCC champion, who now serves as the Director of the Superstars programme responsible for looking after up-and-coming British talent, enjoyed several years racing in the Carrera Cup GB after his retirement from touring cars, winning the title in 2008 and 2010, and now commentates on them for ITV. He says that drivers using the Carrera Cup as a means to a professional career in motorsport is no new phenomena.
“I was racing Carrera Cup at the end of my career but there were plenty of drivers like Richard Westbrook and Damien Faulkner who were looking to build their careers and have indeed done so,” Harvey says. “It really depends on what level you come into it. I personally came into Porsches after a career in touring cars and I was 50 years old when I stopped, so rightly it wasn’t a stepping stone for me for a future career. But had I been getting those results aged 20 or 25 it might well have been, and indeed was for several of the drivers I raced against and currently.”
As a visual spectacle, Harvey says the Carrera Cup is unrivalled on a normal BTCC weekend.
“There is nothing like a grid of nigh-on thirty Porsches, 460 horsepower cars all going hell for leather because the race is thirty-odd minutes long and you know that whilst there will be a certain amount of tactics and tyre conservation on some circuits, every single lap is driven like a qualifying lap,” he says. “Admittedly because you start the fastest driver on pole you don’t always get loads of overtaking like you do in touring cars, but in terms of pure, competitive motorsport, there isn’t anything better out there. It’s still the fastest one-make series in the world and one-make racing always produces great drivers because they have the same equipment as everyone else, which means they have to work that bit harder for it.”
“It’s very aggressive,” agrees Cammish. “The racing is relentless, kind of a throwback to my Formula Ford days. If you’re not attacking, you’re defending, and often doing both at the same time.”
That means it is attractive to sponsors too.
“You could back a driver like Michael Meadows, Josh Webster or Dan Cammish and know that you were guaranteed a level of performance and success in whatever category they sponsor them in. Cream always rises to the top and if you’ve got a competitive championship with a lot of good people in it, especially in one make series where ultimately it’s not about who has the best car, the guy who wins is naturally going to be a very talented driver,” Harvey adds.
But for Cammish, the main allure is the opportunity for progression within the marque. Tandy and Earl Bamber offer the prime example, having each been promoted to Porsche’s LMP1 effort via the GT ranks – plucking Bamber from the relative obscurity of the Carrera Cup Asia – to win the biggest race in the world and a Rolex which money can’t buy.
“I think Porsche do a great job with their promoting from within, which is nice to see,” he says. “Maybe it’s changing, but I still think a lot of people have the idea that if you’ve done GP2 or World Series then you’re better than someone who hasn’t, when that’s clearly not the case. It’s just the fact that some people have better opportunities or more money to get them where they need to be.”
The Porsche Junior program is a big help in this respect, with 2015 hopefuls Sven Muller, Connor de Philippi and Matteo Cairoli all aspiring to follow in the footsteps of Timo Bernhard, Patrick Long and Marc Lieb.
“It’s virtually a career path ahead of you as long as you can perform,” says Tandy. “I only wish that I could have been involved in it when I was starting racing with Porsche, because if you get picked up early you get all the benefit of everything the factory does for its drivers. Of course when you go racing you’re on your own, you have to compete against everyone else on the same level, but look at Sven Muller this year; he’s proved himself to do a good job in Carrera Cup and Supercup, so when Porsche needed an additional driver at Spa when we were short, he was the one that got the nod. It’s a huge thing for any young, aspiring driver. The Porsche scheme, it’s such a clear path to the highest level of the sport. It doesn’t matter what your background is – if you keep performing and keep winning, then they look after you.”
So is Porsche racing undervalued?
“It does get the recognition it needs, it’s just that people are talking about Formula One all the time!” Tandy says.
“My question is, undervalued by who?” agrees Harvey. “It’s certainly not by the people involved or by people within the sport who recognise how tough and competitive it is. I remember a couple of years ago the entire grid of the Supercup championship, the average split time in qualifying was 1 second covering 18 cars over the season and there’s no other formula which can boast that level of competition.
“Formula One is still the pinnacle of our sport and occupies 95% of all motorsport coverage so people are naturally looking for the next F1 stars on the support bill, but having said that, there are probably more professional drivers employed by manufacturers and teams in sports and GT cars that naturally come from Carrera Cup or Supercup than anywhere else.”
And that, boys and girls, is why you should ignore the Porsche Supercup at your peril.