Timo Bernhard believes that “GT is where the competition is at”, as the two-time 24 Hours of Le Mans winner gears up for his first GTE-Pro class appearance in five years.
Bernhard, who claimed overall honors at the French enduro with Audi in 2010 and with Porsche last year, returns to the production-based ranks in the No. 94 Porsche 911 RSR, which he shares with Romain Dumas and Sven Mueller in the 17-strong class.
The 37-year-old German’s last GT drive came in the 2013 edition when he finished second as part of a Manthey one-two, which also stands as Porsche’s most recent class victory.
Bernhard believes the manufacturer’s ability to double its class involvement to four factory cars, facilitated by its exit from LMP1 at the end of last season, has increased its chances of victory.
As part of its GTE expansion, Porsche has also wrapped its Nos. 91 and 92 WEC entries in retro liveries for the marque’s 70th anniversary, while the pair of CORE autosport-run cars, including Bernhard’s, will run in standard company colors.
“I’m very happy to be back in Le Mans,” Bernhard told Sportscar365.
“It’s always something special to do, as well with a factory effort. For sure, it’s not for overall victory, but at the same time, I have to say that GT is where the competition is at the moment.
“If you see how the cars are equipped with drivers – that’s a stellar driver lineup.
“And the way Porsche has prepared it and the way both teams support each other means they use the experience from both teams but at the same time, there is healthy competition.
“I think that is how you can achieve results, so I have quite a good feeling about how they approach it.”
Bernhard admits he is still re-acclimatizing to the GTE package after four seasons working in LMP1, but added that joining the CORE autosport-run squad felt like “coming home”.
“I have driven it [the GTE car] a little at the beginning of the year, then just a couple of weeks ago,” he said.
“I’m still learning the car and the team. For Le Mans, Sven and myself have the least amount of experience with the car and this team.
“And where I’m coming from with a lot more downforce, it’s very much different.
“To be honest, the team has made us feel welcome – that’s a great feeling. I know a few guys in the team from my ALMS days, coming here with TRG in 2002, so it’s a bit like coming home.”
Some Operational Crossover From LMP1
While the technological differences between LMP1 and GTE-Pro are stark, the Porsche Le Mans drivers who have competed in both believe there are some aspects of race craft that can be transferred between the two.
Along with Bernhard, Nick Tandy, Earl Bamber and Romain Dumas will line up in the four-car program, while Andre Lotterer and Neel Jani are with Rebellion Racing in LMP1.
“The whole four-wheel drive and hybrid stuff not, but definitely in terms of track knowledge and over the course of the race, when the race does speed up and also in terms of conditions,” said Bernhard.
“Also procedures – we did so many things in terms of preparation for Le Mans in the past years, so that’s something I can also bring to the team and bring to Porsche.”
2015 Le Mans overall winner Nick Tandy, who is in the No. 93 Porsche this year, added that elements of the LMP1 team infrastructure have been incorporated into the expanded GTE effort.
“It feels different coming here not having the LMP1 team,” Tandy told Sportscar365.
“I was back in the RSR in 2016 but there was still the LMP and the GT team. You notice the difference already, because we’ve taken over a lot of their infrastructure – from the pit garages to the out-buildings.
“It feels different, yes, from an operational point of view, that both sides have come together as such. But with the car, you can swap between the two, week in, week out.”
John Dagys contributed to this report.