After a low-key start, a whirlwind finish to the 2016 season carried Team 75 Bernhard to within touching distance of the ADAC GT Masters title in it’s first year out of Carrera Cup. But while it would be easy to fall into the trap of expecting success when the name above the door is that of Timo Bernhard, one man does not a team make. James Newbold found out how this tight-knit operation is making waves on the German GT scene.
Timo Bernhard is a man who needs no introduction. A champion of the WEC and ALMS, winner of the Le Mans-Daytona-Sebring Triple Crown and with five Nürburgring 24 Hours victories to his name, he is one of the most successful sportscar drivers of the current generation and has been a vital cog in Porsche’s LMP1 machine from the word go.
In years to come however, the Bernhard name could become synonymous with a different manner of success altogether – team ownership. Running a professional team while also remaining active in the cockpit is an exceptionally difficult balancing act, with NASCAR champion Tony Stewart, RX fan favourite Petter Solberg and Bernhard’s Porsche LMP1 colleague Nick Tandy among the few who have done so successfully in the modern era.
But after a strong debut season in ADAC GT Masters that yielded four race wins and the runners-up spot, all the signs are there that Team 75 Bernhard can buck the trend and go on to become a fixture in the increasingly competitive GT racing landscape.
Initially a vehicle for Bernhard’s rallying exploits, ran by his father Rüdiger, Team 75 first entered professional circuit racing in 2013, taking on the might of Project 1, Konrad and Attempto in the German Carrera Cup. After a year to learn the ropes, they came out all guns blazing in 2014 and led the points at the halfway stage with rising star Earl Bamber, before the Kiwi switched his attentions to winning the Supercup and Carrera Cup Asia.
In 2015, Bernhard approached veteran sportscar racer Klaus Graf to gauge his interest in becoming the new team manager. The pair had only raced together once previously, in a Porsche RS Spyder at Road America in 2010, but it wasn’t long before Graf was convinced to join the project.
“Timo and I have known each other a very long time, so when he called me up, he said ‘you know, I have this team’ and he thought it might be a good idea if I would join him,” he told Racing.GT.
“I said I knew I would be racing in Europe at that time and then after a certain number of years I would retire from professional racing, so I thought ‘okay this could be a good opportunity’. We have a lot of respect for each other and we have the same opinion about a lot of things.”
Now officially retired from driving, Graf had previously been involved with the operational side of the Muscle Milk prototype outfit and brings with him the tactical nous he picked up from racing in the American Le Mans Series.
“Quite frankly I could tell you, for most others if they were to ask me about a position like this, I would have said ‘no’ because I know how this can go and how hard it is,” he admitted.
“But I never was just a normal driver and Timo probably neither, otherwise he wouldn’t be racing at the level he does now. He is maybe the most valuable Porsche driver at the moment in the LMP1 team, so obviously he’s heavily engaged and we speak a lot.
“Maybe sometimes we overthink it, but that’s how you build a successful team. You really have to watch all the details and also decide what is needed and what is not needed.
“We’ve made some good decisions and actually out of the four races, we won three on strategy, which is proof of our work behind the pitwall – we’re talking a couple of metres leaving the pits whether you win the race or not.”
Few could have predicted the success that was to come after an anonymous opening weekend at Oschersleben, as David Jahn and Chris van der Drift qualified only 20th and finished 13th. From there, things steadily improved with a first top 10 at the Sachsenring and a fourth place at the Lausitzring, but it wasn’t until Porsche factory ace Kevin Estre arrived at the Red Bull Ring and promptly won on debut that things really fell into place.
That kick-started a run of four straight wins in the Saturday races, carrying Estre to fourth in points – despite only contesting half the rounds – while Jahn only missed out on the title by nine points to the Land Motorsport Audi.
Having exceeded Graf’s targets for season one, the goal for 2017 is abundantly clear.
“It’s quite amazing honestly – we didn’t even think about [the title],” he reflects.
“To get the GT car going was not easy because you cannot run these cars like a Cup car, they are much more complicated, you need more people and there are a lot of things which go into it. We knew it wasn’t going to be easy initially, but we gradually improved.
“There were many aspects to that, firstly David Jahn got better and better, then when Kevin came on board he was a fixed figure we could depend on, which helped a lot.
“To win races and championships in this GT3 environment isn’t easy at all, but we believe we have done whatever we can and whatever we needed to make another step and be even more competitive this year. Definitely, we hope to be in contention for the championship.”
Now a two-car team, Team 75 Bernhard has doubled it’s chances at least on paper, but even with Porsche-contracted Mathieu Jaminet and experienced German Michael Ammermueller leading the attack, Graf argues that the challenge facing them is even greater than 12 months ago as GT3 rookies.
Blancpain GT convert Adrien de Leener and newcomer Christopher Friedrich will share the second car.
— Adrien De Leener (@adeleener14) March 11, 2017
“The difference between running one car and two cars is like if you have one baby or two babies. One baby is a piece of cake compared to having two, it’s very similar to that!” Graf chuckles.
“Now we need a lot more people, we have two engineers, and a data engineer. Not everybody is full time, but basically you go to the track for a race weekend with 15 people and that’s a very different dynamic than if you go with half of that.
“There are a lot more moving parts, more variables in terms of organising and materials, spare parts and so on, but luckily we were able to secure everything relatively early, so we are quite well prepared.
“We could theoretically race tomorrow if we have to, but having said that, we will see at the first race weekend when we have two cars going into practice and qualifying, that’s definitely going to be a little bit different!”
Team 75 Bernhard will continue to call ADAC GT Masters home for the foreseeable future, but Graf admits that discussions are underway regarding an expansion into endurance racing, with Jahn and Marek Böckmann already confirmed to enter the full season of VLN in a Carrera Cup car.
“Definitely we are looking at endurance type of racing and in Europe, the Spa 24 Hours and 24 Hours of Nürburgring are the two biggest motor races in the GT category,” he added.
“ADAC GT Masters we believe has an extremely bright future, but certainly these endurance races are something we want to look at. This is our expertise, it’s where we raced and Timo still does for 15 years, so definitely that is on our horizon.”
It’s not too a huge stretch to imagine a Team 75 Porsche 911 GT3-R turning out in the Nürburgring 24 with Bernhard himself behind the wheel, but what price would you put on him taking a record breaking sixth win in his own car? Now that really would be a story…