Amid a barrage of anniversaries for Porsche this year, including half centuries for both the 917 and 914 and 10 years of the Panamera and the Porsche Museum, there is another milestone deserving of a mention. In the spring of 1999, a teenaged Timo Bernhard signed a preliminary contract to make him the new Porsche Junior, starting a 20-year journey that would see him become one of the most admired and successful endurance racers of the modern era.
Bernhard was born in the German town of Homburg in 1981. He began karting at the age of 10 and moved into formula cars in his late teens. His success there caught the attention of Porsche’s local talent scouts and he was invited to take part in their driver selection programme. “To be honest, I didn’t really know what was in store,” he admits. “At that time I didn’t think beyond the next race and only gradually came to understand what a big opportunity this was for me and what the Porsche legend really meant.”
His trial by fire came in the 2000 season of Supercup where, against the likes of Stéphane Ortelli and Jörg Bergmeister, the young Bernhard’s best finish of the season was sixth in Austria. But the following year he divided his time between the American Le Mans Series (ALMS) and the Carrera Cup Deutschland, which he won at the first attempt.
Bernhard went on to take a class win at Le Mans and overall victory at the 24 Hours of Daytona in 2003. He followed this with the GT crown in ALMS, wins for Penske in the RS Spyder and his first victory at 24 Hours Nürburgring in 2006.
In 2010, while on loan to Audi, Bernhard took his first outright win at Le Mans. Having already conquered Daytona and Sebring, this made him only the 11th driver in history to complete endurance racing’s triple crown. It also made him the go-to driver for Porsche’s return to LMP1, and he would become instrumental in the development of the 919 Hybrid.
It was in this car that Bernhard won the World Endurance Championship twice and claimed overall victory for Porsche at Le Mans in 2017. Today he is the factory’s longest-serving works driver and the only one to have become champion in all categories of the ‘Porsche Pyramid’.
Now a five-time overall winner of the 24 Hours Nürburgring, he was also the obvious choice for last summer’s assault on the Nordschleife lap record aboard the 919 Evo. His time of 5:19.55 minutes slashed a scarcely credible 51.58 seconds from the previous record, set by his childhood hero Stefan Bellof.
In a recent interview, Timo reflected on his 20 years at Porsche with characteristic modesty. “I owe so much to the brand and the people at Porsche. They made me a professional racing driver and I’ve celebrated many successes in lots of different categories. Porsche is my brand and close to my heart. It’s an honour and something special to drive for Porsche.”