Finishing on the podium at Le Mans will always be regarded as a special accomplishment in any driver’s career, but perhaps what many people didn’t realise, given that the celebrations were understandably subdued this year, was that a new record was set at the 2013 edition of the great race. AF Corse’s Jack Gerber – who, alongside Matt Griffin and Marco Cioci, finished third in the LMGTE-Am class – became not only the oldest ever driver (at 68 years, 110 days old) to start the Le Mans 24 Hours and the oldest driver ever to finish the race, but also the oldest driver ever to finish on the podium; and, best of all, in his rookie year! DSC caught up with the South African at Interlagos to find out the story of his racing career to date and began by congratulating him on his result at La Sarthe.
Thank you. It was largely down to my co-drivers and the fact that the car was unbelievable. AF Corse had seven cars at Le Mans – six GT cars and one LMP – one crashed, all the others finished.
It was a tough race in many ways this year. How did you find it?
For me, because it was my first one, I had nothing to compare it against. It was difficult to begin with as we had less track time before the race than any Le Mans ever [because of the numerous red flags]. It’s a track where you can’t make afford to make a mistake for 90% of the time. I spun three times, but fortunately got away with all of them; but it’s the only circuit I’ve driven at before this one where you’re aware that, if it goes wrong, it’s not going to be good – particularly on the run down from Mulsanne Corner to Indianapolis and the two kinks. It’s so fast through there anyway, but when it’s wet – and we do the kinks flat in the wet – you cross a broad white line, because of course it’s a public road.
You hadn’t driven the circuit prior to the Test Day, so how did you prepare for what was presumably the biggest race of your life?
Oh yes, by far. You start by talking to your co-drivers and I did a few hours on the simulator at Silverstone. Interestingly, there’s a very good video on YouTube of Allan Simonsen, when he did the first four-minute lap in a 458 GT2 still using a sequential box. I found that very useful and watched it so many times with the circuit layout next to me that I knew – of course you have no idea of the incline, of the grip, of the braking-distances, that sort of thing –but I absolutely knew where the track was going when I got there. I never met Allan, so it’s eerie that he crashed on lap three of the race.
Why the FIAWEC? You’ve not been racing long, so was this always the plan?
Since Le Mans, a lot of people have said, “This must be the culmination of a lifetime dream!” And it absolutely isn’t, as I started racing so recently – only five and a half years ago.
The Reader’s Digest version is that about eight years ago I bought a Maserati Quattroporte road car, which then spent most of the first eight weeks in the garage with numerous small issues. In order to cheer me up, the dealer invited me to a trackday at Millbrook. There were three circuits there, with the Alpine track being my favourite. I asked the instructor if I could spend most of my time on that and after he said yes I gave it some welly! Instead of stopping me, he asked me if I used to race. I told him a bit of a porkie and said that I’d done some a long time ago in South Africa and for the rest of the day he became my race instructor!
I then went on to do a couple of Ferrari trackdays at the invitation of Enrico Bertaggia, who was then head of Ferrari Motorsport GB, and went on to buy a Ferrari Challenge. After I’d done another two or three trackdays – I think five in all – we were in Barcelona and Enrico’s boss, Massimo Fideli, showed me a Corse Cliente Customer Racing jacket and said, “You can’t buy this, you can only earn it.” He said that if I could get round the track in under a certain time, he’d invite me to test with the racing team. I did the time and then went to a test – funnily enough, Bruno Senna was there as he was doing a demonstration for Ferrari’s 60th anniversary at Silverstone – and there were six guys with the racing team and I was quicker than two of them. I then did another four or five tests and then, for the first time, I started thinking…”maybe.” I went to the World Finals to watch, thought I could tackle that, and got a French licence. I then found myself in Monza, having never raced in my life, in a grid of 30 cars, and it went from there.
You were a business partner of Leon Price. Did your racing careers begin independently of one another?
No, not at all; there’s a very direct connection. When I got the invitation from Enrico to go to the Ferrari day, that one was out at Goodwood, I invited Leon to come with me – we were just passengers that day as neither of us was a member of the club – and that was the start of it all for both of us. I bought a car first and a little later he got one. He never raced in the Challenge series, but raced in the GT Cup and then did mostly domestic racing before moving into the Blancpain Endurance Series with Von Ryan Racing.
So you never talked about racing together or forming a team together?
No. We shared a car once in a Ferrari ready-to race programme – that was good fun – but we never talked about anything else. I guess I started out more seriously than he did, because the Challenge series was much more competitive and much more aggressive and I kind of got caught up in that. In my second year I finished seventh out of 60-odd cars at the World Finals and the first of the Europeans and Amato Ferrari said to me, “I think you’ll like the GT2.” So I went that way, while Leon preferred the domestic series; although he races a lot.
What is it about endurance racing that appeals to you?
I’ve always enjoyed challenges in life, and I guess each time that Amato has suggested the next step up I’ve decided to go with it – after talking to my co-drivers and asking their opinion, of course. Specifically, I like the aspect of building the race tactically, the teamwork, etc, rather than just going “balls to the wall” in a sprint race. The Blancpain Endurance Series seemed the ideal platform.
I’ve also done the Vallelunga Six Hours of Rome for the last two years. The first time was in a GT3 and we finished I think seventh overall and second in class, and my times were reasonable. And two things happened: Amato said that I should start thinking about the WEC in a GT2, but that it was still a bit too early – I’d done the GT Open in a 430 GT2 and loved it – and the other thing was that Giancarlo Fisichella asked if he could join Marco Cioci and myself at the Spa 24. I’d already selected my drivers by then, so he suggested we race a 458 GT2 together at the Six Hours of Rome and we came second overall and first in class. So I got into GT2 earlier than planned and thought to myself that I could drive the car – by Bronze standards – reasonably okay, so did a few more tests and here we are.
I’ve been asked if I was surprised to end up on the podium at Le Mans and my answer is, “Not really.” I don’t say that because of me, I say it largely because of my co-drivers and the team. If you look at Silverstone, if you add back the time we lost when the LMP1 spun into me, we would have been in a solid fourth and in with a shout of second or third; and at Spa we were in a solid fourth again when the driveshaft broke. So when we got to Le Mans, I really thought that we’d got a shot at the podium if the car was okay.
Is the multi-class aspect of this type of racing part of the challenge?
Very much so, because of the drivers with whom one is on circuit. I still fear that I’ll wake up one morning and find out that this has all been a dream. I’ve been in business all my life and if you told me that I’d start racing at the age of 63, and five and a half years later would feel comfortable coming to a circuit like this, with the drivers and cars that you have here…….I don’t know if you’ve done a hot lap here, but it’s seriously quick. You brake very late at the end of the straight and the car’s unstable and moving around and you’ve maybe got an LMP on the inside of you – you are mightily busy…..if you’d told me a few years ago that I’d be doing this, I wouldn’t have believed you.
What are your targets and ambitions for the rest of this year and beyond?
Bearing in mind I’m 68….beyond this year I really don’t know. At first my goal was only to drive Le Mans, but then I thought “You know, if we can pile up some points here, we’ve got a shot – an outside one, admittedly – of winning the championship”, so we’ll see how it goes. I guess that for as long as I’m getting quicker on the tracks we go to and am getting a little bit nearer to the pace of my co-drivers, which is how I judge whether I’m improving or getting too old….. I’m reconciled to the fact that there’ll always be a gap I can’t bridge between me and my co-drivers – they’re in their 30s and some have been racing for 20 years; plus, they’re highly talented – but if I can keep to within three to four seconds at a long track and two, two and a half at a short one, then I’m okay.I’ve always been in pretty good shape and you need to be to double-stint at this level of competition. If I go to a track I know and last year the gap was three seconds and this year it’s five, then that’s the time to say, okay, enough. But I’m still learning quicker than I’m rotting!
And you need to know your limits. There’s no point pushing to the maximum if it’s going to result in a spin – and it’s difficult to avoid having at least one spin if you’re pushing a bit – so you’ve just got to back off slightly from your optimum time to make sure.
What would you be doing if you weren’t racing?
That’s a good question. I’m looking to buy a business in the States and I should probably focus on that more, but I’m based in Switzerland and like to go mountain biking. We also have a house in South Africa and if I was there now I’d also be biking. So I’m not the pottering-around-the-garden type. As long as I can be physically active, I will be. I’ve always played sport; I’ve always worked out; I ran a marathon for my 60th birthday – I like a bit of a challenge, put it that way.