Driver Jeroen Bleekemolen has a unique perspective. He’s successfully driven all different types of sports cars – prototypes and GT cars – and won many races in many different series. Among other things, he has won Porsche Supercup titles, claimed LMP2 class honors at the 24 hours of Le Mans and won overall at the Nurburgring 24 hours. Add forays into Australian V8 Supercars and A1GP and you have a body of work for a professional racing driver that is distinctive.
DSC had the opportunity for a wide-ranging and lengthy discussion just before the Nürburgring 24 hours where Bleekemolen drove the lead Glickenhaus SCG003 entry – yet another unique chapter in his career. Since then he competed at Le Mans once again in the Murphy Prototypes Oreca alongside Ben Keating and Marc Goosens.
This interview is divided into two parts. The first focuses on GT racing, including Bleekemolen’s experience with the Mercedes AMG cars, and potential interests for the future. The second focuses more on his travel schedule, family and Formula One.
You’ve had a lot of very good runs here at the Nürburgring and real success with the Mercedes SLS. How did you come to that program?
“Actually I was in touch with Black Falcon a long time ago, even before they were running the SLS. I think I even did a race for them with one of the slower cars here with them. I couldn’t do the (Nürburgring) 24hr most years because it was clashing with another race I was doing so I missed it quite a few times. When I started talking to them again, they started running the SLS and it kind of took off.
“They asked me to join them for the first year with their SLS here and we showed some good pace – we had a small issue in the race – still finished 6th overall, and then on we did a lot of races and also other races like Dubai, Abu Dhabi 12hr, and Blancpain. Since then I’ve done a lot of races with the SLS with them.”
Did you have one particular favorite chassis you drove a lot or did they have several?
“The cars were very equal when they come from the factory. We’ve always had good cars with quite a few different cars.
“Basically every year for the N24 race we got a new car, a brand new car, the same thing for Dubai, so I usually did those two races with completely new cars which was great because we knew all the cars were new, we didn’t put too many laps on them during practice. They were still pretty fresh for the main race.”
Do you look back at your Nürburgring race win as a key part of your racing biography?
“I think to win this race is amazing because the conditions are so hard with around 30 cars that can win overall – GT3 cars with manufacturers behind who put pressure and effort and money.
“To win this race is really special and also the place is a special place. The track itself – it’s dangerous, it’s a long track, it’s like nothing else – so to win it is really good, for sure. Whenever I look at the program and see my name in the book as one of the winners, it’s always great.”
The SLS had a 100+ production run. How much factory support, interest, involvement was there?
“Initially they built the car and they did a fantastic job because it was probably the nicest or the easiest car to drive when it came out of all the GT3 cars. Every amateur loved it, they could be really quick with it or could be close to the pro drivers which is very important if you build a GT3. If it was raining, it was quite an easy car to handle which is really good for races like this 24hr race, especially on a track like this where you have no run off or anything.
“Initially I felt like AMG really saw it as a customer program, sell you the car and you can get the parts but they didn’t support teams that much in terms of money or people. They gave the (customer teams) a base set up. So, they delivered a very quality, a very high quality product but they let the teams run it. But as the GT3 developed more and more professionally, they’ve stepped in more of the time. You see their effort this year at the 24 hours.
“It’s amazing they have so many factory drivers they signed up not only for this race. They really support the teams now so it has changed over the years. I guess you need to do that in order to be able to fight.”
Did you have advance knowledge about the SLS? Did you know about the testing programme? Were you involved?
“No. The team (Black Falcon) was not involved. It was really AMG and HWA who started development of the car with Thomas Jäger and Bernd Schneider. I know Thomas really well. I knew Bernd but I got to know him really well driving with him later on. I heard from Thomas as well that the car was going to be good. I knew it was going to be good quality.”
It seems like the race/road car difference is a lot closer with the AMG GT3. Is that fair?
“Maybe so. I think they just learned from the SLS and all the weak points were taken out of it. They put a really good GT car together with the GT. At the moment, the best GT3 car out there I would say.”
When you say “best” what criteria are you using to say the “best”?
“The problem is that you have a balance of performance so the worst car can win. If the best car gets penalized then it is suddenly the worst car, so you are very dependent on this balance of performance. I think that what they did, they build a car that is very comfortable to drive and very easy with all the switches and very easy to handle in every way. They brought that over to the GT. It is still a very easy car to drive, but they also made it better.
“In terms of performance, it is quicker too. Better braking, better aero, less drag. It has the same engine but it has so much less drag that the top speed is much higher.
“Because of that, the organisers compared the two cars. They are quite similar in a way, so the BoP was originally set from the SLS. In the beginning, the BoP was too good. I still feel they are still too quick compared to other cars. They’ve done a really good job.”
Does the new AMG GT3 have a fairly wide envelope in terms of making it accessible for both the professional and amateur? Does it have a wide performance envelope to accommodate both?
“Yes, I’d say the AMG GT3 the best car to have for an amateur if you want to be as close as possible to the pros. I’ve seen it in the past when I was with the amateur drivers on my car. They could get really close to the pros whereas in other cars they would struggle to get that close. It is such an easy car to drive.
“Also for the pro – I remember in Dubai one year my teammate crashed right at the beginning of the week so we couldn’t practice at all. We went straight into qualifying and my first or second lap was pole position. It was so easy to get to the limit.
“Usually when you go out, within five laps you are right there. As a driver, you are on your limit and then you can work on set up. You don’t need to work on yourself so much, you can work on the car.”
Do you have any more driving ahead with the AMG GT3?
“I think the chances are quite high that we’ll be back in Dubai again for the 24 hour with the GT with the Abu Dhabi racing with Black Falcon. We might be back for the Abu Dhabi 12 hours.
“I don’t know if they’re going to do it, but if so I would be on the team.”
It is interesting to you from a design or engineering philosophy perspective seeing how different car manufacturers are attacking the same problem? Has that changed over the years for you?
“It has changed. The sport is getting more professional so everybody has his own job. As a driver, you have a job to drive quick but you have to give the team good feedback on what’s missing or what could be better on the car.
“At the end of the day, however, we’re not designers. The level is so high in every area, so all through the design area – those are all people who have years of experience. If you’re interested, you could follow it and think about it, but to really contribute to something is tough I would say. Everybody is more focused on his own job, whereas in the past the driver might do much more than just drive. Now you have people who have their own area of the car.”
What has changed the most in the past 10 years in GT racing? Is it GT3 regs that brought a common platform? Is it tyre technology? Is it the use of telemetry? Is it that more amateur drivers are more competent?
“Not one area which has made the sport completely different but GT3 racing has brought in a lot more amateur drivers which is good because it brings a lot more opportunities for the pro driver as well.
“There are a lot more championships and 24-hour races where you have amateur and pro drivers together, but everything is just getting better and better. For sure the tyres are getting a little bit better. The cars are a lot better and more reliable. The teams are getting better. You used to have a couple of factory teams and now you have more teams that really do the job in a great way. It is more competitive as well. It is much harder to win a race like the Spa 24 hours right now than it was 15 years ago.”
You mentioned Thomas Jäger and the people in the AMG programme. They do both development driving and racing with customer teams. Would you be interested in that kind of a role?
“Yes, if it is part of a good programme. I spoke to them about this year and joining them for this race (Nürburgring 24) and there could have been some testing and possibly doing some other races, but we didn’t come to an agreement. One of my issues is that I don’t have a lot of time because I race a lot. Then again, if I get the right opportunity with the right program, then for sure I’m interested to commit to something full-time or at least spend most of my time on one program. But it has to be the right opportunity for me as well.”
Every race car driver wants to race, so the more you can race is a good thing, right?
“Yes, but I’m getting older as well. So if you get a really nice opportunity with the right manufacturer and stay with it for a number of years and be more of an ambassador as well – that is something that would be interesting for me.”
You won the Porsche Supercup for a couple of seasons (2008 and 2009) where you were dominant.
“Yeah, but I won it at the wrong time. When I won it, I also won Le Mans with Porsche – which was a private team – but didn’t have any support from them. I got asked by the team but they (Porsche) didn’t ask me to be in the team, so it was really my own effort to be in that car. When I won the Supercup, the economy went really bad and they had to fire some factory drivers.
“They’re really loyal to their drivers usually. Because they already had to let go some big names, they couldn’t hire new guys. I was really at the wrong time. If I had been three years earlier or three years later and probably been with Porsche and probably would have stayed with them. But it’s OK. I’m having a really good time and a good career – nothing to complain about.”
The fact that you drive for so many different teams in so many different races says something about your ability as a business person. You’ve gotten that vote of confidence from a lot of people.
“It is nice. It is also good for the future because you have a lot of contacts. People know who you are. People move from place to place, but then they think about you again so it is a small world. It helps.
“That’s also why I’m happy to be doing what I’m doing and trying to do a lot of different stuff because it is for my future and hopefully I can do this for many more years.”
Part 2 will be available tomorrow