In Profile: Andrea Bertolini, made in Italy
This weekend, a driver who ranks among the most experienced competitors in international GT racing will travel to one of the sport's oldest and best-loved circuits.
It should be familiar territory for such an accomplished professional racer, a reunion between old friends – but that is not the case at all. Andrea Bertolini, a man who has competed and won at almost any track you might care to name, has never visited Brands Hatch.
"It's so funny," says the Ferrari factory driver. "When the team told me that the first race was at Brands Hatch, I started to think to myself: 'Brands Hatch, Brands Hatch... I don't remember Brands Hatch!' And you know what? I have never been to Brands Hatch. I've done almost all the tracks in the world, but I've never raced there."
Bertolini has a keener sense than most for the sport’s history – more on which later – and is therefore thrilled to be making his belated debut at the Kent circuit.
"It's an old-school race track, so I am very excited. I hope I will enjoy every single lap and at the end of the week I can say, at last, that I have raced at Brands Hatch!"
The series that has finally brought Bertolini and Brands together is the Blancpain GT World Challenge Europe. The Italian ace will pair with long-time team-mate Louis Machiels to tackle the sprint-format championship, driving a Pro-Am class Ferrari 488 GT3 for AF Corse.
Ferrari is in Bertolini's blood. The Sassuolo native has worked for the Italian marque since he was a teenager and, more than 25 years on, is one of Ferrari's nominated drivers for the global Blancpain GT World Challenge. While he also achieved notable success driving for sister brand Maserati, this too was at the behest of the Maranello firm.
Added to his exploits in GT racing Bertolini has helped to develop Ferrari road cars and played a pivotal role in the manufacturer's dominance of Formula 1 between 2000 and 2004. Indeed, few in the modern era can claim such close links to the Prancing Horse.
The long road to the top
Bertolini cut his teeth in go-karts, developing a passion for the sport that began when he was 10 and grew as he reached his teenage years. His dream back then was modest: become a factory driver for a go-kart company. You suspect that 10-year-old Andrea would be quite pleased with how things turned out.
But this has not been a simple journey. In fact, Bertolini's professional racing aspirations were on hold for quite some time.
"I had to stop when I was 16, because it was so expensive," he says. "I remember when my dad told me, I cried for a week just like a kid. I thought the dream was finished."
He competed in off-road motorbike racing, winning the Italian championship, but he did not enjoy the same passion that he had found on four wheels. Instead, Bertolini walked another path. His home town of Sassuolo is just a few kilometres from Maranello, base for the iconic Ferrari brand.
"When I turned 18 I began working for Ferrari. I became their youngest test driver ever, working on the experimental road cars. I learned a lot about how to develop the car from a sheet of paper to the road."
Around the same time, a friend helped Bertolini to return to kart racing. He earned significant success over the next few years, winning major events alongside his role with Ferrari, and in 2001 got his chance to step up to GT racing.
But here’s the twist: incredibly for a man so closely linked with Ferrari, he would be driving a Porsche.
"The first time I asked my boss at Ferrari to give me the chance to run the 2001 FIA GT Championship in a Porsche, he asked me if it was a joke! It was very difficult for me to go to the boss and ask permission to race a Porsche. So he said: 'Okay, you'll have to use your holiday days...'
Fortunately, the talent that Bertolini had honed in go-karts and as a development driver made him a natural in GT racing.
"Four months into the season I had another meeting with the big boss," he explains. "I was scared, because I could imagine it was going to be a tough meeting and that he would tell me to stop. I was surprised when he said: 'Andrea, I've followed your season. We have the idea to create a new GT racing department. At the end of the year you need to stop racing the Porsche and you will become the factory driver for all of our racing activity outside Formula 1."
Bertolini had a golden opportunity – and one that he would make count.
World domination with Maserati
Bertolini's new role began well. Competing in the FIA GT Championship with Ferrari’s 360 Modena model, there were podiums in 2002 and wins in 2003. Then, for 2004, Ferrari bosses Jean Todt and Antonello Coletta gave Bertolini an intriguing new assignment.
"They asked me to 'move' to Maserati, because that was their new GT1 project for the FIA GT Championship, with the MC12.
"At the same time I was the official test driver for the F1 programme. So one week I'd do four days testing the GT1 at Paul Ricard, and the next week I'd spend four days in the F1 car at Fiorano or Monza or Mugello. I was always in the car!"
Despite only running the final four rounds of the 2004 season, Bertolini picked up wins at Oschersleben and Zuhai. 2005 brought another win, at Magny-Cours, as well as multiple podiums, including a runner-up finish at the Total 24 Hours of Spa.
The real magic began when he switched to the Vitaphone squad the following season. Paired with Michael Bartels in the ever-improving MC12, he would secure titles in 2006, 2008 and 2009, as well as overall wins at Spa in 2006 and 2008. When the series became the FIA GT1 World Championship in 2010, Bertolni and Bartels triumphed yet again to secure the biggest success of their careers
The GT1 project concluded after 2010, ending a run of four titles in five seasons, but Bertolini remained a Maserati driver and won the Superstars International Series at his first attempt. That year he also returned to the Total 24 Hours of Spa, leading a Pro-Am line-up alongside Bartels and two new teammates: Louis Machiels and Niek Hommerson.
The combination of Bertolini-Machiels-Hommerson has since become one of the most successful Pro-Am crews in Blancpain GT Series history, with a pair of Total 24 Hours of Spa class wins (2012 & 2014) standing among their finest achievements.
"We know each other very well," Bertolini says of the #52 Ferrari trio, who have competed for the ace AF Corse squad since 2012. "Niek and Louis are really professional when they're at the track. They want to know everything and we have a really strong relationship. This is the key. My personal feeling is that they are two of the fastest bronze drivers in the world."
Perks of the job
Bertolini's job at Ferrari hasn't just focussed on development work and racing GT cars. There are a few other little tasks that he helps out with, too.
For several years, the Italian has had the enviable responsibility of shaking down Ferrari's old grand prix cars before they are sold to private clients. He reels off a list of iconic machines that he has driven: Niki Lauda's 1974 title-winner, the 1990 car in which Alain Prost so nearly clinched the world championship, and a succession of title-winners from 2000 onwards.
"If I had to pick one, it is the 2004 car. That car, for me, is the best Formula 1 car ever," he says.
There is perhaps a personal attachment, too. Bertolini played a crucial role in developing the cars in which Michael Schumacher won five successive world titles between 2000 and 2004, forming part of a team that worked tirelessly to ensure that the equipment was unbeatable. The 2004 machine was their crowning glory.
He says he was close to racing in F1 earlier in his career: "Really close. I felt I was ready. I was in the car every day and there was a reference with our other drivers; it was the right time.
"But honestly, if I consider everything, I feel lucky to have had such a good career in GT racing, and to still be here. I have won eight championships – no one else has done this – and it makes me proud that I was always part of the Ferrari family, driving for Ferrari and Maserati. This represents a lot for me."
The Brands Hatch event takes place over two action-packed days, with practice and qualifying scheduled for Saturday and both races taking place on Sunday. Each 60-minute run will pay equal points and feature a mid-race driver swap, with the first getting underway at 12.10 and the second at 16.35.