YOUNG GUN: Campbell’s rise to Porsche stardom
Friday 24th April, 2020 - 4:30pm
Matt Campbell always wanted to make a career out of motorsport, but he never envisaged being a full-time Porsche driver would be a reality.
Born in Warwick, a small town south west of Brisbane, motorsport is all Campbell has ever known.
His grandfather Bill Campbell was a racer and ran the local circuit, Morgan Park Raceway, just 10 minutes from the centre of Warwick.
His aunt was the treasurer while his mum and grandmother were either in the canteen or in timing. Campbell and his family were firmly immersed in motorsport
Campbell was taught how to drive as a six-year-old by his aunt. Karting followed, albeit without lofty aspirations. By the time he was 14 years old he acquired a racing licence.
After a couple of years doing sprints in a Datsun, Campbell received tuition from Paul Stokell and on his advice they made the step into Formula Ford.
Several years of single-seater racing followed, culminating in state-level success in the Queensland Formula Ford Championship at 17 years old in 2012.
After half a campaign in national Formula Ford, Campbell contested the full season in 2013, but success wasn’t forthcoming and he found himself annoyed.
“It was a really difficult year for us,” he told Speedcafe.com.
“I wasn’t getting the results I was wanting and I was getting a little bit frustrated.
“Certainly budget-wise, when you get to that level of motorsport in Australia it’s very costly and expensive.”
In the back of his mind, Campbell wanted to progress through the ranks. He hadn’t had a strong run in national Formula Ford and the investment required to step up was significant.
“We were starting to think towards the future, but the two options financially were so much worse, and it was looking very dull,” said Campbell.
“The way we looked at it was that you had the Super2 Series but you really had to be in one or two cars in that time to be able to do well.
“Otherwise you’re wasting your money, even though you’re having to spend more.
“Or you have Porsche Carrera Cup Australia, which is a one-make championship. As it’s shown in the past with the likes of David Reynolds and Fabian Coulthard, it could also lead to opportunities in Supercars, but it can also lead to opportunities overseas.”
Ultimately, it was an easy decision. The Porsche path made sense in his mind. Not only was it cheaper, but it provided a pathway to opportunities in Europe with the possible fallback of racing in Supercars as many had already proven could be done.
Campbell spoke with Andy McElrea at the end of 2013 who by then had a successful string of results in Porsche Carrera Cup Australia with his team McElrea Racing.
Campbell and his grandfather teed up a test and, as Cambpell recalled, it was a pivotal moment in his career.
“The Cup car is such an iconic car,” he said.
“It was probably one of my favorite experiences on a race track in a race car, just having a ball in such a cool car.
“I hadn’t really driven a car with that much horsepower or that much grip before. It was just an awesome experience and I learnt a lot over the day.
“When you have the likes of Warren Luff there, we were comparing data, trying to improve, and I felt like I came to grips really quickly with the car by the end of the day.
“The driving style really suited me, but I just felt comfortable in it as well.”
Soon enough Campbell had signed up for Porsche GT3 Cup Challenge Australia in 2015 (now Porsche Michelin Sprint Challenge), a season that he said set up his career for success.
However, Campbell didn’t have the funding to drive one of the newer 997.2 spec cars, but kept pace and dominated the 997.1 division.
All the while he was operating on a round-by-round basis, unsure whether he’d have enough money to race at the next event.
Late in the year he got a chance to race for Michael Hovey in one of the newer cars. He swept the weekend, claiming pole position and the fastest lap in all three races.
Despite a deficit of 40 horsepower for every round except the last, he ended the season in fourth overall.
Soon enough the call was made to contest Porsche Carrera Cup Australia in 2015. This time the playing field was level, but once again budget issues clouded his thoughts.
“I was full of mixed emotions,” Campbell said of the lead up to his debut at the Adelaide 500.
“Only about two weeks before the first round I got a call that we’re going ahead. We were actually going to do it.
“Financially the next step into Carrera Cup is quite a large jump. My family, especially my mum, my nan and my grandfather, had really risked a lot to be able to get me to where I am.
“I’m really grateful for what they risked, but to make the next step seemed impossible at the time.”
McElrea sought to recreate the success he’d seen in New Zealand by now five-time IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon.
At a young age he funded his racing into Indy Lights and then IndyCar by selling shares in a business with a percentage of his eventual earnings paying dividends to the investors.
Campbell copied the idea, but that didn’t necessarily mean investors came calling straight away.
He began the season with enough financial support to contest the first two rounds. There were no certainties beyond that.
It was a tough time for Campbell financially and personally. In the midst of his first race weekend at one of the biggest meetings of the year his grandfather died.
“The weekend didn’t go to plan, we had dramas, I made mistakes,” Campbell said of his debut.
“I was still feeling a lot of pressure because the money aspect was still quite tough.
“Then when you add on top what happened with my grandfather when I was at the event, it made it much tougher.
“It was a really, really tough initiation to my first experience. We showed some good speed, but in the end it was just a weekend to forget and move on to the next one.”
Campbell finished the first weekend with two DNFs. The results improved as the year wore on but money was still tight. With the completion of each round, there were no guarantees he’d be at the next event.
Fortunately, Campbell ended the year with a string of wins and podiums that cemented important sponsorship deals and his place on the grid for 2016.
What followed was a dominant season, one that saw him win 14 out of 24 races, claiming seven pole positions and the fastest lap on eight occasions.
Opportunities were forthcoming in Supercars as a co-driver and a full-time drive beyond 2016 looked likely. However, by that point he’d shifted his focus to the Porsche Scholarship Shootout, which he went on to win.
“Going to the junior shootout and trying to be successful there was number one on my priority list because that’s what we had been working towards,” said Campbell.
“That’s what I wanted to try and achieve. I really wanted to join Porsche and try to follow in the footsteps of Earl Bamber who’d already been down that path and then be successful in LMP1.
“I really wanted to try and emulate something like that. If that didn’t work out, we were always going to have a possible opportunity in Supercars.
“My number one was the shootout and then our backup plan was something in Supercars, which was looking very promising at that time.”
Winning the scholarship put Campbell into Porsche’s junior program, racing in the highest level of one-make tin-top racing, Porsche Supercup.
It was a far cry from Australia. Gone was the hour of practice, instead just 20 minutes to learn a track and then another 20 minutes to qualify before racing on the Formula 1 undercard.
“It’s really quite challenging doing Supercup,” he said.
“You’re only on track once a day and obviously some of the tracks that you go to, for example, like Monaco and Mexico, you don’t get to go there and test.
“All these guys I’m racing against had been in championship for one or two years, they’d already experienced the tracks.
“The level of competition in Supercup is so extremely high. For me, I really surprised myself on that side of it, getting up to speed and learning tracks very fast.
“Even just off the track and away from the race weekends with testing, it was so different to what I was used to.”
That year Campbell claimed four wins from 11 races as well as five pole positions on his way to third in the championship.
It was a strong debut year, but Campbell didn’t know whether he’d done enough to continue with Porsche beyond 2017.
“I had some fantastic results and if it wasn’t for a couple of troublesome rounds out of my control we could have even been in contention for the championship,” he said.
“We got to the end and I didn’t know where I stood, what was going to happen, if they were going to kick me out, if I was going to go back to Australia, or anything like that.
“Luckily they had just created a new in-between step between a Porsche Junior and a Porsche factory driver, which is a Porsche Young Professional.
“Basically you’re taking the next step out of Cup racing into GT3 or GTE competition, and your job is, as a young professional, to be able to learn and develop in the customer teams before you make the step towards the factory.
“The next big tick on my box was moving out of the Junior program and closer to the factory and the big cars. That was really exciting.”
After a year in GT3 Cup Challenge, two years of Carrera Cup in Australia, and a single season of Supercup, Campbell joined the Young Professional line-up for 2018.
It was another outstanding year for Campbell, one that saw him win his class at the 24 Hours of Le Mans and finish runner-up in the FIA World Endurance Championship in the GTE-Am class.
In 2019 he claimed outright honours in the Bathurst 12 Hour, a win he regards as the best moment of his life.
Nowadays, Campbell is a factory-backed Porsche driver, racing around the world in the most iconic endurance races and in a top-flight factory role.
“At the moment where I am now, I’m very happy and content with what I’m doing,” said Campbell.
“I want to try and remain here with Porsche for many years to come in a works driver status and really tick off some of those big races.
“Obviously winning Le Mans on debut was pretty special, but in saying that, we’re in the Am competition and to win in Pro is a different story.
“Also to be able to win races like Nürburgring 24, which we came so close to last year, and in there’s Daytona and Spa.
“I really want to tick off some of the iconic races and chairmanships as well. I think I can really speak on behalf of a lot of our Porsche factor drivers and say that these races are so important to us and especially to Porsche with their rich heritage in endurance racing at these events.”
Looking back on his sharp trajectory to professional status at just 25 years old, Campbell credits the success he’s had to his family.
“Obviously that was always a goal, but I never thought it would ever really happen and certainly never this quickly,” he said of his career path.
“The progression and the speed that my career has developed over the last few years especially has been quite phenomenal.
“It’s crazy to think where I was when I was still in Australia doing Formula Ford, or Cup Challenge.
“I suppose when we entered Formula Ford it was just a bit of a dream to try and make a career out of motorsport. We were just having a crack.
“My family was giving me an opportunity to be able to try and follow that path. They were behind me, giving me a chance to be able to go racing and try and see where I stack up against some other young blokes.
“Now to look where we are today, realising my dream as a Porsche factory driver and a professional driver is a pretty phenomenal achievement, and one I hold very greatly to my family and my supporters who are involved in my company.”