The last round of the FIA World GT1 Championship was at the legendary Spa track in Belgium – we’ve now moved to the other end of the swathe of forest that runs across eastern Belgium and into western Germany to another classic track: the Nürburgring. The weather at Spa was typically predictable in being unpredictable; here at the Nürburgring I’m already looking back to the rain at Spa and dreaming of rainfall that light. This weekend the extremes are more extreme: biblical storms that leave the track awash, followed by blazing sunshine that makes the tarmac bone dry in minutes. Schizophrenic? Damn right, both of us are.
Engineers scanned the three-day forecasts before the weekend, but it was essentially pointless.
Whoever is calling the weather shots obviously doesn’t like GT1 – or likes making things exciting, to be fair. Friday morning’s GT1 Free Practice was a wash-out, but no one can afford to sit a session out. Track time is precious, and anyway, it was hardly like it wouldn’t rain again – as was proved and then some in the Pre-Qualifying later that afternoon. Wet tyres move an insane amount of water: coupled with big downforce numbers the GT1 cars cut through the water on the straights, throwing up huge rooster-tails.
But in the corners GT1 cars are different beasts. Shorn of the downward shove of aero, the cars become unwieldy beasts, mammoths on ice with 600hp on tap and zero grip. Smiles weren’t in abundance on the faces of drivers, as teams piled on the downforce and chased set-ups with the changing weather.
When the 80 minutes of GT1 Free Practice came to an end, the local ADAC GT Masters series field readied themselves to take to the track, their numbers bolstered by a fair number of FIA GT3 competitors – including our own Team Need For Speed boys. As the first cars exited the pit-lane… sunshine! The fast-blowing wind took the clouds away and for half an hour it was almost sun-bathing weather. Cue some very happy looking GT3 teams. Back in the media centre as they finished, as I looked out of the window an open-top KTM X-Box that was going out in the following GT4 practice session passed by – and the heaven’s opened again. Ah. And that was lighting. And thunder. BIG thunder. Great. X-Bow as mobile swimming pool. In the rain lottery, GT1 and GT4 had definitely picked the short straw and wouldn’t see a completely dry session.
I arrived at the track on Thursday, and Sumo Power and Nissan were here in force. GT-Rs are as common in the GT1 paddock as VWs are out on the local roads, and both the Sumo-modified GT-Rs we featured at the beginning of the year were driven out to Germany, plus the newly-liveried Sumo Power race trucks and trailers were on show.
In the garages the GT1 big-brothers slept under their protective covers. One more night in the dry before taking on the rain. Poor things. They didn’t know how bad it would be.
The team had some high-profile guests, including Land Speed record holder Andy Green: that’s Wing Commander Andy Green OBE BA to me. Green holds the record with a 763.35mph timed run in Thrust SSC back in 1997. He’s now working with the same team on the Bloodhound SSC project, which aims to go an insane 1,000mph. Practising changing wheels for a pit-stop must seem pretty mundane in comparison, so Sumo Power driver Michael Krumm took him on a hot-lap around the full Nordschliefe circuit.
The FIA safety car (a GT-R, of course) was also sporting some new additions: signatures of the GT1 drivers supporting the FIA’s road safety campaign.
Friday morning in the pit-lane and the schedules had to be kept to, whatever the weather. Just in case drivers hadn’t noticed, there was a helpful sign at the end of the pit-lane…
In all seriousness, different rules apply when a session is declared wet, but for the teams the rain just makes a hard job harder.
These practice sessions are as much about refining pit-stops and driver changes as honing set-ups: botched stops can cost points, as most teams have found out at some stage this year.
The cars use treated tear-off strips on the windscreens, sized-up versions of what single-seater drivers use on their visors: they’re much quicker to use than having to clean dirty screens by hand during pit-stops.
Tyres and rubber are absolutely critical. Temperatures, pressures and wear: everyone might be effectively using the same basic Michelin rubber, but how they use it is a team’s most guarded secret.
It’s not quite like in Abu Dhabi, where the air-conditioned garages were luxurious, but pit-garages are basically home for the mechanics for a week. Venturing out into the pit-lane is something you don’t want to do that often, especially with a stop board that a car will be sliding down the pit-lane to spot – and usually to then hit.
Some teams, like Sumo Power, use F1-style lollipops. It might seem like a pretty basic thing to do, but how to use it has to be thoroughly agreed and practised. A moment’s wavering of the sign and a driver’s likely to floor the throttle and burn off down the pit-lane, no matter what – or who – might still be attached to the car.
Out on track the cars still look fast on the straights, and if nothing else at least the nice reflections made me forget about the water dripping down my back for a bit…
As soon as the cars have completed a run they file back into the pit-lane and are raised up on their built-in jacks; the crew then descend to carry out checks and changes, whilst the driver usually runs back to the dry of the garage and the ear of his engineer.
The first corner at the Nurbürgring is a tight right with a downhill exit: the cars are braking from top speed as they approach it and it’s a quick way to destroy your lap if you get it wrong, as was all too easy to do.
Strangely, the track looked busier than normal for a practise. Cars ran round in packs like it was a race! Who was fastest was pretty irrelevant, and the fastest lap time (2:13s by the #8 Young Driver Aston Martin crew) was seven seconds up on the slowest as they took advantage of an almost dry line at the end of the session. Not in this shot, obviously..
One thing that the rain didn’t dampen down was the Murcielago flame-throwing, and thank god for that. Something to keep us warm, track-side.
Fast forward four hours to the GT1 Pre-Qualifying session: effectively another 80-minute practice. Or so was planned. The track was damp again but drying and the drivers could start attacking. Michael Krumm in #23 seemed to have taken a particular dislike to the first part of the NGK Schikane and was trying to hammer it into submission.
The Lamborghinis just didn’t deliver in Pre-Quallies: all four cars were near the back as the times dropped. Could their improved run of form be at an end?
The Hexis Astons just couldn’t match their not-so Young Driver sister team cars: both were stuck in the midfield, whereas #7 and #8 seemed to have nailed a set-up for the conditions.
From a lovely drive in the countryside, birds tweeting in the background (or was that Rod twittering?) and all the glory of nature…
…to a swimming pool in 15 minutes. The session was called off 20 minutes early when the heavens opened and an utter deluge hit the track. Cars came to a virtual stop as they struggled round and attempted to get back to the pits. It was horrible for the drivers, I’m sure, but I felt sorry for my fellow photographers as we all pulled our rain covers tighter and kept pointing until the last car passed. Oh! The professionalism!
As evening came round a heavy mist descended across the track. Sheer Driving Pleasure? Not at that moment, for sure.
The circuit disappeared under the blanket of cloud… This really was getting to comedic levels of changing weather.
Back in the pits, the SRT Nissan team continued to practice pit-stops. The mist couldn’t cover up Hexis Aston driver Frederic Makowiecki taking the opportunity to have a closer look at the GT-R…
To Saturday and the early morning Qualifying knock-out. How did Sumo Power’s qualifying go? #22 driver Warren Hughes body language sums it up: they didn’t make it out of the first session.
Italian cars were definitely ones to have: Lamborghinis grabbed second, third and seventh at the end and Maseratis fifth and sixth.
The Nissans just couldn’t get their tyres up to temperature: SRT could only manage 14th and 17th; Sumo ninth for #23 and 19th for #22.
Up front by some way was the #7 DBR9 of Darren Turner and Tomas Enge, with a 1:57.155s lap – their sister car was back in eigth.
This weekend I’ve been looking at the amazing Bonneville coverage with even more envy… Please can I have some sun sent over?