Paddy McGrath has already talked about the irresistible pull of the Nürburgring 24 Hours and how drivers, teams and fans come back to it year after year. But what’s it like for the first timer? The Nürburgring newbie? The 24-Hour ‘Ring rookie? Well, I’ll try and give you a sense of being introduced to it, this being – shockingly – my first experience of this awesome event. Yes, I hold my hand up: I am green when it comes to the Green Hell. I’ve been to Le Mans regularly since my first visit in 1999, but few things prepared me for the sensory overload that the Nürburgring 24 Hours hits you with. I’ve been to the track before and seen races on the Grand Prix layout, but not during the round-the-clock enduro itself. The 24 Hours transforms this corner of Germany into a different beast entirely.
It’s the well-mannered rowdiness of the sprawling Le Mans campsites, but combined and condensed into the forest that surrounds the entire length of the track and with tanker loads of beer, techno and burning meat thrown in.
It’s the impromptu home-built, multi-level seating of Petit Le Mans, but escalated to unfeasibly efficient architectural levels. It’s the hectic Blancpain Endurance Series Monza pit-lane, but with cars stacked even deeper and the chaos extending through the pit-lane garages and out across the whole of the paddock beyond.
There’s an overwhelming sense of scale to the Nürgburging 24 Hours. This is not a track contained within a nice, safe perimeter and with nice, safe parameters. It’s a seemingly never-ending snake of tarmac winding its way through the forest. The Nordschleife battles nature – and wins. It then leaves nature to get its own back by picking on the drivers who dare to run it.
This year it was time to storm the castle and tackle the 24 Hours head on. With plenty of back-up from Speedhunting veterans…
The Grand Prix track sits on a plateau to the south-west of the Nordschleife, which itself winds its way through the trees just the other side. This gives two very different characteristics to the track: driving the GP track must seem like a stroll in a very big park compared to the claustrophobic confines of the Nordschleife.
This section is a useful adjunct to the Nordschleife, providing the modern pit-lane facility, some very relative R&R for the drivers and a useful escape route if they suffer a problem on the opening five kilometres. A line of cones on the exit of the final chicane allow cars to split right away from the Nordschleife entrance and head back into the pits – it’s a cut-through that’s also heavily used during practice and qualifying as teams bed in parts or test set-ups.
Otherwise, you’re out in the boonies for the next 20 kilometres. The margin for error around the track is nil: at best there’s one car-width of slippery grass before the three-strand armco swallows you up and spits you out in a considerably poorer state than you arrived in. The local roads are wider than the racing track they shadow.
Watching the on-boards from today’s sessions, driving the track looks like a combination of the Star Wars speeder-bike chase and a roller-coaster. During an earthquake. Cars look on the edge at every corner.
There are no safety cars – they just wouldn’t work! The track is too long, so wreckers are placed strategically around the track. That means that they have to make their way round to incidents on the track itself, providing the incongruous sight of trucks and GT cars frequently fighting over the same bit of tarmac.
Earlier in the day, most of the assembled throng in the media room had been pressed up against the glass as the seemingly hundreds of competitors in the 24 Hours Classic event lined up in the pit-lane. Their sprawling paddock had given a false sense of the actually vast number of cars taking part – rather like the main event itself.
The Classic paddock spread out across the newer Arena section of the GP track, meaning the old Porsches, BMWs, Fords, Alfas and more were camped out over kerbs, grasscrete and run-off.
The Classic grid alone would be worth a weekend to themselves, with a list of cars that deserves plenty of attention; the good news is that Paddy will be taking a close look at all these beauties tomorrow.
Any complaints about the reduction in the number of cars in the 24 Hours itself (which should be batted aside – over 170 cars is enough for anyone) were made utterly inconsequential by the fact that there are over 200 in the 24 Hours Classic race. That’s the best part of 400 cars in just two races. It’s difficult to process mathematically, let alone when you see that number of cars filling a pit-lane three-deep along its length.
The pit-lane is defined by bodies rather than lines painted on the floor. Prior to going out, cars housed in the paddock are driven round to find a spot in front of their allocated garage; inside another four, five or six cars are crammed in waiting for the space to exit.
There are over 50 BMWs. 17 Audis. Eight Astons. Countless Porsches. 25 marques in all, with 27 different nationalities of driver taking part. But as Sean Klingelhoefer has just said: think of a car… it’s in this race. Both Sean and Paddy have been out shooting track action today, and too many times I’ve leant across to see yet another car I didn’t even know was in the race. Though to be honest, no one can really claim to know who was in the race up until this afternoon. The starting list was really only finalised today, and up till then the entry list was full of that most popular of racing drivers: the mysterious Tobe Confirmed.
Jaguar have turned up with a hot-looking XF-S (running in the diesel class, but still); there are also Volvos, VWs, a Hyundai…
…a pair of Subarus, an S2000, an Astra, a Focus… The list goes on.
Here’s a typical thing that could only happen here, at the most challenging, most difficult track in the world. The #46 Nissan 370Z has on its crew two circuit commentators from the track. And commentating live, as they drive. Wolfgang Drabiniok and Frank Hufstadt are great examples of the enormous quantity of local drivers who take part; drivers who know the ‘Ring like the back of their hands – and have enough confidence to talk about it as they do it. And probably do crosswords and stuff at the same time.
There’s also an old Opel Manta running round, which I’m sure must have just stayed hidden out in the woods from the Classic race, and then rejoined when the ‘new’ cars came out. Hence the fox’s tail waving around on the aerial.
At the WRT pit the final set-up under the awnings by the team trucks was going on right up to the eve of the track sessions. There’s always another decal to cut or box to open.
Attention was then focussed on the set-up of the car itself. WRT’s eye for detail shows through even on their jack-stands.
There’s some beautiful detailing under the body of the R8 LMS Ultra: even the hubs and brake disks are works of art.
Technical scrutineering passed without a hitch, with the only issue being yesterday’s insane weather.
The drivers had plenty of new things to deal with as well. Edward his Stormtrooper-esque helmet…
…and breaking in his new race suit.
The most important thing for any driver is comfort. That might be a relatively thing in a racecar with rock-solid suspension and a hard carbon seat, but the custom-moulded inserts allow each driver to reach their optimum position in the car – and therefore focus one hundred percent on driving. Edward was getting his new insert formed on the Thursday evening…
…which meant donning a fetching synthetic suit and trying to sit still whilst the foam solidified. Luckily Edward is always happy in a racing car, no matter what the situation.
Final stickers applied, the WRT Speedhunters Audi R8 LMS Ultra was ready for battle. Edward Sandstöm, Oliver Jarvis, Andrea Piccini and Allan Simonsen would now just had to pedal it flat out around the Green Hell as fast as possible.
The new WRT Speedhunters stickers have been going down well: Camille and Julie have been dishing out handfuls at the track and they’re already turning up around the place…
Camille’s petrolhead credentials are impeccable: she looked very much at home in Fangio’s Mercedes.
Not only does the race attract drivers from across the globe (there are a couple of Australian teams, for instance), but also fans: Igor drove all the way from Russia to be here this weekend. Some Speedhunters stickers is small reward for his dedication!
Previous visits by the Speedhunters crew can be spotted around the place… And are apparently impossible to remove.
The #48 Porsche had the honour of being the first car to take to the track at 2.45pm, in the opening Free Practice session for the 24 Hours. Manthey (Porsche 997), Schubert (BMW Z4) and Phoenix (Audi R8 LMS) quickly established themselves at the top of the field, with laps around the mid eight minute mark.
Laps over 25km track would be over 10 minute laps for the smaller-capacity cars – ie, the other 100 cars. Within 30 minutes 140 cars had already set lap times, which gives you some idea of how busy the track was.
The SP9 GT3s dominated as expected, filling 28 of the first 29 positions during the session.
The GT cars passed the slower cars like they were standing still – but that’s not to say that they looked entirely in control. This is no reflection on the drivers or cars, but on the track.
That said, the McLarens looking hugely unstable: the #59 car was battling with the two Phoenix Audis toward the end of the session, bouncing all over the road as it struggled to keep the R8s behind. The MP4-12C held its own in a drag race down Döttinge Höhe before the Audi finally just managed to outbrake it into Tiergarten. And this is before the race even started.
The Speedhunters WRT Audi R8 LMS stuck to its programme, which was to get its new drivers up to speed in the car. Edward didn’t drive – he was saving himself for the evening qualifying session. The team posted the 15th fastest time, well in the mix, and seemed more than happy with the car’s performance.
Leaving everyone behind was the #27 Timbull Porsche 997, which snuck in a lap four seconds faster than anyone else in the dying minutes of the session.
So. Visigoths in the woods, cars on the track, engine noise in my ears. Green Hell? Green paradise, surely.