You’ve not lived until you’ve experienced a Mercedes-AMG GT3 heading directly towards you at triple-digit speeds, V8 snarling at full throttle. I still can’t tell if I made eye contact with the driver, or if I was just on his marker.
My heart was pounding as I felt the sound of the exhaust resonate through my body, yet strangely, there was no fear in me. Massive exhilaration for sure. Maybe I was just aware that I wouldn’t outrun it should the worst have happened, so I focused on keeping the camera steady and letting the rapid-fire shutter do its thing.Friday
As is the norm at this point, my weekend of Speedhunting began in the small hours of the morning, this time with a lovely sunrise on the horizon and bags full of camera gear and waterproof clothes. The crown jewel in my kit for the weekend would be the Sony G-Master 70-200 f2.8; key for getting the best shots at night.
Fuel, coffee and a quick blast to Heathrow, and my Clio RS was parked in the long-stay before you could say ‘I hate commuting through London’. Düsseldorf Airport was uneventful, except for what felt like an eternity waiting for my hire car.
That said, it was a damn sight nicer to drive than the Audi A6 Saj and I had at Wörthersee last month.
N24 by myself as a first-timer would have been a nightmare. Fortunately one of the best people in the world – rare parts finder, silly car enabler, currywurst enthusiast and overall sweetheart Till Dönnebrink – was on hand for the weekend to help. I met up with Till at my hotel, a lovely place where deer wandered in the valley directly behind, before racing down the mountain to the Nürburgring for our media passes. Then it was food and straight to GP circuit to catch the last of the classic touring car action and the start of top 10 qualifying for Saturday.
The vibe in the air around the classic touring cars was relaxed; I saw pure joy in the faces of the spectators. I’m sure I was no different. Group A era tin-top racers have always commanded respect and admiration.
The early ’90s seemed to have some the most recognisable silhouettes and liveries of all race cars ever made, too. Sonax, Calsonic, Texaco – these brand names evoke strong mental images; battling cars being manhandled over kerbs and between concrete barriers.
While I’m a BMW man at heart, there was just something about the Eggenberger Ford Sierra Cosworth RS500 that I couldn’t help but adore. It may have been the ‘angry’ taped up headlights, the whale-tail, or the gargantuan turbo bolted to the side of the red-top YB engine, but probably the combination of all those things. It was very rowdy.
That being said, in presence alone it was vastly overshadowed by its American cousin, a wide-bodied ‘Fox Body’ Mustang. V8 engine, huge BBS wheels and a stormtrooper-esque nose – the Mustang turned its menace up to 11.
Honourable mention for this turbo brick Volvo 242. Not only was it fighting it out with the rest of the field but also with nature itself, punching a hole through the air at great speed.
The qualifying prep, whilst relatively action-free, was nice to witness. Pit crews were relaxed, working almost leisurely.
Over at Manthey Racing, defending champions and the team behind the beloved ‘Grello’ MR 911 GT3 R, I caught the crew checking over the brakes before the car went out. The gentleman you see leaning into the Porsche proposed to his partner as she was sat in the driver’s seat. She said yes (thankfully), and the crowd and crew cheered them on.
While I had my hotel to retreat back to, Till was living the true N24 experience by camping, and invited me to experience a proper German BBQ with his friends. In my mind, this was going to be a lot of meat, a lot of potato and copious amounts of beer. I was correct.
The camp ground itself was an absolute madhouse. Situated directly behind the trackside FIA barriers, you had a mix of people from all different ages and walks of life enjoying their long weekend away. People had set up scaffolding rigs to sit high in the air and watch the racing over the barriers, combined with sound systems to play a mixture of EDM/hardbass/Rammstein at full volume all day and night.
What’s special about the night before N24 though, is once the touring cars and demo laps have stopped, spectators are allowed to spend the evening on the Nordschleife itself. No one had prepared me for this, and after years and years of racing the ‘Ring in video games I managed to tick an item off my bucket list that I never even knew I had on there.Saturday
A good night’s sleep in the hotel was necessary, and a good breakfast was in order too. Fortunately, the hotel provided free entertainment in the form of two guests having a shouting match over being filmed. Little goes quite as well with granola as death threats and swearing. Maybe blueberries.
Our friend Ian, a bonafide Nürburgring expert, had joined Till and I on Saturday night and offered to help us. As I arrived at the camp, they were building a wooden platform on the Defender’s external roll cage for me to stand on and get higher shots from. Ingenuity at its finest.
Between Ian’s expertise and Till’s trusty Defender, we were perfectly equipped to navigate the Nürburgring’s forest in search of photo locations.
We reached Pflanzgarten where I fortunately glimpsed the celebratory ’50 years of BMW M’ lap. Evidently it caught me by surprise – let’s call the photos ‘artistic’ – but be still my beating heart, I was in heaven. Until the new M4 CSL appeared.
The calmness in the forest with a steady stream of cars was about to be shattered. We jumped back in the Landie and high-tailed it back to the GP circuit for the grid walk and race start. It was pure mania.
Akin to a zombie apocalypse or central London in tourist season, there was a sea of bodies barging in and around one another trying to get a look at the cars lined up on the grid.Pit crews were pushing the cars along the straight to their grid spots, track marshalls furiously blowing whistles to move people out of the way. Photographers were scrambling to get the perfect shot inbetween the crowd.
There was tangible anticipation for the race just minutes away. Some drivers were trying to get ‘in the zone’ with their headphones in. Others were having a friendly chat with fans or having last minute discussions with their crew.
As the formation lap began, some photographers actually ran down to the first turn to get the classic shot of all the cars coming down towards you, side by side. Others (myself included) were more relaxed, and found vantage points in less commonly-used spaces.
We headed back to another section of the track to catch the cars racing in the opening stages, again using the Landie as a vantage point, driving through one of the most densely packed camp grounds at the event.
From my perspective, N24 is a strange event in that the racing itself doesn’t feel hectic. You’re aware that there are 130-odd cars being hurled around the track, but you also know that in around nine minutes you’ll see them again, and again, and so on.
I mean, how many other race circuits have a section where a crashed car is being recovered, and for the rest of the track there’s intense racing as normal? And how many race series out there demand you to have a web live feed for quick race updates?
When the Vanthoor brothers, Dries and Laurens came into contact in their Audi R8 and ‘Grello’ 911 GT3 respectively, Till and I were literally miles away. Phone calls were made and streams were checked; even though we ran for a couple of kilometres, we still didn’t manage to catch the heavily-damaged Grello being recovered. Manthey had retired immediately with a crash that large, and taken the car straight back to their headquarters down the road.
N24 is notorious for its strain on the cars and the danger at night, but it seemed as though both had been enhanced for my visit this year. Cars in the top class were dropping like flies, with a lot of title challengers retiring. 41 cars in total retired, including almost all of the brand new BMW M4 GT3s. A disappointing outcome for sure, especially after promising results leading up to the race.
The night racing was certainly a highlight for me, and I’ve tried to give you an idea of the sheer darkness of N24 with some of these photos. Imagine going near 200mph, flat out, and all you can see is what’s in your headlight beams and trackside fires.
But your headlight beams are cut short as the track dips and rises, and all you could see on the horizon was a rave tent or the leaning tower of scaffold and strobe lights. The drivers have nerves of steel and an understanding of the track that few others possess.Sunday
Where the track provided exhilaration, the pit lane provided raw humanity. As the day progressed and the cars suffered damage, the pit crews become more fatigued.
For those trying to stay awake, a few jokes (and a lot of energy drinks) went a long way to keep the momentum of the night going. For those who succumbed to sleep, a few hours of shut-eye leant up against a tyre stack, or in a camping chair, could have made the difference between victory and defeat.
That being said, when a car did come in to the pits it was all stations go, and it was incredible to see. Whereas an F1 pitstop is over in the blink of an eye, an N24 pit stop takes minutes.
Tyre changes, fuel fill-ups, windscreen cleaning and driver swaps. Everything happened very quickly in the grand scheme but in the sensory assault of engines down the straight, cars in the pit lane, blinding spotlights and teams running around, seconds felt a lot longer than they actually were.
Human emotion became more prevalent as the night wore on, stripping back any layers of ‘front’ the team members may have been feigning for morale.
By the morning, both Till and I were knackered, as were the teams. Fortunately Sunday was a lot more docile than Saturday was. Energy levels had dropped significantly after a night of intense racing or partying, depending on what side of the fence you’d spent the night. I can’t even remember what breakfast was, maybe schnitzel, as we were so out of sync with the world. All I wanted to do was get to the GP track to catch the closing stages of the race around the teams.
Many of the pit garages had been cleared as teams with retired cars packed up and went home. Only the most determined members stayed to watch the end of the race, purely for the sport.
The two most dominant marques were evident clear early on. Audi Sport with the R8 LMS, and Mercedes-AMG with the AMG GT3. Even in the last hour, the top two cars were switching positions back and forth, but changing weather favoured the mid-engined R8s which slowly started pulling away.
By the final laps, the pit wall was absolutely crawling with people cheering the drivers over the line. It was number 15 Audi R8 who won at the hands of Laurens Vanthoors, despite his incident early on, and the team were understandably ecstatic.
Seeing teams celebrating after the race, not only Audi for winning but every team after their last pit stop, was a genuinely lovely sight. Whether a hand shake, a hug, a high five or a beer fight, without being too profound, an event like this is entirely about the people involved. With the challenge the N24 presents, just finishing is an achievement to be proud of.Reflection
I love a superlative, but in all seriousness N24 is the best event I’ve ever been to in my life. Beyond any car show or festival, it transcends anything you can imagine. There are so many factors to consider: Logistics to be planned, cars to be fixed and drivers that risk their lives in the pursuit of speed. If each car had three drivers, that’s 405 drivers alone. Now think about the crews, and the 250,000 spectators who attended. If that doesn’t put the scale of the event into perspective, I don’t know what will.
How would I sum up the Nürburgring 24 Hour race? A test of physical, emotional and mental human endurance. All of that, with some really fast race cars thrown in for good measure.
Same again next year? Absolutely.