LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT
Pounding the Nordschleife big dipper for 24 hours really is the greatest test of man and machine. We follow Falken Tyres’ 991 GT3-R’s steady rise up the running order, and greet the dawn with the crepuscular crazies in the forest.
It’s a seductive recipe. Take 180 assorted cars - models you might conceivably expect to see on the road - turn them into racing cars, and let them loose for a day and a night on the most amazing racetrack in the world. That’s the Nürburgring 24-Hours, run on a combination of Nordschleife and F1 circuit that totals 25km per lap. The N-24 is one of the best events on the motorsport calendar because of the wildness of the terrain, the roller-coaster topography, readily identifiable ‘road cars’ - and the fact that they are driven pretty much flat-out for a whole day and night. Each of the car’s four drivers treats every 9-lap stint as a sprint, and if the car holds together and stays out of serious trouble, it stands a good chance of a decent finish.
It’s the 47th running of the event, which, since the demise of world championship events on the Nordschleife, has become the most important meeting on the fabled circuit’s calendar. The N-24 is a standalone race, sharing rules and regs with the ten-round VLN Langstreckenmeisterschaft Nürburgring (VLN Endurance Racing Championship Nürburgring). Important enough to attract manufacturer support for the teams and a significant number of professional racing drivers.
The entry list kicks off with an eye-watering mix of supercars, ranging from Audi R8 LMS, Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG GT3, Aston Martin Vantage GT3, Porsche 911 GT3 RSR, Bentley Continental GT3 and BMW Z4 GT3, to Chrysler Viper, Nissan GT-R GT3, Lexus ISF CCS-R, and two-off Ferrari-based SCG. The sponsors’ artistic palette has really gone to town, especially on some BMWs. Of the 700 or so drivers present, top-line aces include Augusto Farfus, Tom Coronel, Wolf Henzler, Peter Dumbreck, Rob Huff, Sabine Schmitz, Patrick Huisman, Claudia Hürtgen, Bernd Schneider, Uwe Alzen, Frank Stippler, Pedro Lamy, Richard Westbrook, and so on. Most of them are N-24 regulars. So much for the main contenders for outright victory; cars are parcelled into three ‘grids’ according to spec and quali times, and released from 4.00pm Saturday afternoon at 3-minute intervals by successive rolling starts. The lower echelons consist of Audi TTs, Porsche Caymans, BMW M-coupés and 325s, and finally, a host of Golfs, Clios, Leons, Astras and Corollas. They’ll represent the greatest challenge for quick pro-drivers who know the circuit’s twists and turns intimately: dealing with inexperienced amateurs in the third wave’s hatchbacks, who are focussed on negotiating the corners and fighting each other, but not looking in their mirrors. So there’s a great deal of second-guessing. There are thirty-six 911s, ranging from out-and-out 991 and 997 GT3 R to GT3 RSR, Cup and GT America, along with six Caymans, S and R. Top independent Porsche teams like Manthey – essentially the factory squad by another name - Kremer, Black Falcon, Frikadelli and Falken Tyres have cars running, and I’m following the fortunes of the Falken outfit to see if they can top the 3rd place that they achieved last year now they have a new 991 GT3 R. Regular drivers Peter Dumbreck, Wolf Henzler, Martin Ragginger and Alexandre Imperatori have represented Falken’s driving force for several years now, so if anyone can pull it off, they can.
At 2.00pm the cars are wheeled out onto the grid, and with half-an-hour to go the drivers show up for a photocall, by which time the start-finish straight is rammed with milling fans, alluringly-clad grid girls and pit crews. There’s a hands-off attitude to crowd control at this event, and the fans are well behaved, and though they stray into the pitlane during the race they’re moved back with velvet gloves. A small posse comprised of Falken PR people anda few fellow journos and I make our way out to the Nordschleife to catch the thundering pack on the first lap. At 4.00pm they burst into sight, led by the long-nosed Merc SLSs, mid-engined Audi R8s, BMW Z4GT3s, Aston Vantages, a Bentley, Nissan GT-R, Lexus ISF, and somewhere in the midst of the cacophonous horde is the mint-and-blue Falken GT3. Between gaggles of cars we stroll further, marvelling at the overt alcohol intake of some of the fans’ enclaves. The leading batch roars by again, a little more spread out. Within a couple of laps they’re lapping the backmarkers. Then, 20 minutes gone, we see red flags. The race has been stopped, and we peer into a marshal’s tent to see their monitor. There’s been an almighty hailstorm on the far side of the circuit and eleven cars have gone off one after another, blocking the track. The recovery vehicles begin to trundle by. The hailstorm reaches us, frozen stones the size of marbles. A restart is scheduled for 6.30pm so when it’s dry again we walk back to the pits complex.
I fill in time chatting with drivers. New Top Gear presenter and Ring-Meister Sabine Schmidt got into racing Porsches 11 years ago. ‘We built our own team, my boyfriend and me,’ she says;‘Frikadelli means meatballs, so we are the meatball racing team; my boyfriend is a German sausage king!’ Gulp! Has she seen conditions like this very often? ‘Yes plenty of times, sure. I got stuck in the snow one race.’ And the new car? ‘Yeah we’ve had it since December, and we did the Daytona 24-hour race with it, and three long distance races so far. It’s slower than the old car, and we can’t develop it because of the handicaps; we have to add on weight and the air restrictor is very small, so we don’t have a chance against the others. Mercedes, BMW, Audi, they play with us at the moment, so we’re here because our fans were so upset when we said we don’t want to start,so we said,“ok, we go.” On the Nordschleife the big Mercedes are so strong. We got a blue light so that helps get people out of the way. Yeah, the conditions are really awful, but we like awful weather because we’re used to it and we are not afraid of the rain. And I think we need a lot of rain tyres. I ordered some very hard tyres because sometimes you have half and half, and you’re never sure so if it will rain or if it rains heavy, and it could be dry here and wet over there, it can change three or four times a lap.’ Even so, it must go without saying that the Nürburgring is your favourite circuit? She grins: ‘Everything else in the world is boring!’
With a sparkling career in F3, GTP, Super GT, DTM and Carrera Cup, Peter Dumbreck (he of the summersaulting Merc CLK, along with Mark Webber, at Le Mans 1999) is embarking on his 14th N-24. What’s his personal race strategy? ‘I take each stint as its own race,’ comes the mild Kirkaldy burr, ‘because the thought of still running this time tomorrow scares me. So I try and do the best job I can do in my stint, hand the car over in as good a condition as I can. Then I go and rest, get a massage and a power-nap, and then I’ll know roughly what time I’m getting back in the car for my second race stint.’ Surprisingly, dusk and dawn are the two nicest periods. ‘For sure, you’re going to drive at least once during the night. We’ve got the longest day now, so it’s not going to be real dark, but the best times to drive are just as it’s getting dark, because you can adjust so you keep your speed. And that’s how I tend to look at 24-hour races.’
This year Peter is philosophical. The length of the circuit (25kms) and Nürburgring fickle climate meant they didn't get their quick qualifying laps in when it was dry. That meant that, though they were potentially one of the quickest cars in the lead bunch, their qualy time was outside the top 30, so they didn't get the hallowed blue light to display in their 991 GT3 windscreen to denote a fast car coming up to overtake a slower one. ’We didn’t get the blue light because we didn’t get a lap in that was good enough. Theoretically we had a fast enough car, but we had traffic and rain, and we’re still learning with the car. We started 21st last year so we’re another 11 places back from there, but anything is possible. I’m not sure we ultimately have the dry pace; in qualifying yesterday the Mercs were doing an 8m 15s lap, we can’t do that but in the wet we have a more realistic chance but we’ll all be pushing like crazy so you’ve got to be lucky and survive the race, the usual story, just get the car through until first light and see where you are and act accordingly.’
This wasn’t the first race they’d done with it. In VLN rounds earlier this year there were issues with the power steering, which went down four laps from the end, and in the second race they finished 10th but, as Peter admits, ‘everyone’s here now, so the competition is that much stiffer. Last year we went into the race saying, “if we get a top five we’ll be happy, but this year the target is going to be top ten, but we’ve all done this enough times to know that if we can stay out of trouble and keep the car on the track and just pump in a decent lap time then we will come up the order. There’s something like 36 GT-E cars on the grid that are the same speed and have four fast drivers, and we don’t know what they’ve got left in the bank; we’re running pretty much maximum so there’s guys sand-bagging maybe.’
It’s an uphill struggle in more ways than one. ‘The rule makers can decide in between qualifying and the start of the race whether to add a bit more weight or smaller restrictor to the front-running cars because they think they’re too quick. So no one really wants to show too much. But when you see an 8m 14s in mixed conditions with a double yellow flag, I think they’ve shown everything. Even if we had an absolutely clear track with the best conditions possible we couldn’t do that time, not yet anyway. The old car (997 GT3-R) was different because we were allowed to run a lot more power and have a lot more straight-line speed. This (991 GT3-R) is a much better car, but we’ve got smaller restrictors so we’re not as quick out of the corners and we’re not as quick in a straight line, so the goalposts have moved. The car feels really hooked up in the corners, but we just don’t leave the corners as quick as the other cars because we’re not able to put the power down, we’re not allowed to use the power that’s available, which is disappointing because we’ve got a better engine as well. So if we were allowed to run open, for sure we would be on it. But that’s modern GT3 racing, they are just trying to level off, otherwise one manufacturer would develop their car so much that the end result is the car would end up costing a million rather than half a million, and that’s why they brought the restrictors in so that they control it all and there’s no benefit in spending all this money.’
All the new Porsches are in the same boat (so to speak). ‘We’re a bit off the pace of the Manthey cars as well, but then they’re not at the front either. Their highest one is 12th and the other one crashed in qualifying and the Frikadelli car is mid-pack, maybe 20th, so none of the Porsches are excelling like last year. You almost start the cycle again with a new car and gradually build up, and even tyre development goes back to square one. We had it all sorted with the old car, but this car develops a lot more grip, traction, and the tyres we had on the other car aren’t strong enough for it, so we’ve had to develop stronger tyres for this car and, fingers crossed, we can do full stints with the tyres. In the beginning it was questionable because we were getting issues with the tyres, just as the other Porsches were with their Michelin tyres – in fact all the Porsches were having problems about going the full stint distance on one set of tyres, so that’s something we’ve had to work on because safety is paramount. It’s no good for the driver or for the result to get 7 or 8 laps into a stint and the tyre blows and you’re somewhere out on the back of the circuit. So, knock on wood, we have a fighting chance with the tyres now, so we’ve got to work on performance.’
The re-start is delayed till 7.00pm, even though it’s still raining. I stroll down to the first Esses complex on the F1 circuit to await the maelstrom. Cars that have been stuck out on the circuit are re-fettled in the pits and drive by for a warm up, and the crowds in the stands cheer like mad. When somebody has to come in and have some work done and rushes back out they all cheer again. The first two passes are behind the pace car as they assess the conditions, and finally they’re away again. Being Porsche fans to the core, we’re apt to deride rival makes, but those big Mercs, Audis, BMWs and Astons look and sound absolutely awesome. Porsche GT3-Rs are the most numerous marque/model in the first starting group, and this bunch is followed a few minutes later by Group 2, comprised of 997 GT3 Cups, Cayman Ss, Audi TTs, BMW M3s, Vantage V8s and hot Astras. Another gap, and along come Group 3, the hot hatch Clios, Siroccos, Civics and Minis. And, quaintly, a 1970s Opel Manta, a perennial entry, which does not disgrace itself, even though it looks like it’s absconded from the historic race. All told, 185 cars are out there, and in a matter of three laps the fastest Group 1 GT3s are in amongst the tin-tops. There is never a dull moment.
The top snappers’ vantage point is the outside of the Karussel, and four of us head up there. The tarmac lane peters out and we’re on forest roads. Soon enough we’re stomping through the undergrowth and up to the Armco surrounding the most famous hairpin of any racetrack. Cars rush up the approach and are pitched into the banked concrete loop, hanging a front wheel as they do so. The drone of the engines are intercut by the scraping of Kevlar fins and airdams, the air heady with the stench of Castrol R and burned plastic. Add the wafts of barbecues from across the track. Welsh track marshals are on duty and there’s a Union Jack enclave inside the apex. This is undoubtedly the place to see the cars at their wildest, cocking wheels as they drop into the banking, suspension compressed by G-forces as they hurl around the 180-degree turn, then another wheel wags as they’re shot out at the other end, climbing again on the way to Hohe Acht. Cars being lapped or ones with damaged bodywork stay out of the banking and circulate on the tarmac apron. Peter Dumbreck describes the methodology here: ‘In the Karussel it’s boom, boom, boom, all the way through it and you’re driving as hard as you can, but you can’t just stick the throttle down flat as it would under-steer out and hit the wall. But because it’s banked you drop the car down and it sticks, and then you load it up and get back on the throttle and gradually drive it through the corner.’ It just looks awesome.
We trundle round to Brünchen where the track is almost completely graffiti’d by the fans, who are magnetised to the fence. Diverse factions colonise particular areas on an annual basis, staking their claim with asphalt scrawls. The volume of the babbling German PA commentator mostly drowns out the music, but the solstice reverie is clearly brewing. Cars hurtle through from Wippermann, and we ease along to Pflanzgarten to see the cars in flight, one of several places around the Nordschleife where cars get airborne for a split second. As Peter Dumbreck says, ‘we are pushing the car to the limit, and the undulations in the track are constant, plus the fact that you leave the ground with all four wheels off, three or four times in a lap, and then there’s the slamming down, not just the kind that you get as you come off one camber to the other, there’s a big hit, and then you bounce out of that camber and go the other way.’ Cars plummet downhill and just before slowing slightly and turning right into Schwalbenschwanz, they get all four wheels off the deck.
The topography is so varied that each bend and every dip provides a different aspect and backdrop to see the racing. What’s most impressive is the velocity of the big R8s, SLSs, GT3Rs and Z4s, the indomitable noise, the speed differential between them and the hot-hatches – most of whom stay well out of trouble – and the decibel factor, possibly won by the Lexus, which sounds amazing. After a while we can recognise each distinctive multi-cylinder engine note as they pelt through the ‘green hell’. Most of the faster cars including the Porsches deploy flashing lights as they come up to lap slower cars. During the night the Falken boys move resolutely up the running order. ‘It’s smooth on the Grand Prix circuit,’ says Peter, ‘so you push slightly more there because it’s wider and you’ve got a margin for error and you can make up a bit of time here, and if you’ve got a gaggle of cars in front you want to try and get through them all while you’re on the Grand Prix circuit.’ The Falken wet tyres seem to be more effective than rivals’ too.
We head back to the pits to see the driver changes, well rehearsed operations accompanied by wheel swaps, screen cleaning, and refuelling, which takes the longest. A siren blasts, cars rush in, waved into their designated garage by a lollypop mechanic, on-board air jacks elevate them, and the job’s done by two mechanics per wheel and two to refuel, while drivers help one another out and in, belting up in the process. Unless there’s some bodywork to gaffer-tape, the car is stationary for under three minutes.
Hundreds of thousands of spectators line the 14-mile circuit, mainly clustered in designated areas, and out in the country they’ve packed the woodland dells and trackside margins for a week with all manner of imaginative camping facilities, a mix of tents, tepees, caravans, trucks and multi-tiered scaffold platforms, hugger-mugger in the woods as well as right up against the paths alongside the circuit wire. Oddly, hunters’ hides in forest glades echo campers’ tree-houses. The weirdness in the woods of a night-time is a heady blend of Apocalypse Now, Mad Max, Burning Man and Glasto, a smoky welter of campfires, braziers, fireworks, thunderflashes, strobes, a magical mystery tour set to the pounding backbeat of disco, techno, alco, whizzo, and all the while the race cars hammer by, and out here the race is kind of incidental, but mesmerizing nonetheless as the cars snarl past.
Night moves, and nocturnal shots are called for, so we head out to the loony bin on the outside of Brünchen, where the atmosphere amongst the favelas of tent city is heady with Ramstein heavy metal vying with dub-reggae, drum’n’bass, and techno providing a driving counterpoint to the incessant snarling race engines and generators. A haze of smoke from campfires, barbecues, hot-dog stalls and fireworks drifts this way and that, strobes, torches and bonfires illuminating the arena as racecar headlights glide serenely past, defining the curves of the track, fading into taillights and brake lights. The smells too, not only Castrol R, but cooking aromas and hot engines, a heady mix indeed. Someone offers us a beer: it would be rude not to. As for the drivers, does the fans’ nocturnal craziness faze them? ‘Not really,’ says Dumbreck. ‘You think, “is that fog, or is it smoke, is that a barbecue? I smell sausage so that’s a barbecue,” and then you come through the other side of it and it’s clear again. Or I see green light, and I think, “why have I got a green light?” but it’s actually a fan’s decoration for his house in the forest!’
We head back to the GP circuit to catch the vibe and the finish in the Falken pit garage. At 4.00pm the chequered flag is waved and that’s it. The mechanics, techies and fitters are tired but elated, and with good reason: the mint-and-blue-hued GT3-R has been in the mid-teens most of the day, going up to 9th an hour-and-a-half before the finish. A top-ten finish was what Wolf Henzler said would be good enough, and it is the highest placed Porsche. All told, it’s been a relatively trouble free race for the Falken crew. The other Falken drivers are equally upbeat, exchanging hugs and handshakes with all around them: ‘the car worked perfectly,’ enthuses Wolf Henzler; ‘it was great teamwork. A bit of black tape is nothing in a 24-hour race like this.’ But actually the result goes down to the wire: one of the black Haribo Merc has led for a third of the entire race distance, shadowed part of the time by a white Merc (the AMG-Team’s Black Falcon car driven by Schneider/Engel/Christodoulou/Metzger) that never quite gets the traffic in its favour to grab the lead. But on the penultimate lap the lead Merc is obliged to pit for a splash and dash, allowing the white Merc to close right up. And as the two cars pitch into the Esses at the end of the pit straight, the white car delivers a slight nudge on the black one, punting it wide, and the white car is off into the distance into an unassailable lead. After 3,400.65 kilometres just 5.697 seconds separates the first two cars, the closest margin in the event’s 47-year history.Afterwards there is fury in the Haribo garage; team manager head in hands and two of the drivers can’t bring themselves to climb the podium. That’s racing, say the stewards.