July 3rd, 2011

Nürburgring 24 Hours

The Nürburgring Nordschleife is a lot of different things. To Jackie Stewart it was the “Green Hell”, to his long lost German cousin it is the Grüne Hölle, to the Gran Turismo generation it is Mecca, a place they tilt their Xbox to in appreciation, and to manufacturers it is used as an industry benchmark.

To us, and you as a fellow petrolhead, a visit to the ‘Ring should be near the top of our automotive bucket list. Luckily we’ve just managed to tick it off. But instead of driving down, paying 24 Euros for a lap, buying the increasingly popular vinyl outline of the track, slapping it on the arse of the car and driving back home, we decided to go one better with the help of Castrol EDGE. To get the true Nürburgring experience you’ve got to attend the ‘Rings headline event – the ADAC 24h Rennen Nürburgring, or put more simply, N24.

N24 is mental. Allow me to splurge some numbers on the page to demonstrate just how mental. 200 cars compete. 250,000 fans watch it. 780 drivers go toe-to-toe with each other. 27 different car brands enter. And it is all raced on the hardest track in the world. Mental, I think you would agree.

But no matter how many laps of the Nurburgring Nordschleife you have completed in the digital sphere, or how many record breaking in-car GoPro vids you have watched on YouTube, nothing can prepare you for the elevation changes and radical cambers of the Nordschleife in person.

The asphalt that snakes its way around the Eifel region of Germany is truly unique. Being 25 kilometres long it is 5 times the length of any UK circuit and it is graffitied all the way round by automotive Aborigines. For both man and machine racing around the Northern Loop is a torture test. With drastic elevation changes, high speed blind bends, banked corners, long straights, fast passages and winding sections laced with disorientating slow corners it is a true test of concentration and commitment. Learning 33 left and 40 right turns and then being able to take them flat out means years of cultivating a serious set of cojones.

What I didn’t expect when rocking up to the ‘Ring was the changeable weather conditions. Bit of advice: don’t rely on your iPhone weather app because unless you have the Met Office in your rucksack you just can’t keep up. The track has its own microclimate and sees all different weather patterns around the track at the same time. You could have hail at the Hohenrain-chicane, sunny spells at Schwedenkreuz and heavy rain at the Karusell. For teams it is a nightmare for tyre choice and set up but it is also a nightmare as a fan as you find yourself stripping off your layers and putting them back on again more times than Roxanne puts on her red light.

Castrol EDGE oil provide the black stuff that many teams, but especially BMW, use to keep their engines from blowing up over the hellish 24 hours of racing.

Fortunately BMW was holding their inaugural ‘M Festival’ and invited us along.  The festival is a bit like Glastonbury for fans of the most powerful letter to come out of Munich.  With M branded tents being sandwiched in between the GP circuit and the entrance to the Norschleife, it was one of the best pitches going, but more importantly, where we called home for the weekend. You can see just how close to the action the tents were by clicking here. It may not be the quietest camp in the Nurburg area, but with such easy links to the GP circuit and the Hatzenbachhugel hill (where there was a live band playing ‘Hold the line’ for Toto fans as well as reminding the drivers what to do at 8 o clock in the morning) it was one of the best.

The highlight of the M Festival was the M Corso lap. The Corso lap was an opportunity for M owners to lap the Nordschleife in their own car. Some people took this very seriously; like the nice man from Columbia who had shipped his E92 M3 all the way from Bogotá to Germany for one sacred lap.

Before setting off all the M owners gathered in the infamous ‘Ring car park. What started out initially as a couple of M3s quickly turned into a ball pool of BMW’s finest. Up front was the 1 Series M Coupe Moto GP Safety Car barking authority through it titanium Akrapovic exhaust. Then there was the new M5 Ring Taxi followed by the M3 CRT fresh from its launch party the night before. Then there was another E92 M3, also equipped with some Akrapovic magic, but it was quickly overlooked as a true legend was parked behind, the M1. No that wasn’t a typo for the 1M, there were 18 of those dotted around the car park, but and actual old school M1. Now that was just what BMW brought along, the owners from around the world had brought G Power tuned M3s, Hamman E30 M3s and even head of engineering for BMW M, Albert Biermann, rocked up in his one of a kind Speed Yellow and black M3 sedan. This collection would have any Bimmerphile hot under the collar, but there wasn’t too much time to stand and stare as there was a lap to complete in front of the crowd lining around the Nordschleife Nordschleife like drunken bunting.

Lashing rain isn’t the best conditions for your first ever lap of the Nordschliefe, especially when you’re in a very tail happy BMW M3. Crashing at the Nürburgring is embarrassing enough but crashing at the Nürburgring when there are thousands of fans watching, whilst in a parade of 100 other cars, is on the level of suicidal embarrassment. Luckily the man at the wheel of the M3 had the right balance of sideways showboatyness, horn tooting for the crowd, unnecessary but sporadic burnouts whilst also knowing where the limit was… just.

Going round somewhere you have driven around hundreds of times in your pants from your sofa is quite different to doing it in reality. You kind of know where you are, but don’t at the same time. Whereas in the game you can guess and hope for the best on turn in if you are 50/50 about where you are, in reality you can’t because that expensive Armco is a hell of a lot closer than it looks in the game. In comparison to the Nürburgring GP circuit the Armco wrapping round the tarmac of the Nordschleife is like a corset, there is no margin for error. When speeding towards the Karusell I had the Jaws theme music beating around the inside of my skull. It is one of the world’s most recognisable corners, up there with Laguna Seca’s Corkscrew. I imagined it to be a long, sweeping, mildly banked corner – like in the game. In reality it is a brutal banked corner that is a lot tighter than you would think. You have to nail the entry otherwise you are spat out with your undertray sparking and caught in the arms of the unforgiving Armco. Fortunately we survived the Karusell and the rest of the lap and handed the keys back to the M3 with no teeth marks from the ‘Ring biting back.

For other punters at the N24, there are plenty of motoring activities to see in the build up to the big race.

This year there was a drift challenge at sunset at the south end of the GP circuit to allow fans to passively smoke Michelin rubber and gets some great snaps to take home to their mates.

It was the first drift event I have attended and to see the legendary Team Falken drift team slither their way inches apart from each other around the track was a visual lesson in great car control. With the sound of old school M3s bouncing off their limiter and bits of rubber embedded in my eyeballs, I walked away happy, partially deaf and half blind.

Before the main race there are two nights worth of qualifying to decide where people will line up on the grid for the N24 on the Saturday. The sessions run into the night allowing teams to test various setups while track and air temperature change. Most importantly drivers have to run at least two laps to become accustomed to their car and the changing speeds of the Green Hell.

One of the most obvious places to see different car setups is at Pflanzgarten. You may not know the name of the corner but you have probably seen images of it, as it is one of the many places around the track where cars turn into flying machines.

Heading over during qualifying you see some of the minor classes just soak up the bump, but the more serious classes with their no-holds-barred approach in synergy with their stiffly sprung setups sees them get all four wheels off the ground with ease. If there is one turn you need to see at the Nürburgring it is this one.

Prepare to be woken up early on the Saturday morning by the sound of piercing racing engines penetrating the walls of your tent. Before the main event there is a vast array of warm up events from other championships. In addition to the N24 with 210 cars, comes the Carrera World Cup. It is the world’s largest Porsche race with a provisional entry of around 200 cars from 25 countries around the world. There is also the Rundsrecken-Challenge Nürburgring with 165 cars and the Renault Race Festival with 75, add in the Mini Challenge and the SEAT Leon Supercopa with a total of 50 cars, as well as the ADAC 24h-Classic with 190 there is desperate need for some creative paddock logistics.

The answer is to simply litter the infield with ad-hoc pits for all the championships. The main race teams share garages with up to six other teams, which is pure chaos. If a team needs to get out on track but is at the back of the garage other cars need to put on wheels and backed out so the other car can squeeze past. You know those gridlock games you used to play as a kid (and is now available on an app)? Well it is like that with race cars worth hundreds of thousands of pounds.

All the supporting race cars don’t have garages but are dotted the Mercedes Arena in the infield, on the helicopter pads and in the parking areas. Basically wherever there is space. At the N24 there is a very relaxed attitude as the crowd is allowed to soak up the atmosphere and walk around the paddock as much as possible. This free flowing and liberal philosophy runs right through all aspects of the race and what holds everything together is a mutual respect for each other.

Like the pits, the grid is open to anyone with a ticket just before the race. This means that you can buy a jingle-jangle medallion from one of the many merchandise stores and pretend to be Martin Brundle for the day. Starting at the back of the grid you can work your way through the grid seeing the difference in class of cars (and quality of pit girls) excel as you make your way to the front of the grid.

The N24 is based on the VLN series, which runs 4-hour races around the Nordschleife in preparation for the N24. It is mainly aimed at amateur racers and if you have completed four of that seasons VLN races you are eligible to have a pop at the 24. All you need is 4,000 Euros to cover the entry fee and to pay 3000 Euros in advance for fuel.

The party atmosphere of the ‘Ring moves onto the grid for the start, especially nearer the back of the pack away from the factory teams. One of the weirder sights was not the pit girls dressed in one of those electric shock costumes from Big Brother, but the team running an Aston Martin V8 Vantage being serenaded by a collection of bag pipe players playing Yankee Doodle. You don’t see that on a Sunday morning at the F1 and it shows the N24’s slightly odd but charming character.

In the first qualifying session, the Hankook-sponsored Farnbacher-Ferrari used soft tyres and was about 7 seconds faster than the competitors, lapping at an average speed of over 181 km/h, the fastest since 1983. This earned the team the pole position, but also an extra weight of 25 kg in the pre-race update of the ‘Balance of Performance’. When all the drunks were swept off the track and the race got going this meant they were pincered at the first corner by a wall of Mercedes SLS V8 and booted to third. But that was the first corner of a race where literally anything can happen.

The N24 sees the leader changing constantly because there are such a large number of things to go wrong in the car and out on track. With a circuit which is constantly trying to punch its way through the undertray and twist chassis like a wet flannel, mechanical failure is one of the teams’ biggest worries. After a couple of hours the pack of 200 different cars is nicely mixed up creating a mesmerising race of constant overtaking.

One of the greatest appeals of the N24 is to see such a vast array of machinery doing battle on the same track at the same time. Typical entries range from second hand standard road cars running on street tyres to European Touring Car Championship vehicles and GT3 sports cars. Factory teams have to share garages with a couple of mates in an old Astra doing it for a laugh but it is done with respect and courtesy. This is also carried onto the track.

With classes such as the E1-XP with cars like the P4/5 Competizione run by N.Technology, driven by Mika Salo, Luca Cappellari, Nicola Larini and Fabrizio Giovanardi which can achieve monumental speeds having to deal with traffic which is three times slower you are left wondering why more cars don’t have a case of friendly fire. Well there is a simple answer; all the drivers know the danger that is inherent with the Nordschleife. Before turning in slower cars are constantly looking out for the faster ones with flashing blue lights. Whereas at Le Mans where the two crashes were caused by slower cars, the closing speeds at the Nürburgring are much higher but there weren’t the same problems. Seeing the higher class Ferraris, Audis and Mercedes fighting their way through the traffic is a lot more addictive than many other race series.

As the race moved into the night the parties cranked up a notch. Because the track is so big crowds tend to be found in pockets around the forest. Little Ewok communities are made where tree houses and three storey wooden structures are constructed to get a clear view of the track. Spectators and campers tend to hold the fort at one corner and get in a hypnotic state by drinking beer, listening to heavy metal or Euro trance whilst watching the lights on the cars fly by.

For the drivers the night provides the biggest test. Having to keep full race pace while relying on four headlamps in the wet is a serious test of mental strength. A maximum stint length is three hours, however some drivers had to double stint to keep pace. Driving for six hours without falling off is a hard task and one that commands respect.

When returning back into the daylight the team that was dominant was the #18 Manthey Racing Porsche 997 GT3R, driven by Marc Lieb, Lucas Luhr, Timo Bernhard & Romain Dumas. They have quite a record at the N24 having won it four times previously to this year. At 4PM on the Sunday they crossed the line with a new distance record of 156 laps. Second place belonged to the defending race winner, BMW Motorsport. The #1 squad of Jörg Müller, Augusto Farfus, Uwe Alzen and Pedro Lamy lost the race to their German rivals by just by just over four minutes which is incredibly close considering what can happen in the space of 24 hours.

So what does it take to put on a race with such mammoth proportions? Well, the ADAC Nordrehin crew who are incharge of putting on the race only has a team of 10 permanent staff. Thankfully they are helped out by twenty of the race organisation’s closest friends as volunteers. The team coordinates over 2,000 people comprising of operation directors, sporting and technical commissioners, over 800 track marshals, welcome centre employees, shuttle bus drivers track security and fire and medical crews. It is quite an operation, and one that works with stereotypical German efficiency.

Then there are the teams, drivers and tyre companies which walk around with an intravenous drip of taurine to get them through the night. One of the hardest working men in the pits are the tyre men who have to heat, clean and prepare the tyres for the cars. Just in the Carrera World Cup race, which was an hour long and 6 laps, 2000 tyres were used which meant a lot of heating, cleaning and prepping.

It is easy to make comparisons to the other petrolhead pilgrimage, the 24 hours of Le Mans. But there are fundamental differences. Le Mans has an air of arrogance and materialism that pollutes the campsites and surrounding roads. Around the towns of the Adenau and Nurburg there is none of that. The local community embrace the race and the fans, there is not the same outward display of machinery or wealth because the fans of the N24 are a lot more passionate.

To some Le Mans fans being at the N24 could be hell - not being able to camp in a designated pitch, having to walk up muddy paths and getting an endless night of Rage Against The Machine. But to true petrolheads being at the N24 is not the Green Hell but pure heaven. Slipping over on a muddy path in the forest in order to get to a secluded part of the track is your very own personal battle against the Nordschleife. There is a vibe that resonates through the Eifel region during the N24 and a true petrolhead will feel it. It is a place that demands respects but rewards massively for fans and drivers.

So am I going back next year? Definitely. It is the best race in the world. Fact.

Words: Rowan Horncastle

Photos and Video: Rowan Horncastle

Check out our Flickr for a  full set of our photos from the N24.