Nordschleife. One single word from the motor racing vocabulary that conjures up so many memories, so many images and not a few shivers.
From the autobahn you follow signs towards Adenau, finally glimpsing the castle that stands rather eerily above the old circuit. It is one of the great theatres of motor sport and arrival always stirs the passion. Surrounded by dark forests, and down in a shallow valley below the Eifel Mountains, the ‘Ring is part of our folklore. And this past weekend the Germans came to pay homage.
For this trip, the 24 Hours of the Nürburgring, we are at what is sometimes called ‘the party in the Green Hell’. Not a great phrase, I feel, as the race around the wonderful Nordschleife, which starts on Sunday and ends on Monday, is far from hellish. It is a truly spectacular motor race, 180-odd cars on the grid – yes, really – and the field using both the the new circuit and the old, the cars coming into the stadium at the end of every lap of the Nordschleife. Add to this a crowd of 200,000 over the four days and you have a fantastic spectacle.
An event within this event is the BMW M Festival, an expansive celebration of their M cars, the sportiest of the range, and ‘M Corso’ offers laps of the old track to get your adrenalin going. I am lucky enough to have driven from home in the new M3 CSL, the latest version of the much-loved M3 from way back when. I declined to participate in mad laps of the fearsome Nordschleife, as passenger or driver. I prefer to soak up the unique atmosphere of this moodiest and most treacherous of tracks from a vantage point in the forest.
The new M3 is sensational, like a racing car on the road, demanding your full attention every kilometre of the way down to the Eifel Mountains. It is stiff, very stiff, and makes a glorious noise, corners like it’s stuck to the asphalt, and goes like hell. But you need to be fully awake; the M3 is not a cruiser, it is a car for driving, not for idly tooling along. It is a privilege to drive such a car, and I can tell you that it is a wonderfully dramatic experience. ‘Sheer Driving Pleasure’ proclaim the BMW banners at the circuit. It certainly is that.
So to the race. There is a huge crowd, it seems like the whole of Germany is here. It feels like Glastonbury and the German Grand Prix all in one. Camp sites cover the surrounding fields, everyone is drinking beer and eating sausages, they party into the night, like a hardcore Le Mans. Some watch the race. From the ‘M Gallery’ BMW dispenses food and drink, and here everyone is watching DTM at Brands Hatch. This is where Munich takes on Ingolstadt and there was much boisterous cheering when BMW topped free practice. But there were groans on Sunday when Mike Rockenfeller won for Audi, with Bruno Spengler second for BMW. It is a little weird, travelling to Germany for a race, and then watching DTM back at dear old Brands.
But back to where we are, and the racing is spectacular, and strangely riveting even if you don’t have access to commentary and TV coverage. But that is always the thing at a 24-hour race. Nobody watches every lap. They are here for the crack, the party, the sharing of a passion for the sport. Up in the BMW M Gallery, course, we were privileged to have a constant flow of information. This job has many perks and as my editor said in his report from Barcelona, it is a privilege to be so closely involved.
The early stage of the 24 Hours of the Nürburgring was marked by Aston Martin’s rise to first place before night fell. The Vantage GT3 of Pedro Lamy, Stefan Mücke, Allan Simonsen and Darren Turner was among the leaders during the opening stints before taking the lead before the three hour mark.
The weather was beginning to turn, though, with heavy rain and fog descending on the Nordschleife as it often does. After around five and a half hours the race was red flagged, and as the rain fell all through the night it remained that way.
At 8.20 the next morning the race got underway again with the Team Marc VDS BMW Z4 of Yelmer Buurman, Richard Göransson, Maxime Martin and Andrea Piccini taking the lead before the 16th hour was through. The Aston had strong pace in the dry, but with rain falling intermittently for the rest of the race the team decided to take a conservative approach. “Under these tricky conditions it’s important to focus on finishing the race,” team principal John Gaw said. “We also tried to save fuel to minimise time in the pits and we have struggled to get temperature in the tyres.”
Martin was on a charge, at times lapping around 20 seconds faster than his rivals. However, he and his team-mates could not match the speed and consistency of the Black Falcon-entered Mercedes SLS of Jeroen Bleekemolen, Sean Edwards, Bernd Schneider and Nicki Thiim. The Merc took the lead with five hours to go.
None of the drivers had won the race before – and neither had a Mercedes – but they would hold the lead to the finish. Schneider, who is semi-retired, had not even finished the Nürburgring 24 before, but at the age of 48 won his third GT race of the year following Bathurst and Dubai.
“Our car was absolutely great to drive in the wet and also in drying conditions,” said Schneider. “We were always in the top group. My congratulations and thanks to the whole team, great work from the guys and girls of Black Falcon!”
ROWE Racing’s SLS completed the podium with drivers Nico Bastian, Klaus Graf, Thomas Jӓger and Jan Seyffarth.
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