The drinking man's Le Mans

What’s the only thing more hardcore than racing at the Nordschleife for 24 hours?
The throng of spectators who gather to watch…
By Ed Foster

The ADAC 24h Rennen Nürburgring first ran in 1970. Since then Niki Lauda, Hans-Joachim Stuck, Steve Soper, Sabine Reck (aka Sabine Schmidt, the famous ‘Miss Nordschleife’), Bernd Mayländer – the Formula 1 safety car driver – Pedro Lamy, Jörg Muller and Andy Priaulx have all stepped on to the podium’s top spot.

This eclectic 24-hour race in the Eifel Mountains doesn’t have the prestige of Le Mans, but what it does have is an entry list of 190 cars, more than 800 drivers, up to a quarter of a million spectators and one of the most diverse range of racers you’ll ever see in the same event. This year there were factory-run Audi R8s, a Ford GT, GT3 Porsches, BMW Minis, Golfs, an Audi V8 and an Opel Manta driven by former marque motor sport boss Volker Strycek. There is almost a four-minute gap between pole and the back of the field.

To the casual observer the race may look like something for amateur drivers to run privately-prepared cars in. Many teams on the grid benefit from factory support, however, and it’s no coincidence that Audi decided to bring four R8 LMSs to this year’s event for their racing debut. The drivers? A crack squad including DTM and sports car aces Mike Rockenfeller, Lucas Luhr, Marco Werner, Mattias Ekström, Frank Biela, Emanuele Pirro and Marcel Fässler, plus veteran Stuck. If the car could do 24 hours of racing around the Nordschleife and the new Nürburgring, its durability would be beyond doubt. And that’s exactly what Audi proved in its attempt to boost customer orders of its new GT3 machine.

What really sets this race apart from any other 24-hour event, though, is not the drivers or the cars that it attracts, but the spectators and the atmosphere. We can safely say that some of the happenings which take place here you will see nowhere else. While meandering through one of the campsites that line the Armco of the Nordschleife you’ll pass seas of tents, camper vans and temporary viewing structures built from scaffolding that are bedecked with sofas, flags and banners. Last year I took a trip to the ’Ring a week before the 24-hour race, and already people were pitching tents and making sure they had the perfect spot. This isn’t Le Mans, though, where a campsite will feature the odd gas stove. Here the surrounding forests are stripped of fallen wood for huge fires that blaze through the night, and enormous metal grills stand by ready to cook anything from bratwurst to rump steak.

The campsites are full to bursting by the start of the race weekend and the crowd settles in for 48 hours of barbecuing, drinking, dancing, watching the track action and trying to grab a few minutes’ sleep. Three hours into the race and already the campsites look as though someone has walked in, thrown a grenade and walked away. The mess has to be seen to be believed – a man struggles up a hill with a keg of Bitburger on one shoulder and on the other a pig, ready to be put on the spit. Another is staggering around with a loudhailer in one hand and a jar of beer in the other, wearing work boots, shorts and a girl’s strappy top. Elsewhere very heavy German metal blares out from speakers which everyone seems to ignore, apart from one man who is dancing, oblivious to the race going on just metres away. Others are doing stunts – in among the crowd – on monkey bikes, while the most sedate spectators are wrapped in a rug, drink in hand, glued to the race.

You might think that some people aren’t even here for the racing, but you’d be wrong. Hidden away in vans and under tarpaulins are intricate, completely unsafe wiring systems, Sky boxes, generators and TVs. The timing screens and race footage are picked up and the crowd stays in touch with progress. At La Sarthe, without Radio Le Mans or a Kangaroo TV set, it’s hard to know who’s in the lead and what the gap is to second. Here, it’s impossible. The laps are so long and the track so dark at night that the timing screens are all you have to go on.

The bottom line is that these are passionate fans. They love their racing and they love seeing the drivers close up, which is so much easier here than at other circuits. Last year during the warm-up lap the crowd surged onto the track, cheering at the passing drivers who were trying to mentally prepare themselves for the 24 hours ahead. Instead of getting in the way, though, the crowd just wanted to make its appreciation known. This was reciprocated by some of the drivers coming to a halt, signing an autograph and then proceeding to the starting line. Apparently Stuck was so touched by the reception that he was fighting back tears. Of course, this is Germany, so come the first flying lap not a soul was to be found on the track and the racing got under way without a problem.

On track this year the Manthey Porsche – piloted by Timo Bernhard, Marc Lieb, Romain Dumas and Marcel Tiemann – was troubled by the No 99 R8 driven by Marc Basseng, Fässler, Rockenfeller and Frank Stippler during the opening few hours. This wasn’t what the Porsche squad had in mind. They are the Nürburgring 24-hour ‘kings’, having won the event for the past three years. They have been so much faster than anyone else that in 2008 there were rumours of a last-minute pitstop just to clean the car ready for the finish.

They were fast again this year and, crucially, faster over a lap than the Audis. However, as at Le Mans in 2008, Audi had a small advantage when it came to pitstops. Two planned stops fewer over the 24 hours saved the cars a huge amount of time, so all they had to do was keep the Porsche in sight. But the Nürburgring 24 Hours is not as simple as that. With 190 cars, avoiding traffic is almost more important than setting quick lap times, something that the No 100 R8 found out on the first lap as it was knocked off-track by another car. It managed to get back to the pits where the exhaust and electronics were changed, but its chances of victory were dashed. It rejoined in 166th, 11 laps down, but recovered to be placed 25th overall.

The only car – No 99 – that seemed to be able to challenge the Porsche took the lead after two hours and 18 minutes of racing. They swapped the lead over pitstops until 11.21am on Sunday when the Audi stopped at the Carousel with a broken driveshaft. Although it reached the pits and rejoined the race with new right-rear suspension and shaft, it was now six laps down.

By this time the No 97 R8 had climbed to P2, where it stayed until the end of the race. The Manthey Porsche was once again unstoppable. But Audi didn’t go home empty-handed as its No 97 R8 was first in class, while the No 99 car was fifth and No 98 was 12th overall. All in all, the event was a success for Audi’s new racer and, although it was hoping for victory, coming second to the Manthey Porsche is nothing to be ashamed of, especially at such an unforgiving track as this.

In this sanitised world of modern autodromes, the Nürburgring is to be cherished, and this is a race to be preserved. The fans are beyond passionate, the cars diverse, the drivers a heady mix of racing greats, hardened professionals and enthusiastic amateurs. The most exciting and demanding race track in the world has campsites to match its fearsome reputation. They’re borderline feral. And as for the atmosphere, it’s like nothing Motor Sport has ever witnessed.

Speed and superiority

Audi’s new R8 V10 is not just fast – it’s also built to last the distance

The new Audi R8 V10 which we took to the ’Ring is a special car. You only need to drive it for five minutes in town to realise this, because everyone lets you out of junctions. When a bus driver screeches to a halt to wave you out it’s a sign you’re in something people like.

Even though many refer to the R8 as ‘Audi’s supercar’, it isn’t that. Supercars are built to make as much noise and attract as much attention as possible. You step out of one with a sore back vowing never to take it anywhere near a town again. The R8, on the other hand, is discreet, and unruffled by urban conditions. Put simply, it’s possibly the best long-distance runner on the market.

Not only is it far faster than most machinery on the road – on the Autobahn we reached 165mph and it was still pulling like a train – you can also drive it around town and over speed bumps without a worry. And it’s smaller than you expect it to be. Apart from luggage space, it’s a struggle to think of anything that’s wrong with it.