Matters of moment, August 2016

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Two of the world’s greatest 24-hour motor races in the space of a few weeks and the winners of both are decided on the last lap. We’re living through a remarkable era for endurance racing right now.

“The most un-German German motor race,” was how one native described the Nürburgring 24 Hours, which took place at the end of May. The marathon around the fabled Nordschleife is a day, a night and another day of mayhem utterly out of step with the national stereotype for rigid order. From the free-for-all on the 158-car grid to the mass of beer-swilling fans encamped in the forests, it’s an event too vast to control completely – and that’s key to its charm. The weather invariably adds to the chaos, a biblical hailstorm this year turning Jackie Stewart’s ‘Green Hell’ frosty white and forcing drivers to stop where they were on a surface of ice ball-bearings. Surreal.

At a time when Germany struggles to maintain interest in its Grand Prix, the 24 Hours reminds us that motor racing culture is still ingrained in the psyche of its people – and that Formula 1 is failing this car-crazy country, not the other way around.

As in F1, Mercedes-Benz dominated the GT endurance race with its pack of elite customer teams running the potent AMG SLS. And like Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton, the drivers race under no restraint and this year that led to the closest finish in the event’s 46-year history.

The showdown played out as Black Falcon driver Maro Engel stalked HTP Motorsport rival Christian Hohenadel as they began the last lap in line astern. Engel surprised his prey with a decisive move from a long way back before they’d even left the modern Grand Prix circuit for the forests. In truth, overtaking chances can be few and far between on the Nordschleife and Hohenadel should have seen this coming. The pass left him scrabbling over the run-off and spurred his team manager to stomp to the stewards, who thankfully ignored the protests. Engel kept his cool to take the flag by just six seconds, ensuring not only a second Nürburgring 24 Hours victory for evergreen team-mate Bernd Schneider, but also a first outright success for Brit Adam Christodoulou (see page 110).

Jaw-dropping stuff. But we’d seen nothing yet.

***

Toyota’s hard-to-believe heartbreak at Le Mans is described on page 133 in our report from the 84th running of the grand old race. Was this the most dramatic finish we’d yet seen at the most famous endurance contest of them all? Surely, yes – even more than Jacky Ickx’s close-run victory over Hans Herrmann in 1969. To my mind, Toyota’s calamity was of a scale in comparison to perhaps the most infamous in all sporting history, when Dick Francis felt Devon Loch buckle under him just yards from the line at the 1956 Grand National. It looked harder to lose than win for the future novelist on that day at Aintree, just as it did for poor Kazuki Nakajima in France.

OK, it’s only sport. But for those involved at Toyota it’s not an exaggeration to describe such an experience as genuine trauma. Will they recover? They will carry the disappointment for life, but yes, they will recover – because motor racing at this level is populated by remarkable characters who draw from the deepest wells of fortitude in the face of such bitter disappointment. Personally, I suspect I’d crumble. But Anthony Davidson and co? Not likely.

I’ve seen it before. Late on Sunday morning at Le Mans in 2007 I met Allan McNish for an interview, just a few hours after his team-mate Dindo Capello had lost a wheel at Indianapolis corner deep into a stint. That year their Audi R10 had the race by the throat, but in a moment it was all gone, through a mechanical failure that had no immediate explanation. 

During his career, McNish was among the most extreme specimens of an incomprehensibly competitive breed. All racing drivers love to win, but no one desired it more than this little ball of kinetic energy. Now as he walked towards me, he simply looked broken: bloodshot eyes, a face drained of all colour. This was almost a form of grief.

The interview was painful, for both of us. At the end I couldn’t help but blurt, “You’ve won this race before, why come back here and put yourself through this again?” Then he looked me straight in the eye with a steel I’ll never forget. “Because I need to win this race,” he said quietly. “It’s just got to be done.”

Twelve months later, McNish, Capello and Tom Kristensen returned and scored one of the great Le Mans victories, in the face of adversity against a faster Peugeot. The challenge now for Toyota’s crew is to find that same strength and go again.

***

Since McNish’s retirement at the end of 2013, Oliver Jarvis has stepped up as the resident quick Brit in the Audi prototype team. The 32-year-old hasn’t yet achieved the career heights of his predecessor, but as an eloquent ambassador for his team he’s already a match.

In the wake of Porsche’s inherited win, there was some criticism at how enthusiastically it celebrated in the circumstances. That was a little unfair. The drivers, Neel Jani, Romain Dumas and Marc Lieb, had just won the biggest race of their lives, one they had worked for just as hard for as the squad at Toyota. Their joy was a natural expression, a release of tension from a race they thought was lost – and they had every right to savour their moment.

Still, the reported boos on the podium and the frankly strange finish created a sense of strain in the press conference. The Porsche drivers expressed their genuine sympathy for Toyota, but it was Jarvis – who’d himself inherited a lucky podium third place with Audi – that best described the moment.

“Congratulations to Porsche, but my thoughts are with Toyota right now,” he said. “This is not how we want to be standing on the podium. I would prefer to see them here and I’d gladly give up my spot to them. To have a problem after 23 hours and 57 minutes… I have a heavy heart and I’ll leave here with a strange feeling, just as I’m sure fans, journalists and everyone will.”

He received a round of applause for his words, as the winning drivers further along the table looked on impassively. An awkward moment, but Oliver had spoken honestly and struck exactly the right tone. A class act.

***

As Porsche lucked in at Le Mans, about 5000km to the east a Grand Prix was unfolding on a new street track in a city fresh to Formula 1. The race was hardly a thriller, but the circuit and the backdrop had obvious merits. Still, few in France paid much notice. Why would they when such drama was unfolding directly before them?

The decision to schedule the so-called European Grand Prix in Azerbaijan as a direct clash with the 24 Hours was always perverse – and entirely in keeping with the cynical, self-interested approach of the F1 promoter. To those who object that a country with a widely accepted record for human rights abuse should be embraced so warmly by a sport run without any obvious moral compass, there might be a crumb of comfort that the F1 race was second-best as a sporting spectacle.

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