The popular. eclectic VLN is one of the most important insurance series in Europe thanks to its links with the famous Nürburgring 24 Hours
We can’t see anything and we’re doing 140mph — there’s so much standing water that all we can do is just listen out for other cars. Whoompf, a Porsche 997 GT3 R blasts past us on the left.
The driver of our slightly worn out BMW M3 quickly moves to that side of the track just in time to miss a struggling Opel Corsa. There’s something else coming… you can hear the V10 roar long before the Audi R8 LMS cruises past us on our right. We’re heading down the Tiergarten straight on Niirburgring’s Nordschleife during open practice for the VLN race. I can’t imagine this happening in any other race series in the world.
The diversity and — I’m sure no one will mind me saying it — madness of the VLN series is what makes it so appealing. Not only can you blag a passenger ride during practice, you also get to watch everything from GT3s to Renault Clios. What’s more, there are 180 cars on the track at once, every race is on the Nordschleife and there are 12 rounds a year. Welcome to Germany’s answer to endurance GT racing.
The VLN (it means Veranstaltergemeinschaft Langstreckenpokal Niirburgring) was founded in 1977 as a way to unite various touring car championships and it has survived to this day as one of the most important endurance GT series in Europe. While that may seem like a bold claim, in order to race in the fabled Niirburgring 24 Hours you must race in the VLN. The 24 Hours is a stand-alone event, and doesn’t count towards the championship, but in Germany it’s considered almost as important as its better known cousin in France. “We just do the VLN races in order to prepare for the 24 Hours,” Martin Ragginger, the driver of the Falken Motorsports 997 GT3 R tells me. “The 24 Hours ranks above everything else. If you win a VLN race or finish on the podium of course it’s a success, but…”
This presents its own problems, as Bernd Hatter, the ex-Renault German motor sport coordinator and long-time VLN specialist, points out. “In the first three races of the year no one ever shows their true performance because they want to do as well as possible in the 24 Hours. We run a balance of performance series and that’s done with different size restrictors on the engines, extra weight, smaller tanks and slower refuelling. The results of those first three races of the season count towards the 24 Hours in terms of performance balancing, as does qualifying.” No one wants to be given a smaller restrictor just before the ‘big one’.
“What the VLN is always looking for is slower pole times. At the moment top teams are doing 8.26-minute laps and the idea is to slow down to just over 8.30min. However, the teams are so professional they always find ways to claw back the time. It’s difficult running a balance of performance and you will have Porsche complaining, Audi, Mercedes, everyone. Although if everyone’s complaining you’ve got it just about right.”
In 2012 it was the line up of Christian Krognes, Dominik Brinkmann and Ullrich Andree that won the series with their ex-works VW Scirocco. You may wonder how a Scirocco can beat the likes of McLaren MP4-12Cs, Mercedes-Benz SLS AMGs and Aston Martin Vantages. That’s thanks to the scoring system, which means that the more cars in your class, the more points you get. It’s all part of the current philosophy — everyone gets the same chance whether they spend €500,000 on the season or €50,000. It works, because the grids are still at 180 cars and for the 24 Hours, there are crowds of 200,000 people.
There are big names in the VLN as well — you’ll find Fabrizio Giovanardi, Frank Biela and Nicola Larini on the 2012 entry lists — and the fact that there are so many competitors and over 30 classes (yes, seriously) means the real challenge is making it through traffic. As Audi sports car driver 01ly Jarvis told me back in 2010 after competing in the 24 Hours: “I’ll probably pass more cars here on a lap than I would in a whole year in the DTM. I mean, it’s crazy out there.”
The VLN insiders know that it is one of the championship’s great calling cards, however, and are more relaxed about the speed differences, although not so relaxed that they didn’t ban the class for Daihatsu Charades and classic Minis in the 24 Hours. “You’ve got the same thing everywhere in the world,” said Ragginger when asked about the traffic. “The Le Mans 24 Hours has different classes and you’ll have the prototypes overtaking you. Here, we are the prototypes.” Hatter is even more straightforward: “If I go to an event and I see that there is a Porsche GT3 at the front and a Volkswagen Polo at the back then I know that beforehand. There aren’t any surprises…
“The VLN has been going for 35 years and if we weren’t successful then we would only have 100 cars on the grid. There are economic problems all over Europe and every organisation has tighter budgets with less money from the teams. We still have 180 cars on the grid — you’ve got to say that’s a success.”
The future looks bright for the VLN series and the Niirburgring 24 Hours, which are both attracting more manufacturer interest every year, despite the shadow cast by the circuit’s new buildings and the debt they have produced. “As far as I know,” said Hatter, “the VLN and the 24 Hours have a contract for next year. Yes, the circuit has problems due to the finance of the new buildings. Indeed we wouldn’t be in the red if it weren’t for those new buildings. It also wants to be cleared of the F1 race, which costs the circuit about £10m a year. I think there was a real fear that a rich Russian or Saudi would come and buy the whole place and make it into their own personal playground, but that will never happen.” That’s good news for the Niirburgring, the 24 Hours and the VLN championship. Both will continue to be dominated by German teams, cars and drivers. However, that’s no bad thing because if British, French or Spanish GT3 teams were to compete we’d no doubt lose some of the less professional outfits. And it’s those that make it so exciting.