Getting back in the ’Ring
As this magazine goes on sale I will be back in the cockpit for the fourth round of the World Endurance Championship at the Nürburgring, after what seems to have been an eternity since Le Mans. I have to confess to mixed feelings heading to the track located in the Eifel area of Germany, and famously nicknamed the Grüne Hölle (Green Hell).
This is because it replaces Autódromo de Interlagos, one of the most exciting and challenging circuits in the world and one I have longed to drive for as long as I can remember. That’s to take nothing away from the Nürburgring, but from a purely selfish level I would have loved the chance to have finally driven one of the few tracks left on my ‘to drive’ list.
There is often the concern that with so much focus on Le Mans there can be a lull for the following races until the title fight really heats up at the end of the year. This has been completely negated with the introduction of the Nürburgring! It may not be Le Mans-esque in character, but it’s a race of huge importance being the final round in Europe and marking the halfway stage in the championship. Never underestimate what a race on home soil means to the manufacturers (noting the fact Toyota is based out of Cologne).
My first experience of the Nürburgring was back in 2008 in the DTM – albeit on the shortened layout. In fact in four seasons of DTM, and two Nürburgring 24 Hours, this will be my first experience of the modern Grand Prix track in its Formula 1 configuration. It was that same weekend in 2008 that I also experienced the legendary Nordschleife and really began to understand its allure. Rather than being in the driver’s seat for my first laps around the iconic track, I was a passenger alongside Mattias Ekström. The Nordschleife offers an unrivalled experience in the passenger seat, as with every blind corner and crest you hold your breath not believing it possible you can come out the other side unscathed. It definitely grabbed my attention!
The modern Nürburgring has never appealed in quite the same way, but I’m really looking forward to experiencing it in an LMP1 car. It was never been one of my favourite tracks in either the DTM or the GT3 R8. I was always pleased in the R8 when we turned left on to the Nordschleife for the 24 Hours instead of right to start another lap on the GP track. This could be because the car was always set up around the demands of the Nordschleife, but it’s a feeling as a driver that you don’t forget. In the DTM (on the shortened version) I never felt as though the track flowed or really got going, but I’m hoping the GP track will really play into the strengths of the high-downforce LMP1 cars.
Driving the Nordschleife in an Audi R8 is an incredible, breathtaking experience. As a track you can never stop respecting it – the moment you do it bites! For me it’s unbelievable to think that from a safety point of view this is a modified and improved version of the track to that which hosted rounds of the F1 world championship from 1951-1976. To drive in that period and in the cars at the time, the drivers must have been fearless knowing that every time they went out on track there was a distinct possibility they would not return. It’s no surprise to see the names from that era that went on to dominate at this track – Alberto Ascari, Juan Manuel Fangio, Stirling Moss, Jim Clark, John Surtees, Jackie Stewart and Jacky Ickx.
The Nürburgring will be a crucial race for my team-mates and I in car no8, as we simply cannot afford to drop any further behind in the championship fight. I’m never one to pay too much attention to the points at this stage, as the end of the Nürburgring race will mark the mid-way point of the season, so there’s still plenty on offer and a long way to go.
The Nürburgring has never been kind to me in terms of results, especially in the two 24-hour races I competed in, where in both instances my team-mates were involved in unfortunate incidents that led to us losing the chance to fight for victory. I’m hoping that the weekend of August 29/30 will provide the opportunity to change this.