Nürburgring 24 Hours

Nürburgring, Germany

SET AGAINST THE DEEP PURPLE SKY, the dense pine forests are a jagged silhouette as blazing pools of yellow light tear through the scene. As the cars flash past, the red tail lights rise and fall, zip this way and that the darkness they plunge into enhancing the astonishing sense of speed. Campsite fires flicker in the village of tents, caravans and complex scaffolding structures that pepper the valleys and hillsides. A firework rockets to the heavens and explodes in a shower of orange, as the aroma of cut-glass German beer and barbecuing sausage prickles the nostrils. Motor racing bliss.

The Nürburgring 24 Hours doesn’t have the long history of its round-the-clock cousins at Spa and Le Mans – it only dates back to 1970 – but its status is on the rise. Too many years as a glorified German club race won’t quite allow us to bestow the ‘blue riband classic’ tag on it, but judging by the entries over the past decade that could still change.

The race takes place on the fabled Nordschleife, of course, which for a start sets it apart from anything else in the world. At the final turn of the modern Grand Prix circuit, the field darts off to the left to embark on a lap around ‘Grüne Hölle’. At over 14 miles, they’ll only manage just over 150 laps in the course of 24 Hours.

Only when you decide to cycle through the Eifel forests to watch the race do you begin to understand the scale of this place, as Motor Sport attempted this year. A mammoth 202 cars took the start on June 25, three separate batches setting off a few minutes apart. Yes, the double-ton included a taffy SEAT Ibiza and a tired Alfa 147, but it was also graced by a bevy of proper factory-backed entries, featuring some of the world’s most desirable GT supercars.

There’s still a heavy German bias, but this was a true and impressive international entry. BMW, which won this race last year, returned with a team of Schnitzer-run M3 GTs; Audi was represented by its DTM Phoenix and Abt-run teams with purposeful R8 LMS GT3s; Mercedes was a contender with its stunning SLS AMG; Porsche was there (inevitably), not only with the crack Manthey 911s, but also its revolutionary hybrid racer; Aston Martin boss Dr Ulrich Bez loves this race, which is why he hurried through a competition debut for the new V12 Zagato; and even VW got in on the act with a team of impressively quick Golfs, with F1 old boys Johnny Herbert and Mark Blundell on the driving strength.

But it was a Ferrari that threatened to trump them all. The lone 458 Italia run by Hankook Team Farnbacher was the quickest car in the place. It started from a dominant pole position, but a fatigued wishbone thwarted the chances of a genuine upset. The 458 dropped as low as 68th, but climbed back to eighth position at the flag, such was its pace.

BMWs, Audis and Mercedes all took turns to lead on Saturday evening, but almost inevitably Manthey Racing’s RSR asserted itself as the midnight hour approached. Marc Lieb, Lucas Luhr, Timo Bernhard and Romain Dumas led all the way from there to the 4pm finish on Sunday to claim a distance record and Manthey’s fifth win in six years. Bernhard now ties with Pedro Lamy and Marcel Tiemann for the most ‘Ring 24-hour wins, with five.

But the victory was far from a dead cert. It was close all the way, and BMW knew this one had slipped through its fingers. Lamy had to take the blame. On Saturday evening a slower car pushed him off on the way into Karussell; he lost control and punted into another car in the famous hairpin. As he recovered, Lamy drove the wrong way round the top of the banked corner. He lost three minutes for repairs – and a further three with the subsequent stop-go penalty. The M3 wound up second at the flag – just four and a half minutes behind the Manthey Porsche.

Audi claimed a solid class-winning 3-4-5 with its team of elegant R8s. They didn’t quite have enough pace to challenge for victory, but they sure were quick in a straight line.

There were a few tears at the finish as 60-year-old Hans-Joachim Stuck brought his illustrious career to an end (at least, that’s what he says…). Stuckie shared a Lamborghini Gallardo with his sons and stole much of the attention as he crossed the line 15th overall. He won that first Nurburgring 24 Hours back in 1970, and will always be associated with the Nordschieife. There was no better place to bow out.