New British king of the 'Ring hits boiling point in 24Hr victory

Sports Car News

From British GT to victory at the Nürburgring, David Pittard's ascension is just beginning - his sights set on endurance racing's 'big four'

David Pittard Nurburgring 2023

David Pittard celebrates victory at the 2023 24 Hours of the Nurburgring

@24hNBR - Twitter

As the clock ticked down on the 2023 Nürburgring 24 Hours last weekend, the race was beautifully poised. The two contenders for victory were out of sync on pitstops, but once the No98 Rowe Racing BMW M4 had made its 20th and final stop, the true picture emerged.

The Ferrari 296 GT3, which had led most of the race in defiance of Germany’s ‘Big Four’ motor manufacturers, had enjoyed a comfortable buffer of two and a half minutes – but now the gap was shrinking. The Ferrari had shock absorber fragility concerns and it was clear this race wasn’t yet done. Might there still be a sting in the tail?

As it turned out, no. The driver behind the wheel of the Ferrari knows his way around the Nordschleife because that’s his business – he’s a circuit specialist in the Nürburgring Endurance Series. And he wasn’t about to let anything or anyone come between him and what is so far his greatest achievement in motor sport. David Pittard, a 31-year-old from Hertfordshire, has been bubbling away as a rising star on the GT scene for a few years. Now it appears he’s hitting boiling point.

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The 2023 N24 threw up what was an all-round good news story on Sunday. Not only did this result break the 21-year hegemony of Audi, BMW, Mercedes and Porsche, it also delivered Ferrari its first win at this great race, in its 51st edition.

Local team Frikadelli Racing had risked the wrath of 230,000 mostly partisan and famously raucous fans by switching from its Porsche tradition to the new 296 GT this year. But what a great call it proved for team boss (and meat ball impresario!) Klaus Abbelen, who was the partner of the late and much-missed circuit icon Sabine Schmitz.

The Ferrari was the quickest thing around the Nordschleife last weekend. Still, it takes more than speed to win a 24-hour race and cool heads were required to steer the Ferrari home, on a disconcertingly bone dry weekend in the Eifel mountains that made this the fastest N24 on record. The winning car and its four closest rivals managed 162 laps, three more than the previous distance record.

Frikadelli Ferrari takes the chequered flag at the 2023 24 Hours of the Nurburgring

The Frikadelli Ferrari takes the chequered flag at the 2023 24 Hours of the Nürburgring

@24hNBR - Twitter

Beyond the late shock absorber worries, a single puncture was the only setback for the Frikadelli Ferrari as GT3 collisions with slower cars became a running theme. The top-class cars have become super-quick and although entries have been reduced from the old days of circa 200 to 131 this year, speed differentials to the slower classes make negotiating traffic the key to becoming a hero – or a zero. But the Ferrari quartet were near flawless. They were: two-time Porsche Le Mans winner Earl Bamber, all-round ace Nicky Catsburg – who won this race with Rowe in 2020 – the flamboyantly-named Felipe Fernandez Laser and Pittard. And of the four, it was the British driver who played the anchor role, starting and finishing the race to deliver Abbelen the victory he has craved for years.

Pittard’s own story is remarkable. A British GT racer, he also drove historic cars – Lotus Elan, Cortina and Chevron B8 – when a chance conversation with Goodwood regular Frank Stippler sparked a dramatic change in direction. Five years ago he upped sticks and moved to Germany to build a career as a Nordschleife specialist, first with BMW squad Walkenhorst Motorsport and then with Aston Martin. Now he is flying high as a Frikadelli driver.

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The post-race press conference said much about Pittard’s place in the world right now. Usually English is the primary language on such occasions, but not here at Germany’s biggest race. The host switched to English for the drivers who didn’t speak German and we expected him to do so when he came to Pittard. But no – here was ‘our’ driver fluently conversing in what is now technically his home tongue. You don’t see that often.

So was this vindication for his big move five years ago? We asked him once he stepped off the platform:

“It does feel a bit like that, yes,” said Pittard with a smile. “This is my new home race, I live an hour down the road. I’ve done a bit of everything since coming here five years ago. I remember getting my first pole in the Nürburgring Endurance Series, my first win, my first fastest lap, the championship in 2020 and winning the qualifying race for this year’s N24” – a sure sign the Frikadelli Ferrari would be a contender. “I was kind of ticking everything off. But if you do NES this is the crown jewel, what everything leads towards. This result is the culmination of five years of trying, effectively.”

All the drivers were delighted for Abbelen, including Rowe’s Maxime Martin who used to drive for Frikadelli. “When Aston said they weren’t going to come back I started looked for other options,” said Pittard. “I thought Klaus was going to do a Pro-Am car, but being the legend that he is, he said ‘no, we’re going to do a Pro car.’ Then with the guys he had signed up already, I thought ‘I want a piece of this’.

“Initially it didn’t come together. We spoke at the beginning of December and it didn’t work out. Then I’d just done Daytona and he called me again, saying things have changed. I’m glad it’s fallen into place.”

Frikadelli Racing at the Nurburgring

Frikadelli Racing’s Ferrari was part of the fastest ever field at the NB24

Frikadelli Racing - Twitter

The first big 24-hour win for Ferrari’s new GT3 model is a landmark, potentially a significant one given the perception of how important this car will prove to be in the category. “It’s pretty crazy,” said Pittard. “The 296 had a slightly troubled birth, as it were, especially with IMSA and the way the regulations have worked out for them. It’s good to see the car was quick at GT World Challenge at Brands Hatch, for example.

“It was nice because we could fly the flag for the new car. It took a little while to come together because of the Eifel weather, but once we’d had a couple of races under our belt I knew we were quick. From the qualifying race we were riding the wave into the big one.”

But what about that shock absorber problem? How serious had it been?

“My second to last stint was 7.30am to 9.30am and you could feel the shock was on its way out, the damping was becoming less and less and the car was po-going around at the rear. It really became apparent in Nicky’s stint with three or four hours to go, and even the TV picked it up, the way the rear was bouncing around. It particularly made it tricky off-kerb, so we had to avoid them and managed that accordingly.

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“It definitely affected performance, especially at high speed because the rear stability had gone, which is a strength of the Ferrari. So we had one hand tied behind our back for the final three hours. But the car was lightning fast through the night, so that’s where we built the advantage and had the cushion to bring it home.”

The crew in the Rowe BMW smelt blood and in the final hour Dries Vanthoor took the final stint to chase Pittard down. The final gap was only 26 seconds, but Pittard confirmed he had everything under control in a performance that made Abbelen’s chase of the driver over the winter all the more understandable.

“That final hour, because of the pitstop difference it was kind of cat and mouse with the BMW,” said Pittard. “On different parts of the circuit we’d catch one Code 60” – the Nürburgring’s excellent zonal alternative to safety cars on such a long track – “which would be gone once they got to that section, and vice versa. That was the most inconsistent part. We had more to lose and they had more to gain, but that’s the way the Nürburgring 24 Hours is.

“I was very nervous going into that final hour but Andy, our engineer, was fantastic on the radio, just keeping us informed with all the necessary information. By the end he said you could drive 20 seconds off the pace and still win, so that’s what I basically did.”

It’s been a long road for Pittard to get to this point. But at 31, it looks like his career is only just beginning to bloom. “My dream is to win the big four 24-hour races,” – Le Mans, Daytona, Nürburgring and Spa – “so this is a big life tick today. It’s just the start.”

NBR24 Prt

Frikadelli Racing celebrate atop the podium