When you chat to top N24h drivers, it’s interesting to find that it’s not the physical side of driving the Nordschleife that takes it out of you. No, at a narrow and unforgiving track with countless corners such as this one, it’s the mental strain that drivers have to overcome, because one small mistake can spell disaster (you won’t find big gravel traps to save you from a massive Armco slap).
Speaking with M6 GT3 driver Richard Westbrook, he said: “It’s definitely a race when you have your first beer afterwards and think ‘I’ve earned that!’”, with fellow factory BMW driver Jörg Müller adding: “It’s quite tough with all the concentration, especially on a stint of eight or nine laps where you have to manage the traffic and choose the right time to overtake the cars.”
And it’s that traffic which leads us to our next challenge…
Getting past slower-moving cars is a problem for the faster drivers in many endurance racing events, but few races make it as challenging as the N24. You have a narrow circuit which is in many places blind, and monstrous GT3 machines with pro drivers going up against amateurs in old hatchbacks. I can’t think of many places you’ll see a GT3-spec Porsche gunning down a Mk3 VW Golf, for instance.
“There’s a big variation of abilities,” Westbrook explains. “There are a lot of hobby drivers here in machinery that’s a lot slower than a GT3. If you flash the hell out of them at night, they just get confused.”
If you can get into the ‘Top 30’ qualifying shoot-out though, you do get a helping hand in the form of a blue flashing light fixed in your windscreen so slower drivers up ahead know to GTFO at the earliest possible moment.
Adverse weather is arguably more of a problem at the ‘Ring than any other race circuit, for two reasons. Firstly, changeable weather comes with the territory, due to the track’s location in the Eifel mountains. Secondly, the sheer size of the track - 15.5 miles including the newer Grand Prix loop - means it’s common to have the track bone dry in places, and soaking wet in others.
That’s what happened during this year’s race, with the added complication of massive hail stones. Catching up with Darren Turner just after the race was red flagged, the Aston Martin driver said: “It hit the circuit about 5km in. The rest of the track was still dry and there were only three or four corners wet, so you think ‘I’m going to stay on slicks’ but I went for my second lap, and as I was coming close to where the crest is just before the bad weather, I backed off (…) it was carnage; cars off left, right and centre. Even at 30kph it was a struggle to stay on the track.”
In fact, the conditions at that particular part of the track were so bad, that many of the slick-shod cars couldn’t even make it up the hill, such was the lack of grip. Many cars were simply abandoned on the circuit, leaving a big traffic jam of stranded racing cars.
Nordschleife vs GP-Strecke
One of the most unusual aspects about the N24 is the fact that the cars are effectively using two tracks: the older Nordschleife that was built in the 1920s, and the newer ‘GP-Strecke’ which was completed in the mid 80s. This brings with it another challenge since the circuits are so different: the Nordschleife is narrow, fast and flowing with a rough surface, whereas the GP circuit is wider and smoother, with long straights and big braking zones.
“Before you come and do this race, the mindset would be that the Grand Prix track has more grip than the Nordschleife, but it’s completely the opposite,” Darren Turner explains, adding: “When you come back off the Nordschleife back onto the Grand Prix track, you have to drive very much under the limit of what the car can do.” A lot of that is because the cars have to be setup for the old track, where they spend most of the time. The suspension, the brakes and even the tyres - it all has to be geared towards the Nordschleife, compromising performance on the GP loop.
If you’re used to watching racing on TV where each team has a spacious garage with their car(s) sat in the middle and loads of room for activities, walking through the Nurburgring 24 Hours pit lane will give you a bit of a shock. 160 cars need to accommodated, and that means sharing.
When we had our talk with Darren Turner, the garage already looked pretty full with three cars and a load of mechanics milling around. But, two more cars soon arrived, making the garage chock full of Astons Martins and engineers.
However, Turner reckons that’s all in the spirit of the race. “It’s a completely different mindset,” he explains, adding: “You’ve got to share! We have enough Astons that we’ve taken over this garage, but that’s not always the case, you could be in with a lot of different teams. But there’s a team spirit, not just within your own team but everyone in the paddock. You often see cars get damage, and mechanics from other manufacturers will lend a hand.”
A circuit you never stop learning
With getting on for 200 corners, a changing track surface plus crazy changes in camber and gradient, learning the Nordschleife in the first place is not easy. “It was my first time on the Nordschleife this year. I started in an M235i, and had one whole test day with the car to myself,” M6 GT3 driver Sam Blomqvist recalls: “The first couple of laps I thought ‘I’m never going to get the hang of this place’, cars were flying past me, and I was like ‘shit, this is not easy!’”
Fellow BMW driver Richard Westbrook says, meanwhile: “I don’t think you ever stop learning. There are parts where every year you come back and there’s a new tarmac section and you have to change the whole philosophy in your head. Flugplatz is so much quicker than it was before. Cars are being developed, tyres are getting better every year, so you never come back and are bang on it straight away. It always takes time.”
But it's all worth it
With the bonkers mix of cars, the stupidly long track and legions of dedicated fans lining the circuit, N24 is unlike any other motorsport event I’ve ever been too - and in a good way. It seems a lot of the drivers feel that way too.
Jörg Müller tells us that Le Mans can be “boring” and that at Spa 24 Hours there are the pay drivers to worry about who “brake even later than you and fuck up the corner”, but he loves racing at the N24. “For me it’s definitely the best one [endurance race]. There’s the circuit, it’s definitely unique. And to drive with all these slower cars and the atmosphere in the pits, you see these guys with seven and a half tonne trucks with grills, barbecues…I love it.”
Richard Westbrook meanwhile relishes the challenge of the Top 30 shootout. “I find the Top 30 one of the most exciting things in motorsport. To give everyone two or three laps in the Nordschleife to really fight it out, that’s really exciting. As we saw yesterday, it brings out mistakes in people and it brings out the best in people,” he says.
Finally, Darren Turner tells us about the different philosophy of racing here: “It’s not the challenge of the competition you’re trying to beat first, it’s the circuit you’re trying to beat. And it can throw anything at you.”