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February 23, 2020

Five things we learned from the Nürburgring 24 Hours

Five things we learned from the Nürburgring 24 Hours
Photo Credit To Akl Yazbeck/ Sportscode

The 44th running of the Nürburgring 24 Hours was the closest in history, as Maro Engel passed Christian Hohenadel’s no. 29 HTP Mercedes on the final lap to give the no. 4 Black Falcon Mercedes he shared with Adam Christodoulou, Bernd Schneider and Manuel Metzger a memorable victory. Here’s what we learned.

1. Practice makes perfect

It’s a simple concept, but that doesn’t make it any less valid. Take the same team of drivers and crew to the same circuit with the same car and the same tyres, give them practice at pitstops, reading traffic and the weather and unless anything out of the ordinary happens, you’ve got a pretty strong chance of a result.

Schneider, Christodoulou, SP9 newcomer Metzger and Engel clicked well as a unit in the two VLN meetings and the 6 Hour Qualifying race they contested together and didn’t put a foot wrong in the 24 Hours before Engel – who was also driving the sister no. 9 Black Falcon Mercedes – took the car home to the finish.

But had the traffic on the penultimate lap fallen a different way and Hohenadel kept his advantage to the flag, you could make an equally convincing argument that HTP, and drivers Marco Seefried, Christian Vietoris and Renger van der Zande, would have been deserving winners. 

On a day when AMG Customer Sport teams finished 1-2-3-4 and Zakspeed finished 6th, Mercedes certainly reaped the rewards of their preparation and increased manufacturer input, although as ever, there were grumbles over the winners’ Balance of Performance.

2. Engel in the form of his life

Two weeks after his dramatic Blancpain Endurance Cup Pro-Am victory at Silverstone, Engel arrived at the Nürburgring in fine form and was on a mission all weekend across both cars he was entered in.

Despite topping free practice with the No. 9 car he shared with Yelmer Buurman, Hubert Haupt and Dirk Müller, Engel only completed four laps (outlap, one flier, inlap and installation lap), suggesting that he was content with the car straight out of the box.

His confidence was provided well-founded in the Top-30 qualifying session, where he set a blistering 8:14 despite less than perfect track conditions and with Kevin Estre’s stranded Porsche on the racing line at Bergwerk.

Engel led in the no. 9 until the race was stopped on lap five for a hailstorm that left cars stranded out on circuit and got back in when the race was restarted four hours later, still in heavy rain, although a cautious approach allowed the charging BMWs of Jörg Müller (Schubert) and Markus Palttala (ROWE) to get ahead.

He jumped into the no. 4 in for the first time during the night stint to pull it back into second place after the BMWs hit problems, before taking over the 9 again at sunrise.

Engel looked understandably shattered when Racing.GT paid a visit to the Black Falcon pits two hours from home, but he called on every ounce of his remaining energy for a final stint charge in the no. 4.

HTP were attempting to make it to the finish with a 1hr 15 minute final stint that at regular pace, would run over to ten laps – one lap longer than the Mercedes’ fuel tanks would allow – but Engel’s pace meant Hohenadel could not afford to back off and forced HTP into making a splash and dash on the penultimate tour.

With the leader now in his sights, Engel appeared to find another level and set the fastest lap of the race, before diving down the inside of a surprised Hohenadel on the Grand Prix circuit on the final lap for a victory that will surely rank as one of the most memorable of his career, alongside his FIA GT World Cup from Macau last year.

3. Audi not at the races

A Twitter poll which appeared on the Audi Sport feed after the race did about as good a job of any when it came to summarising a 24 Hours that didn’t live up to expectations.

During practice and qualifying, it looked as though the R8 LMS, which won on debut in the 24 last year, could at least mix it with the Mercedes-AMG GT3.  Laurens Vanthoor beat the rain to go fastest in Thursday’s night Qualifying session, while slippery conditions in the Top-30 Qualifying session made it hard to properly assess their pace.

But come the race itself, they were completely left behind, although a number of mistakes didn’t help their cause. Within the space of half an hour in the early morning, Nico Müller went off on oil in the no. 1 and Markus Winkelhock eliminated both the no. 6 Phoenix and the no. 22 Land Audis when he failed to notice a slow zone on the Grand Prix circuit.

That meant the no. 2 WRT was the best-placed of the Audi contingent in 8th, but only after a lengthy stop to repair suspension damage. However, write Audi off at your peril – they will certainly be more of a threat in the Ardennes in July…

4. BMW encouraged despite cruel luck

Lady Luck most certainly didn’t shine on the BMW Motorsport contingent at the Nürburgring, but they could at least come away knowing that the ingredients are there for the M6 GT3 to be a potent weapon before very long.

The no. 23 ROWE BMW of Alexander Sims, Philipp Eng, Maxime Martin and Dirk Werner made the finish in fifth, although the time lost when Eng struggled to get the car fired at the restart and had to join the back of the first train in 60th meant they were always fighting a losing battle to catch the Mercedes quartet.

Channeling the spirit of Martin’s 2013 run to second in the appalling conditions that accompanied the restart, Palttala charged from sixth to first in two laps and was well in the thick of the fight until a puncture dropped the no. 22 ROWE BMW out of contention.

This came shortly after Müller retired the no. 18 Schubert from the lead with an engine failure, the first of its kind since the M6 entered its development last year.

All hopes of a good result thus lay with the no. 100 Schubert BMW, which might have been in with a chance of a podium before a luckless Lucas Luhr was wiped out by a spinning SP5-class BMW on the Grand Prix Loop.

5. Boxing clever doesn’t always pay off

As the devotees of Fantasy Football among you will no doubt be aware, there are only so many transfers you can make each week before you incur a four-point penalty. This could prove a tactical masterstroke under the right circumstances, but could just as easily leave you with egg on your face if that player is picks up an injury or is rested.

Bold strategy calls at the Nürburgring carry a similar pay-off. Successfully anticipating the Eiffel weather can carry a huge reward over such a long lap, but with a minimum pitstop time to observe until the final hour, repeated throws of the dice can only dig a deeper hole.

Having ran out of time to complete the testing needed to be fully competitive, Falken Motorsports knew they would have to rely on smart pitwork to lever themselves into the fight, but were caught out early when the red flags negated their wet tyre advantage and meant they had to restart from the back of the SP9 field.

When the rain came again, lighter this time, with five hours to go, Falken found themselves in the lower reaches of the top ten and unlikely to progress much further by following the grain. For a second time, they gambled on full wets, but with large portions of the track still dry, they overworked their tyres and had to come in again on the very next lap. They would finish ninth.

By contrast, Zakspeed elected to keep Daniel Keilwitz out on a set of hot slicks and reaped the rewards, lapping up to 15 seconds faster than those around him to leapfrog the best of the ABT Bentleys into sixth place. It just goes to show that sometimes, simple is best.

About The Author

James Newbold

James Newbold is Racing.GT's Editor. He graduated from a politics degree at the University of East Anglia in 2015, which should help him navigate through the political minefield that is GT racing. He likes Marmite on toast and Oreo cookies. Speaks Spanish, but only when no one is looking.