As the race prepares to celebrate its 44th year, Racing.GT explore what makes the Nürburgring 24 Hours one of the most important events on the GT racing calendar.
When Racing.GT decided to explore the key ingredients that make the Nürburgring 24 Hours such a special event, it was difficult to know where to start. After all, it’s not something that can be definitively measured. Le Mans and Spa, which started in 1923 and 1924 respectively, each hold the upper hand in the historical stakes and in terms of mainstream appeal too, with the @24hoursoflemans Twitter account’s 166K followers rather decisively more than the modest tally of 2.7K following the German language @24hNurburgring.
But when looking at what makes a great race, the conversation must start and end with the circuit itself. Sure, Le Mans has its fill of world class corners and will punish the slightest mistake, but with a fair proportion of the lap spent at full throttle, it’s hardly the most physically demanding of circuits. Spa is a driver’s favourite alright and with the largest grid of single-formula cars anywhere in the world, you could never argue that the winner was anything if not deserving. But even Spa struggles to get close to the mystical allure that comes from turning left at the end of the Nürburgring’s Grand Prix loop and plunging into the forests for the 20.8km rollercoaster ride of a lifetime.
“The Nürburgring 24 Hours in 2014 was probably one of the most emotional wins of my whole career, it’s the hardest race in the world,” says René Rast. “I’ve done Le Mans, Daytona, Petit Le Mans, Spa, all of that, but this is completely on top.”
“It’s a very unique place, they won’t build anything like that again I’m sure,” adds WRT’s Stuart Leonard. “I absolutely love the circuit, when you get a good lap there it’s like nothing else. Where else do you get a GT3 car that gets its wheels in the air? If you get it right, it’s amazing, but obviously if you get it wrong, it can hurt.”
Frank Stippler knows that fact as well as anybody, having raced at the Nürburgring since he was 19 under the wing of circuit legend Edgar Dören. After several years of watching the race slip through his fingers, Stippler, now 41, finally broke through in 2012 to take a popular win, the first for the Audi R8 (left).
“I was leading the race maybe seven or eight times but we always had problems, so 2012 was the first time that everything went okay,” the German recalls. “There were a lot of people who we were fighting quite hard with for the last couple of years that came to me afterwards and said I deserved it so much. That was a big thing in my career to not only win, but get the respect of my competitors.”
Respect doesn’t just come from competitors however, but from the fans who turn out to watch their heroes in their droves and pitch their tents weeks in advance to secure the prime viewing locations. It makes for a special atmosphere, which doesn’t go unnoticed amongst the drivers.
“The Nürburgring is really special to drive, it’s the nicest race I’ve done,” says Daniel Kielwitz, who will drive a Zakspeed Mercedes alongside Kenneth Heyer and GT Masters champions Sebastian Asch and Luca Ludwig. “The fans are amazing, you can really smell the barbecues, although it’s not so nice in the car sometimes because you realise ‘oh shit, I’m hungry!’”
For Stippler’s Audi Sport colleague Christopher Mies, victory in the 24 Hours last year was made all the more special for having been on the other side of the fence watching his father Peter contest the 24 Hours as a young man.
“The last lap was amazing, although I couldn’t enjoy it because Maxime Martin was behind me and I still had to push!” he says, affecting a broad grin. “For me it’s special because it’s near my home, I grew up there, but the main thing is the amount of cars, drivers, manufacturers and fans. They are all around the track, it’s like a big party. I would party there from Thursday on to Sunday when I couldn’t drive and I was 15 or 16 years old, we had our tent at Pflanzgarten, it was a good time.”
The fans have to be a hardy bunch, because it wouldn’t be the Nürburgring without the weather imposing itself on the conversation.
Think I follow too many racing drivers after just reading that it is snowing at the nurburgring for the 100th time.
— Nick Catsburg (@nickcatsburg) March 31, 2016
But while adverse weather on the Nordschleife is hardly unexpected – they go together like the England football team and perennial disappointment – the length of the circuit means it can be hailing (or even snowing) at the circuit’s highest point, Hohe Acht, yet sunny on the Grand Prix loop, making tyre choice a lottery. Timing is crucial; if the heavens open when you have just passed the pits, the cars behind can gain massively by making an immediate stop for wets.
“Besides experience and speed, especially at the Nürburgring, you really need the luck as well,” says Stippler. “Even if you put everything together perfectly, you need some help from God!”
Peter Dumbreck knows this all too well, having made only one visit to the podium in 12 attempts at the 24 Hours, achieved last year with Falken Motorsports.
“You just never know what’s going to happen there,” says the Scot, who will return this year with a brand-new Porsche 911 GT3-R. “It’s the most mental race I’ve ever done. Three years ago the race was stopped for bad weather in the middle of the night and since I was last on the roster of drivers, I hadn’t even done a stint yet.
“I had my helmet on and was ready to go when they pulled the red flag out. It rained all night and they eventually restarted the race from the grid the next morning. It was my first stint in the car and everybody else around me had already driven, it was all a bit surreal. I just remember the first couple of laps, trying to get myself up to speed and seeing a wall of white on the Döttinger Höhe – we were all sitting flat, probably doing 280 km/h in the heavy rain and you’re thinking ‘what am I doing?’”
Heading out to Nurburgring 24hrs. Concerned that I don’t know what the weather is like. @nickcatsburg any ideas??!
— Peter Dumbreck (@AhLovejoy) May 24, 2016
Mad weather isn’t the only obstacle to face however. With 158 cars entered in the race, the front-runners in the SP9 class won’t just have other GT3 cars to contend with, but slower traffic – ranging from Renault Clio Cup cars to TCR SEATs and the crowd-favourite Opel Manta ‘Foxtail’ – often driven by hobby racers with limited experience on the Ring.
“Thinking back to when I first did the race in 2003, I remember there was a Lada estate running round!” laughs Dumbreck. “Of course nowadays they’re not that slow, maybe only around 40 seconds per lap off and a lot of them are not that much slower than us on the straights. That in itself can lead to problems because if you don’t have the grunt to cleanly nip by them and take the corner at a normal pace, then you’re tripping over them a bit and everybody loses time as a result.”
“Sometimes they’re losing water, oil, or whatever and you come into a corner, you can’t see there is fluid on the track and suddenly you lose the car,” adds Rast.
But when all that’s said and done, the biggest battle is not with the traffic or against the weather, but against yourself. Especially on the Nordschleife, it pays to be patient and wait for an opportunity to present itself, rather than forcing the issue and coming to regret it later.
“You have to be in the lead pack I agree, but if you take too much risk and you crash out, that’s not how you’re going to win it!” says Mies. “You just have to stay cool, think about it twice before you do something and take no risk.”
“It’s very simple,” agrees 2013 winner Bernd Schneider. “Marc Basseng said once ‘at the Nürburgring Nordschleife, you have to be 98% fast. Because if you need 100%, it’s getting dangerous.’”