September is the time of year that sees children returning en-mass to their schools, while their teachers prepare to say goodbye to lie-ins and their sanity for the next few months. But it wasn’t just any old comprehensive that Tristan Vautier, Tom Onslow-Cole and Jazeman Jaafar (and many more besides) found themselves in last weekend, as they tackled the formidable Nürburgring Nordschleife in VLN 7. How did these ‘Ring rookies find their experience and what does it tell us about the growth of the Nürburgring 24? James Newbold finds out.
In the age of the Tilkedrome, when circuits are designed to be forgiving of driver error, the allure of the Nürburgring is perhaps stronger than ever before. The historic 24.4 kilometres of winding tarmac through the Eiffel Mountains carries a mythical aura and has traditionally been the domain of specialists like Marcel Tiemann, Uwe Alzen or Frank Stippler, who have grown up racing there and familiarised themselves with it’s every bump and kerb.
But without that extensive bank of knowledge to call on, it can be a deeply unnerving experience. After practice at the 24 Hours earlier this year, one respected factory driver told me that he still felt far from comfortable on the Nordschleife and was happy to leave the task of qualifying to his German team-mate. You wouldn’t get that at Paul Ricard…
“In a way it reminded me of oval racing because you’re constantly flirting with the limit, but you know it’s a crash straight away if you go over it,” explains former IndyCar racer Tristan Vautier, who steered a Sorg Rennsport BMW to a solid fifth in the V4 class. “I think nowadays on many tracks, especially in Europe, they are designed so you can push and go in the run-off to find the limit, but especially there in a car with no downforce, if you really push too hard you cannot recover much.”
Indeed, it’s not every circuit that requires drivers to acquire a special permit granted by Germany’s motorsport governing body – the DMSB – before they can race on it. This is not a class where you can get away with slacking off in the back row.
— Tom Onslow-Cole (@tomonslowcole) September 3, 2016
“The track itself is impressive, but it’s the racing that I think is really special there,” says Tom Onslow-Cole, who finished on the Cup4 podium in a Toyota GT86. “The situation you’re racing in is crazy with 160 cars and everyone seems to be pushing extremely hard – every lap there’s Code 60s and double-waved yellows, you’re on your toes every corner of every lap trying to think about your situation.
“It’s difficult at the very start, because there’s traffic to manage, there’s the track to learn and then there’s trying to drive around it quickly as well – it does take a few laps to be able to do all three well. I was very fortunate to have a dry weekend and I can believe that the place completely changes when it rains, when it’s foggy and when it’s dark and when you get all three of those at the same time!”
With so many cars sharing the circuit at once and the Ring’s aforementioned tendency for unpredictable weather, it’s important that driving standards remain high. As a result, drivers can only enter the top S9 class for GT3 machinery once they have earned their ‘A’ permit. To be eligible, drivers must finish two VLN events inside the top 75% of a class with at least three starters and complete a minimum of 18 racing laps in the process.
Back in Nurburgring again! Looking forward to have some fun! pic.twitter.com/2FpTxkP6Rh
— Jazeman Jaafar (@jazemanjaafar) September 3, 2016
The ECU problem suffered by Jazeman Jaafar’s Walkenhorst Motorsport BMW M325i Racing Cup on lap one of VLN 6 meant he didn’t log any racing laps, so the Malaysian returned for the six-hour VLN 7 determined to make up for lost time. He finished 43rd overall and sixth in class, three minutes ahead of fellow Ring rookie Franck Perera in another Cup5 BMW.
“The six hours was really good because it helped me to get more laps in,” he said. “In single-seaters we went to Macau, that was pretty long and I’d say the discipline is similar to a street circuit, only it’s a lot quicker and you have to take a lot more risks to maximise the capacity of the circuit. I used to drive a normal road car around there just to have a look around but there’s nothing like driving it in a race car. The more laps you do, the more laps you improve, it’s an ongoing development.”
The end goal for all three drivers is to make the grid of the Nürburgring 24 Hours, a one-off event which has managed to keep a measure of exclusivity courtesy of the licensing system, but is slowly but surely being dragged into the mainstream by increasing manufacturer interest.
Vautier hopes having a Nürburgring license will open doors and make him a more attractive proposition for manufacturers, which typically take four drivers per car at the 24 Hours. To complement their roster, Mercedes-AMG signed Maro Seefried, plus Ford pair Dirk Mueller and Stefan Muecke for this year’s race, while Richard Westbrook joined the ROWE BMW team, also from Ford.
“I think just watching the 24 Hour race for a couple of years now, it’s a very attractive event and watching some of the on-board laps on YouTube makes you really want to try it,” said Vautier. “At the moment I don’t have a black and white plan as to whether I will be in a GT3 there next year, but at least I want to be ready and get the A permit. There is quite a big driver market and if you start getting more and more experience, it can bring a very important extra line to your résumé.”
But what does the influx of driving talent mean for the 24 Hours itself? The event is booming like never before, but Jaafar questions whether it may come at a cost in future.
“The event itself is growing and I know there will be more and more drivers doing it, but it shouldn’t lose its charm,” he said. “It has such a charm as a race, the crowd is incredible, the fans are incredible and the cars are amazing there – you wouldn’t want to change it too much that everyone is doing it…”