Monday, 26 February 2018

Silverstone - Return of the GT3's

After the frenzy of the 24-hour races at Dubai and Daytona, followed shortly by the 12-hour race at Bathurst, it has been a quiet few weeks for many of us endurance racing fans. I refuse to get excited by ACO press conferences, nor by the other announcements of this time of year about who will be driving for whom and in what. I know that it is all supposed to be part of the build-up of anticipation, but I would rather have a real race and some real racing to get my teeth into.

As a result, I now find myself in eager anticipation of Creventic’s extravaganza of races coming up at Silverstone next month and I thought it might be fun to see what, if anything, the races thus far this year have taught us. I must admit, I think it could be a thoroughly good weekend’s racing. If you haven’t already familiarised yourself with the programme, then you should: is your first point of call. On Friday, 9th March there is qualifying, then the first of two 7-race series events (for Caterhams), followed by the first segment (five-and-a-half hours) of racing for the 12 hours, for Prototypes and GT3 cars, followed by night practice for the 24-hours cars.

On Saturday, 10th March, the action starts at 9am with the remaining six-and-a-half hours for the GT3/Prototypes, a second 7-race series encounter, with the 24 hours scheduled to start at 5pm. With sunset at 17:08, the pace car will, quite literally, be heading off into the sunset (or the murky dusk, more likely). Sunday will be a long day…

Compared to the ninety-plus cars that started in Dubai, the entry is small, but one can understand that the prospect of racing in the pleasant winter sunshine of the UAE is more attractive to many than Northamptonshire before the spring equinox. Bearing in mind the weather that greeted the WEC at Easter 2016, or going further back, the International Trophy Meeting in 1973, let’s hope that the weather smiles on Creventic and the BRSCC organisation.

Entirely gratuitous shot of Ronnie Peterson in the snow in 1973!

I like the idea of mixing the GT3 cars with the Prototypes, although I must admit I am more interested in who will take A6 honours than the Prototype division. It will be interesting to see whether a Prototype can stay sufficiently trouble-free to remain ahead to take overall honours (and how many actually take the start too).

Theoretically, the LMP2 cars in the proto class should easily lap five seconds quicker than the LMP3 cars, which themselves are another five seconds quicker than the GT3 cars, which means that the P2’s should lap the P3’s at least every hour, and the GT3’s twice every hour. But still, none of Creventic’s prototype races have thus far really grabbed my enthusiasm, and with only two Simpson-entered Ginettas in the P2 class, it is far from a foregone conclusion that one of them will take outright honours.

Indeed, it is worth making the point that the gap between LMP3 and GT3 is smaller than the gap between LMP1 and LMP2 or between LMP2 and GTE in the WEC. And I am optimistic that the two-part format will work well.

So who will be at the front of the A6 class? At the time of writing, there are 12 published entries in the A6 class – four Mercedes and two cars each from Porsche, Lamborghini, Ferrari and Audi. Although there is a BOP-advantage to running as an “amateur” entry, there is no separate class for A6-Pro and A6-Am, so one source of confusion is removed.

There is quite a bit of data worth extracting from the three races at Dubai, Daytona and Bathurst. But for the sake of its relevance to the Silverstone race, I will only take the data relating to those brands that will actually be at Silverstone.

Car No. Team/Car Best Lap Average Lap
3 Black Falcon Mercedes 1m 58.541s 2m 00.327s
777 WRT Audi 1m 58.452s 2m 00.402s
9 Mücke Audi 1m 58.591s 2m 00.607s
12 Manthey Porsche 1m 59.660s 2m 00.646s
964 Grasser Lamborghini 1m 58.199s 2m 00.674s
911 Herberth Porsche 1m 58.792s 2m 00.948s

Car No. Team/Car Best Lap Average Lap
51 Spirit of Race Ferrari 1m 47.663s 1m 48.583s
29 Land Audi 1m 47.896s 1m 48.666s
64 Scuderia Corsa Ferrari 1m 48.025s 1m 48.822s
12 Grasser Lamborghini 1m 48.207s 1m 48.860s
964 Riley Mercedes 1m 47.964s 1m 48.972s
911 Manthey Porsche 1m 47.668s 1m 49.083s

Car No. Team/Car Best Lap Average Lap
74 Jamecpem Audi 2m 02.932s 2m 03.803s
37 WRT Audi 2m 03.524s 2m 04.498s
56 Strakka Mercedes 2m 03.416s 2m 04.536s
991 EuroMechanica Porsche 2m 03.583s 2m 04.604s
75 SunEnergy1 Mercedes 2m 03.477s 2m 04.632s
12 Ice Break Porsche 2m 04.173s 2m 05.021s

What does it all mean? Well, the most noticeable thing is how close it all is. In terms of percentages, none of the average lap times is more than 1% behind the best, and in the case of Dubai and Daytona, the gaps are practically all under 0.5%. On paper, looking purely at the manufacturer’s hardware and the outright pace, Ferrari and Audi seem to have the upper hand, with Lamborghini not far off, but Mercedes and Porsche slightly slower (it is possible that Black Falcon’s performance at Dubai is an ‘outlier’ and in any case Black Falcon is not at Silverstone).

But of course there is more to it than outright pace, that’s why long races are such fun. On paper, I reckon the Scuderia Praha Ferrari is the strongest contender for class (indeed, let’s face it, outright) victory. But you can’t overlook the Herberth Porsche or the ROFGO or RAM Mercedes, although the data above suggests that they may be short on pace. And Grasser proved at Daytona that they have a winning car also. So pick any one from five!

However, as the podium celebrations for the Silverstone 12 hours are finishing, and the anthems fading away, preparations for the 24 hours will be in their final stages, as less than an hour after the finish of the 12 hour race, the TCE and GT4 cars are due on the grid for their race. (There’s also the small matter of a half-hour thrash for the “7 Race Series” to be squeezed in as well).

Whereas on paper, the 12 hour race should be easily won by a prototype, the balance between the Touring Cars in the TCR class and the Grand Touring cars in the GT4 and SP3 classes is far less clear. Indeed, although GT4 and SP3 are separated into two distinct classes this year, the Ginetta G55 is still an anomaly: two entries (from Colin White) are in the SP3 class, and one (from Team HARD) is in GT4.

That said though, I think that just like in Dubai, the race will liekly boil down to a battle between the TCR class cars, although only five of the TCR entrants from Dubai are expected at Silverstone.

Looking at the lap times from Dubai is interesting, as unlike the A6 class, there are big differences between the cars. I’ve excluded cars at Dubai that are not in the provisional Silverstone entry list.

Dubai TCES
Car No. Team/Car Best Lap Average Lap
129 LMS Racing Seat Leon 2m 12.198s 2m 14.153s
125 Bas Koeten Audi RS3 2m 12.990s 2m 15.563s
115 Bonk Audi RS3 2m 13.825s 2m 15.872s
303 Red Camel Seat Leon 2m 14.177s 2m 17.188s

Missing from Dubai, but entered for Silverstone are the Team Bleekemolen Seat Leon which won last year’s race by 5 laps (with the same driver line-up), the Team Denmark Hyundai, (featuring Jakob Kristensen), Holmgaard Motorsport with their potentially rapid Golf and Motorsport Developpement, also with a Golf.

Not wanting to put the ‘curse’ on them, but I reckon that Michael Bleekemolen’s family-run team will be a tough act to beat again this year. They proved both in 2016 and 2017 that they had the pace – in 2017 they proved they had the reliability too. Anyone wanting to beat the Dutch squad is going to have to have a fault-free run and be quick in the pits.

Tuesday, 23 January 2018

Dubai 24 hours - Plus ça change?

I was lucky enough to be back in Dubai again a couple of weeks ago, to see the 13th running of the Dubai 24 hours and once again, it got the New Year off to a good start. This was my seventh visit to the race, and the entry was overflowing and as mouth-watering as ever. Race organiser Creventic has spent a good deal of time and energy adjusting the Sporting Regulations for this season, and finally we were to see the fruits of their labours.

Before that though, there was the traditional Welcome barbecue, held on the Wednesday evening prior to the race: this year at the Dubai polo club, since a change of ownership at the Dubai Autodrome precluded the consumption of alcohol on the premises. It was a splendid spread, and in my opinion, the opulent surroundings made for a wonderful atmosphere, compared to sitting in the back of the paddock as we usually did.

I sensed a different atmosphere in the city of Dubai as well this year. For the first time in my experience, building works on new projects seemed to outstrip those abandoned projects from the 2008 financial crisis. That’s not to say it didn’t still make me feel a little uncomfortable – my impression remains that Dubai’s foundations are quite literally built on sand, and the place still lacks heart, for motor sport as well as much else.

That said, the weather this year was particularly pleasant, there was plenty of optimism around and nearly everyone had a smile on their face: a marvellous antidote to a British winter.

Creventic CEO Gerrie Willems was keen to stress that the Touring Car Endurance (TCE) Series was to have its own (simultaneous) race as the GT Endurance Series, but to my eye this was largely a cosmetic change – what we had (as always) was an enormous entry (91 cars, of which 89 started, including one from the pit lane) split into various classes, some of which were for GT machinery, and others were for Touring Cars with various degrees of modification.

The key change, as far as the GT3 classes were concerned, was that the split of A6-Pro and A6-Am no longer involved the need to keep above a “minimum reference lap time”, something that had been a part of the Dubai 24 hours since I first went there in 2012. This led to fewer entries in the A6-Pro class, as teams worked out that running in A6-Am meant a lower minimum weight limit and a higher fuel allocation at each pit stop, for the cost of a combined “Am” driving time of 12 out of 24 hours. In the case of last year’s winning squad from Herberth Motorsport, this meant that both Daniel Alleman and Ralf Bohn would have to drive two hours longer than they had done in 2017, theoretically costing up to two laps, but putting less strain on the car than running in the Pro class.

Doing the maths is often dangerous in planning an assault on an endurance race, as Herberth Motorsport knows well. Being the quickest does not always translate into being the winner, especially when you are surrounded by eighty or ninety other cars. But running without the constraints of minimum reference lap times meant that speed, more than ever in previous years, would be of the essence in this year’s 24 hours.

Indeed, lap times dropped significantly in practice and qualifying, and a new race lap record was inevitable. It is interesting to look at the improvement in times compared to the 2017 race:
Car Best Lap 2017 Average Lap 2017 Best Lap 2018 Average Lap 2018
Manthey Porsche 2m 00.077s 2m 01.3s 1m 59.660s 2m 00.6s
Grasser Lamborghini 1m 59.717s 2m 01.5s 1m 58.199s 2m 00.7s
Black Falcon Mercedes 1m 59.198s 2m 01.5s 1m 58.541s 2m 01.0s
WRT Audi
2m 00.403s 2m 02.4s 1m 58.452s 2m 00.4s
Herberth Porsche 1m 59.516s 2m 01.8s 1m 58.792s 2m 00.9s
Hofor Mercedes 2m 04.605s 2m 05.3s 1m 59.479s 2m 01.2s

It is not my habit on this blog to add too many words to the numbers – they should speak for themselves and I hope readers are smart enough to draw their own conclusions. However, it is probably worth noting that the famous GT3 BOP changes every year, so year-on-year comparisons are not always fair. Here are the alterations from 2017 to 2018.
Car Restrictor Diameter 2017 Restrictor Diameter 2018 Weight 2017 Weight 2018
Audi 2x38.0mm 2x39.0mm 1260kg 1240kg
Lamborghini 2x38.0mm 2x39.0mm 1275kg 1260kg
Mercedes 2x34.5mm 2x36.0mm 1325kg 1330kg
Porsche 2x43.0mm 2x41.5mm 1225kg 1265kg

Use these two tables together to see who you think did the best job at Dubai this year – apart, of course, from Black Falcon, who won, and arguably deserved a one-two finish.

Among Creventic’s other innovations this year was the introduction of a specific class for GT4 cars. In previous years, this class has been combined with SP3, but lessons have been learned and the classes are split this year. Somewhat bizarrely, the Ginetta G55 is eligible for both classes (surely this will change?) and only one example raced as a proper GT4 car. There is, of course, a great deal of interest in GT4 this year; new cars are available for the first time from Mercedes, Audi and BMW, as well as existing offerings from Porsche and Ginetta. As with GT3, the racing is critically dependent on a fair balance of performance, so let’s close this piece with an analysis of the performance of each.
No. Team Car Best Average %age
40 Brookspeed Porsche Cayman 2m 12.777s 2m 14.2s 2.36%
84 Winward/HTP Mercedes AMG GT-R 2m 10.769s 2m 12.6s 1.14%
233 Besagroup Mercedes AMG GT-R 2m 09.581s 2m 11.1s 0.00%
239 Perfection Racing Ginetta G55 2m 11.315s 2m 14.3s 2.44%
241 ALFAB Racing McLaren 570S 2m 11.436s 2m 13.3s 1.68%
247 Phoenix Racing Audi R8 LMS GT 2m 09.682s 2m 11.4s 0.23%
248 Phoenix Racing Audi R8 LMS GT 2m 09.648s 2m 11.2s 0.08%
264 Black Falcon Mercedes AMG GT-R 2m 12.568s 2m 13.9s 2.14%
252 Sorg Rennsport BMW M4 2m 13.109s 2m 15.2s 3.13%
268 3Y Technology BMW M4 2m 11.084s 2m 13.2s 1.60%
269 3Y Technology BMW M4 2m 11.191s 2m 12.7s 1.22%

The BMW is obviously the newest of the crop, so their margin (1.22%) from the best will surely close. The table above doesn’t take account of driver ability, but it seems both the Porsche and Ginetta might need a helping hand at some point. If you can tear yourself away from the Touring Car battles, GT4 looks interesting as well.

Dan Gurney

You might have read my post following the death of John Surtees last year. We’re not even a month into 2018 and the death of Dan Gurney has now been announced. Both men were great drivers in their time, turning their hand successfully to sports cars, formula one as well as team ownership and all that such endeavours entails.

What is especially poignant is that ‘their time’ coincided with my formative years. I’ve written before of my first-hand experience at Brands Hatch in 1967, when both Surtees and Gurney were on the front row for the first race I ever saw. And although any death comes as a shock, it is somehow reassuring to know that both men essentially died of old age.

Not only did both survive the perilous era of my schooldays, but both went on to other things in the sport – the competitive flame burned brightly for many, many years to come. It was through Gurney’s AAR Toyotas that I eventually met the man, but somehow the words “you won the first race I ever saw” got stuck in my throat somewhere – his focus was on the upcoming IMSA race, not on history.

When I visited the Motor Sport Hall of Fame awards in 2016, Dan appeared on a video link and gave a humble but moving acceptance speech. He was undoubtedly frail, but if I am able to conduct myself thus at the age of 84, I’ll be quite happy.

Many eulogies have been written in other places about Dan; by people who knew him better than I, and who are better able to convey in words his impact, influence and legacy on motor racing. To me he was simply the guy in no. 5 who won that first race, on a grey, chilly day when I was 10 years old.

Friday, 15 December 2017

A look back at the 2017 World Endurance Championship

It has been called the end of an era: 2017 will signal the end of the traditional, calendar-driven World Endurance Championship. In future we will need to refer to the Champions as the “2018-2019 winners”, just as we do in football, I suppose. And if the stars align, then there is no reason to suppose that in a few years’ time we will not think anything special of it.

Theoretically, football has a clear ‘season’, in which Premiership matches start in August, and run through to May, but fans will not find it difficult to find matches in the remaining two months of the year. The idea of a year-round season is not unfamiliar to followers of football, as well as other sports.

I just feel that the WEC is losing something, somehow. At the very least, the gains are completely cosmetic and rather artificial. It all smacks a little of moving deck-chairs. What is unclear (to me) is whether we are aboard a sinking ship.

There are two elements to the matter. First, as I have mentioned before, is the move to a championship that ends with the Le Mans 24-hour race. We’ve had 85 Grands Prix d’Endurance, none of which have been the final round of any championship – why the need to make it so now? Second, why do we have to get there via the so-called ‘super-season’ that will incorporate two 24-hour races at Le Mans? I am all for innovation, but I wonder if a couple of non-championship races might have served the purpose better? Or what about a revival of the ‘Coupe Biennale’ concept to score points at Le Mans?

In 1962, the South African GP (for formula one cars) was held in December (29th), and was the final round of the championship for 1962; whereas in 1965 and 1968, it was held in January (on New Year’s Day, to be precise, with practice and qualifying in the previous year) and counted towards the World Drivers’ Championships for 1965 and 1968, respectively. The next championship race of the 1968 season was in Spain on 12th May, meaning that there was more than five months separating the first and second rounds of the season. Considering the final round was on 3rd November in Mexico, 1968 was indeed a long season.

In this context, it all seems rather arbitrary, especially considering that the “super-season” will consist of eight rounds, compared to this season’s nine… inevitably, one is tempted to suspect some other motivation is at work. I fail to see how, in this case, less is more.

But enough of the politics. I have always tended to focus more on individual performances in specific races, rather than on championships. So I am sure that once we get underway with racing in the WEC again next year at Spa-Francorchamps, my enthusiasm will be boiling. In any case, change will surely be a good thing – one of my carps of recent seasons has been the homogeneity of it all.

And I digress. The intention of this post was to look back on the 2017 season, with some numbers which may not have been published elsewhere. In the spirit of change, I thought that a look at the number of racing kilometres covered by the leading cars during the season might be interesting.
Car No. Car Distance
1 Porsche 919 Hybrid 12,429.6kms
2 Porsche 919 Hybrid 13,092.9kms
7 Toyota TS050 - Hybrid 9,981.4kms
8 Toyota TS050 - Hybrid 13,020.5kms

In terms of race distance completed by each driver in LMP1, the results (at least the top ten) were:
Car No. Car Driver Distance %age
8 Toyota Sébastien Buemi 5,197.2kms 39.9%
2 Porsche Brendon Hartley 4,762.8kms 36.4%
2 Porsche Timo Bernhard 4,616.8kms 35.3%
1 Porsche Nick Tandy 4,480.6kms 36.0%
8 Toyota Kazuki Nakajima 4,351.9kms 33.4%
1 Porsche Neel Jani 4,188.4kms 33.7%
7 Toyota Mike Conway 4,026.1kms 40.3%
1 Porsche André Lotterer 3,760.6kms 30.3%
2 Porsche Earl Bamber 3,713.3kms 28.4%
8 Toyota Anthony Davidson 3,311.6kms 25.4%

The final column (%age), is simply the distance that the named driver raced, as a percentage of the total distance completed by that driver’s car. This is interesting, as it shows how each manufacturer may have favoured certain drivers over others, or it shows who had the luck of the draw, or maybe it is an indication of how pushy some drivers are!

Since most of the GTE-Pro teams consisted of two-driver teams, there are some slightly more impressive figures if you look at that class, although this does put into perspective the distance driven by Buemi - and the performance differential between LMP1 and GTE, if you consider the time spent at the wheel.

Here, then, are the top ten drivers, in terms of race distance completed during the season:
Driver Car Distance Time
Frédéric Makowiecki Porsche 911 RSR 5,759.7kms 33h 36m
Alessandro Pier Guidi Ferrari 488 GTE 5,431.7kms 31h 49m
Davide Rigon Ferrari 488 GTE 5,242.9kms 31h 19m
Sébastien Buemi Toyota TS050-Hybrid 5,197.2kms 26h 40m
James Calado Ferrari 488 GTE 5,189.6kms 30h 59m
Sam Bird Ferrari 488 GTE 5,076.3kms 29h 07m
Nikki Thiim Aston Martin Vantage 4,999.7kms 29h 39m
Andy Priaulx Ford GT 4,996.9kms 30h 02m
Olivier Pla Ford GT 4,880.4kms 28h 55m
Marco Sørensen Aston Martin Vantage 4,862.2kms 29h 08m

Some readers might be tempted (as I was) to divide the distance driven by the time spent at the wheel, in order to calculate average speed, and to get some kind of performance ranking. I shirked away from this calculation, on the grounds that, although the time spent driving excludes time spent in the pits (as well as time spent during the red flag periods in Japan), it does not take into account safety car periods, full course yellows or Slow Zones.

Don’t forget that none of these numbers take account of time spent driving the car in practice or qualifying - this is purely the distance actually raced. It is sobering (at this time of year) to consider that Sébastien Buemi spent just over three working days racing at nearly 200km/h for the distance (by road) from Paris to Dakar!

Tuesday, 7 November 2017

Endurance Racing away from the WEC - part 4: Nürburgring 24 hours

Of the nine 24-hour races that my work for enabled me to attend this year, the highlight is obviously the one that gives its name to the show, Le Mans itself. With its massive global audience and standing in the sporting calendar, it is the one race of which most people have heard, and it is the race that I look forward to the most each year.

Since re-vitalising this blog last month, I have looked in turn at the races organised by Creventic, SRO (in particular the Spa 24 hours) and VLN. However, I have made only fleeting reference to the ADAC 24 hours of the Nürburgring.

This year was my tenth at the Nürburgring 24 hours, and it is an important date in my diary. Partly, this has to do with the fact that it is the only truly stand-alone 24-hour race that I go to. All the others ‘belong’ to a championship, or a series in some shape or another, and I find this changes its complexion somewhat.

It has not always been thus, of course. Le Mans has often been a stand-alone race, but the current alliance between the ACO and FIA seems strong, so chances are that the Nürburgring will remain unique in its standing as a one-off race, at least for the foreseeable future.

Having written about the VLN series lately, there is much in common between that series and the N24 race, and the opportunity to drive on (or spectate at) the mighty Nordschleife is certainly a common thread. But the 24 hours raises the whole profile – you only need to be in the area during the time of the 24 hour race and you know something is up. It’s almost as if you can smell the 24-hour race in the air. (Actually that is probably more true than I realised as I wrote it).

What the Nürburgring 24 hour race has in common with the VLN series is its attainability. With such a large grid and four drivers in most cars, there are opportunities aplenty for drivers who have acquired their ‘Nordschleife permit’ to race in one of the world’s greatest races, alongside some of the world’s greatest drivers in some of the world’s greatest GT cars.

The Nürburgring 24 hours is a bit of a moveable feast. It nearly always happens across a bank holiday weekend, sometimes the Corpus Christi holiday and sometimes Ascension Day. Both of these fall on a Thursday, providing spectators an added incentive to spend anything up to a week in their tents, camper-vans and motorhomes, nestled among the woods of the Eifel mountains.

Back at my first N24 in 2008, the ADAC accepted entries from 230 cars, but safety concerns about speed differentials arose, leading to the elimination of the less-powerful touring cars for the 2009 race. Since then, entry numbers have gone down, although never lower than in 2015, when a mere 151 cars lined up on the grid, and an unpopular speed limit at various points of the track was imposed. The two-stage ‘Nordschleife permit’ may also be unpopular in some quarters, but was probably a necessary compromise.

Through all this, the race continues to deliver. In 2016, there was a right old dust-up on the final lap as Maro Engel (against Mercedes’ team orders, apparently) forced his Black Falcon-entered AMG GT3 ahead of the similar car from HTP, driven by Christian Hohenadel, as the two headed out onto the Nordschleife for the final time.

This year, the Eifel weather intervened with less than an hour of the race remaining, after the long-time leader, the Land Motorsport Audi, had fallen back with an electronic problem. Whoever it was in the team that made the final call to fit wet-weather tyres at the final stop was responsible, in the end, for the car’s victory, as others slithered off the track – again, all on the final lap of the race.

Although the racing these last two years has been worthy of a Hollywood drama, it is actually the atmosphere of event that makes it a highlight for me. Media parking is in a wooded copse just opposite the famous Dorint Hotel that overlooks the start-finish line. Once you’ve crossed the road and walked past the famous bronze statue of Fangio and his Maserati 250F celebrating his 1957 win, you then pass through the old paddock. For the duration of the weekend, this becomes a rather noisy and smelly ‘drift arena’, but nevertheless, echoes of the past can still be heard. The historic Fahrerlager was erected with the circuit in 1927, but restored in 2011 and is now a valuable part of the circuit’s heritage. It puts you in the mood as you pass under the track, past slogans commemorating various highlights from the circuit’s history, a wall containing the names of winners and a statue of Wolfgang von Trips in a small garden of remembrance, planted with trees in memorial to other personalities from the past.

Once in the modern-day paddock you enter a seething mass of people, awnings and transporters; hooting tyre trollies, beer-swilling locals and leggy ladies in a constant battle to get to somewhere else. It is easy to get swept along by the tide and impossible not to feel like you’re at some kind of sixties’ funfair.

The sense of chaos continues on the grid – up to three hours before the start, cars are pushed out onto the start-finish straight, and to mill about, as everyone else is doing, is a great way to prepare for the 24-hour marathon ahead, although quite why this might be the case, I can’t explain. Everyone is full of high hopes, agitated with nervous anxiety.

The build-up to Le Mans has become a well-choreographed TV bonanza these days, to my mind at the expense of the enthusiast. If you want to feel part of the event, I suggest you give the Nürburgring a try.

True, some of its sharper teeth have been pulled and I can only imagine that this trend will continue. So the sooner you experience it, the better. There is something very special about endurance racing, especially races over a 24 hour period. The fascination of observing machinery, drivers, engineers and spectators overcoming the fatigue that through-the-night racing offers is a lot of fun, and difficult to describe to those who haven’t experienced it.

Look in the eyes of those who have, though, and you see a connection, an understanding of a common interest. The good thing, is that whatever happens to the World Endurance Championship, there are still races offering all the elements – some would say more – albeit on a slightly less influential stage.

Sunday, 29 October 2017

Endurance Racing away from the WEC - part 3: VLN

It has been interesting – and fun – for me this year to be able to follow, in some detail, the goings-on in the VLN series of endurance races on Nürburgring’s Nordschleife. Just like Creventic’s 24h series that I wrote about recently, the VLN consists of a myriad of classes, with the fastest cars – and overall winners (usually) – being GT3 machinery, but with large fields made up of various other GT and Touring Cars, the speed differentials during races are significant.

The VLN is a funny series, which I have struggled to get my head around at times. The fact that was asked to provide English language commentary for the live TV stream is an indication of its increased profile this year. But consider that the average entry for the nine rounds held this season has been over 150, and with at least four hundred drivers taking part in each race you can see that for those involved, it is a very big deal indeed.

The status that goes with the championship positions should not be overlooked either, although you may be forgiven for saying “who?” in response to a look at the leading championship contenders. Be well-assured that the efforts made to lift the various trophies in the VLN are serious indeed.

Prior to round 8, at the beginning of this month, the lead of the championship was held by Marcel Manheller, but following a fierce battle in the so-called “Barbarossapreis” (VLN-8) the lead for the V4 class changed on the final lap – possibly more than once – and he finished less than half-a-second ahead of the Pixum Adrenalin team car. Despite his maximum points haul of 9.72 points, however, Manheller still dropped from the lead of the championship to fifth in the standings as the drivers of the V5 class winners (for larger-engined “production” cars) Norbert Fischer, Christian Konnerth and Daniel Zils took over the championship lead (by 0.09 points) going into the final round.

This was due to the fact that drivers had to drop their two best scores, and meant that as the cars lined up for the final round last weekend, the championship favourite was Michael Schrey, who had driven all but one round alone in the Bonk Motorsport BMW M235i.

Because more points are available in classes with more starters, Schrey’s objective was to seal the championship by winning his class in the final round, regardless of the efforts in the other classes which had fewer starters.

But even that wasn’t simple, as after just two laps, Schrey brought the BMW into the pits, in order to switch to the TCR-class VW Golf of the Matilda Racing team, co-driven by Andreas Gülden and Benjamin Leuchter. To score points, Michael had to complete just one timed lap: which he did, and ended up winning the championship by a mere 0.2 points (67.47 vs 67.27). Schrey’s championship win was his second in two seasons: he won the 2016 title alongside Alex Mies.

As I said before, the names may not necessarily be familiar ones, but the intensity of competition is no less fierce for that. What I find truly staggering is that no less than 875 drivers’ names appear in the 2017 championship table!

VLN stands for “Veranstaltergemeinschaft Langstreckenpokal Nürburgring”, which roughly translated means “Association of Organisers of Endurance Trophy Nürburgring”. The point is that each round of the championship is organised by a different club. In global terms, this is not really important, but it does mean that the administration of the series is easier – although a lot of responsibility inevitably falls on the VLN organisation itself, and its chief representative Karl Mauer. A great deal of the credit for the success of this year’s series lies with him.

All but one of the rounds take place over a four-hour race duration, the exception being the six-hour ADAC Ruhr-Pokal-Rennen in August. I have had the pleasure of covering five of the rounds this season, in addition to the six-hour “Qualification race” for the ADAC 24 hours, and what has most surprised me is how quickly the time passes, even though we have been watching the races on a TV monitor in London with a sometimes rather flaky link to the timing systems.

The races themselves are an eclectic mix of professional drivers and teams along with the VLN trophy hunters and the weekend warriors, all out on the Nordschleife together.

Another aspect – and a reason why these races are attracting more and more attention – is that you need to have raced on the Nordschleife to get the licence required to participate in the ADAC 24-hours of the Nürburgring: and there are a lot of drivers who want to have that particular box ticked on their CV, whether it be for a chance of outright victory, or just as a wide-eyed participant.

If you should happen to find yourself in that part of Germany when there is a race going on, it’s worth bearing in mind that there is no admission charge to get into the circuit, except if you want to visit the paddock or the grandstands in the start/finish area. Even then, the charge is a “family-friendly” €15.

If the atmosphere is anything like it was twenty-five years ago when I spent a lot of my time there, then it is a great way to spend a Saturday afternoon – especially if the weather is kind.

You might also get to see some of the ‘experimental’ cars that have graced the series this year: Mercedes AMG gave their GT4 car its competition debut in the VLN this year (running in the SPX class, as it was not properly homologated as a GT4). Then in the final two rounds, we saw Manthey Racing with their Porsche 911 GT3 (also running in the SPX, non-homologated class) with Fred Makowiecki and Lars Kern (in round 9) and Kevin Estre and Matteo Cairoli (in round 8) giving the eagle-eyed an opportunity to spy what Stuttgart might have on offer for its 2018 customers.

It is difficult to disentangle the VLN from the ADAC 24-hours of the Nürburgring, but my plan is to do exactly that and to reflect on that race in another post in a week or so.

But before closing this entry, I really want to mention Ben Lyons and his crew at Viken Motorsport, who wrote to me after VLN-4 when Jonny Palmer mentioned a “very-standard looking” BMW being passed by the leaders in the closing stages of that race.

Ben used social media to get in touch, and explain how he had been driving that BMW, and was inspired to enter the VLN following the coverage of endurance racing provided by over the years. Their car is prepared in a tent in Scotland and brought down on a trailer for the three rounds in which Ben competed. He finished 413th in the championship table – nearer the top than the bottom! Check him out on facebook here

I have no doubt that Ben will be back. So will many others, although they will most likely take their inspiration from loftier ideals than But it is the series itself that is the greatest inspiration, and the opportunity it gives to compete on one of the greatest circuits in the world with some of the best drivers in GT racing.

In 2018, the reins of responsibility for the VLN will pass from Karl Mauer to Ralph-Gerald Schlüter and Michael Bork. It is to be hoped that they will continue the tradition and that the VLN continues to thrive.

Tuesday, 17 October 2017

Endurance Racing away from the WEC - part 2: Spa

I wrote last week at length about Crevenitc’s 24H Series, which accounted for five of the 24-hour events that I attended this year.

I also visited Spa-Francorchamps in July for the ‘Total’ Spa 24-hours, the highlight event of the Blancpain GT Series, but also part of the Blancpain GT Series Endurance Cup. The Spa race is also a round of the Blancpain-backed Intercontinental GT Challenge, which also comprises the Bathurst 12 hours, the California 8 hours (held last weekend at Laguna Seca) and the Sepang 12 hours (in December). Creventic is not alone in having multiple and complex championship structures!

Despite the role it plays in various championships, series or cups, for me it is a bit of a stand-alone event, as this year I haven’t visited any of the other Blancpain races.

I always enjoy Spa, it is one of those places from which history oozes all over the place. It is similar to the Nürburgring in that respect, and the two tracks share more than a geographical proximity. Both have been neutered from their original ferocity, but while the Nürburgring is perhaps a little more hardcore (and entirely suitable for its devotees), without any snobbishness intended, I find the towns and villages of the Ardennes surrounding the Spa circuit a touch more cultured and refined.

Just as Creventic achieves a particular ambience at its events, so too there is a ‘Blancpain’ feel to the Spa 24, which is definitely different. The Blancpain series is managed by SRO – Stephane Ratel Organisation – and there is no doubt that the personality of the man at the helm has a role to play. There are some things that SRO treats very differently compared to Creventic – internet connections and timing system data are specific examples – my impression is that the two organisations march to the beat of very different tunes. I know which I prefer, but variety, they say, is the spice of life so in that sense I embrace both.

Back to the race though. The 2017 Spa 24 hours had 63 starters, all but two of which were GT3 cars and as a result, speed differentials were simply not on the same scale as in Creventic races, or the races at the Nürburgring. On the other hand, the parity of competition is part of the appeal of Spa - it was mighty impressive to watch the field thunder through Eau Rouge – or anywhere else around the circuit, come to that.

The Blancpain series comes in for a fair amount of criticism because of the way that the sporting regulations (allegedly) prevent innovative use of strategy. The maximum stint length (65 minutes), the ‘pit stop delta’ (meaning that at Spa this year, the length of pit stops was not allowed to be between 1m 33s and 2m 13s) and the ‘technical pit stop’ (a minimum five-minute stop between the 12th and 15th hour of the race), all reduce the options for team managers.

There are perfectly good reasons for these ideas, but like a lot of ideas with the best intentions, unintended consequences often result. I spoke to one team manager who felt that he was being penalised because the ‘short’ pit stop time did not allow the team to get a full 65-minutes-worth of fuel into the car and thus prevented the team from being able to double-stint the tyres. The fact that his car could easily double-stint a set of tyres (he said), while others were struggling to get a set of Pirellis to last a single stint was an advantage that the organisers were quite clearly trying to neutralise.

To be fair, he had a point, but the whole basis of the Blancpain series is to level the playing field and prevent anyone having an advantage. It is a strategy that has, over the years, ensured the series’ success, at least in terms of numbers of entrants.

It does mean that the effort of individual drivers comes to the forefront: a driver can end up being the thing that makes the difference. No doubt the driving technique required for a GT3 car, with its traction control and ABS, is somewhat specialised, and might also be compromised by the need to have a car that suits the needs of each of the drivers on the crew, but the guy (or girl) at the wheel has to deliver, lap after lap, throughout their stint.

For Stéphane Ratel, it is the cars that are the stars, but for the teams, it is all about the synergy within the team. The mechanics, engineers and drivers all have their part to play, and the differentials are so small that tiny things can have big impacts. Those who excel in SRO racing tend not to be the star names from the WEC or elsewhere, but their expertise is nevertheless sought after, and in my view their efforts deserve to be recognised.

The fastest lap of the Spa 24 hours was set by Markus Winkelhock in the winning Saintéloc Audi, but in terms of average lap times, it was Kevin Estre (Bernhard Porsche 911) and Maxime Soulet (M-Sport Bentley) who were the quickest. Most astonishing of all though, was the endurance shown by Raffaele Marciello in the Akka Mercedes AMG, who was at the wheel for a total driving time of not far short of 14 hours.

What the Blancpain series may lack in terms of class differentials and household names, it more than makes up for in the breadth of different manufacturers involved. Ratel likes to call them ‘brands’, and the off-track involvement of Audi, Mercedes, Nissan, etc. is a key aspect of the marketing of many of the major marques involved. Ratel’s passion has always been for road-going supercars, and he certainly has a knack for attracting paying players to his series.

In return, there is live television coverage, some great circuits and plenty of attractions for spectators who attend the events, whether they arrive in a Ferrari or a Ford.

Historically, the Spa 24 hours was a touring car event, rather than one for GT cars. However, since it has been in its current format, it has blossomed and now occupies an important position in the international racing calendar. Stéphane Ratel surely understands that Spa is the premier event in his portfolio; but he also runs SRO as a business, and will be ruthless if economics demanded. I am sure I am not alone in hoping the event continues to succeed, despite those who don’t hold it in such high esteem.