Of the nine 24-hour races that my work for radiolemans.com 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.