MR is at the Nurburgring 24 Hour race this weekened – and @richardaucock will be regularly reporting as we dive into our first experience of the must-see motor race for petrolheads…
Sunday, 2000h: Frankfurt Airport
So that was the N24 2014 – my first N24, far from the last. This is a fantastic event, one with motorsport passion in glorious evidence. None of the crowding, the boorishness and sprawl of Le Mans, just enthusiasm everywhere, a cheery vibe throughout – and some great, great racing.
The concept sounds mad – hundreds of cars, mile upon mile of the world’s most challenging racetrack – and this is why it works so well. There’s always a touch and go lapping manoeuvre going on somewhere, always some heroics, always a race car or race driver being visibly challenged by this unforgiving mecca.
Watching passionate motorsport with passionate German fans is wonderful too. They do it well – more relaxed than we brits, better prepared, far happier to show enthusiastic support, well, whenever they feel like it.
The final few hours were a rush – we had a flight to catch so had to leave on the dot at 4pm to miss the infamous traffic crowding. The final minutes flew past with an edge-of-seat battle between the #007 Aston and its BMW Z4 GT3 nemesis: Aston nabbed the place with a few laps to spare and held on with some outrageously brave moves through the traffic by Pedro Lamy. The team deserved more, because the car was as fast as the front-runners (pitstop issues let it down, including the one I spotted yesterday…) but it’s still happy with a top five spot.
There were three class podiums too – yup, Chris Harris and Dickie Meaden, with Andreas Gulden and Oliver Mathai, scored second on the Aston Martin Vantage N430’s debut race. It’s been a pleasure to follow them and hats off to them for coming up trumps – a chat with Dickie revealed just how hairy it was, particularly at night…
As you can probably tell, I’m now an N24 convert. A loyal supporter who’s already counting the days to next year. A flight to catch means I’ve got plenty of time to reflect on the highlights, and plenty of satisfaction that there were so many. Only a year to go; bring it on.
Sunday, 1400h: Pit Lane
Ah, a crowd of people and a brightly coloured Dodge Viper. What could they be looking at? Seems like a bit of damage has caught their attention.
A bit? And then some. This is what happens when race cars get involved in prangs – big, hard, solid pieces of metal get broken, major parts of the car’s structure get bent, the lot. There’s no way this could ever be fixed trackside, so on a trailer back home it goes.
But there’s more. Remember yesterday, how I mentioned a car had ‘missed’ yellow flags, hit a MINI Cooper S and nearly swiped the officials’ incident car? This was that car. Want to see an extraordinary incident that earned the driver exclusion from the event and possibly more sanctions on top of that? Then watch this and gasp…
Sunday, 1200h: Pit lane
This is fantastic: Michelin is giving away tyres. All its old Ring race tyres are up for grabs – simply head over to the Michelin truck and they’ll let you choose one and roll it away.
Even better, they brand it with a map of the Nurburgring too, so people know it’s genuine Ring rubber.
I’d earlier noticed a few people walking round with tyres and assumed they’d had a chat with a friendly marshall, but no – Michelin’s officially doing it and, judging by the amount of people now walking round with tyres, is doing a roaring (free) trade. Makes sense: why lug old tyres back to base with you when you’ve hundreds of thousands of race fans more than happy to take them off your hands?
I was sorely tempted, I admit. But we’re flying back and I’m not sure that baggage would accept an old race tyre. Certainly couldn’t carry it on and get it in the overhead locker, either. Guess I’ll just have to drive over next year.
Sunday, 0850h: Pit lane
Some things I’ve spotted: the very cool number plate on the McLaren GT3 truck.
Audi’s massive hospitality, er, complex (empty at 4am, mind).
The sad sight of a hobbled Jota Mazda.
Some very cool overalls.
Oh, and imagine if the N24 ran out of fuel? Luckily, not going to happen.
Sunday, 0645h: Aston Martin update
Aston was in a good place as the sun rose; the Vantage GT3 was in eighth place (up to sixth at the time of writing) and all the race-spec production cars were in podium positions. Aston’s head of motorsport David King made a fine understatement, too: “The first half of the race has been quite chaotic out on the Nordschleife and many teams have been forced to retire, but our crews and drivers have all done a fantastic job to keep our cars going.”
Mucke actually suffered a puncture int the V12 GT3 car, near the end of a double-stint, but he got back to the pits for a tyre change and was back out OK. “The puncture was a shame,” said King. “We were on a real charge and making fantastic progress and this has put us back a little. However, to be firmly inside the top ten at the halfway mark is good and the drivers and team are doing a solid job to keep the car going despite some incredibly tough racing conditions.”
As mentioned a little while ago, Radio Le Mans reckon it’s actually very well placed. Could a podium be in sight? That would be quite something, but probably deserved for the way it sounds alone. V12s in motorsport are a very good thing…
Sunday, 0530h, The Pits
I was up for dawn and am just about to enjoy sunrise. The thing about holding a race on the longest day of the year is that the time that it’s actually dark isn’t all that great. Even gone 10pm there was still light, and it was certainly dawn-ey before 4pm this morning.
I’ve been sitting outside in the morning chill watching the racing, cars pounding solidly on. Even in the corners I watched, there seemed to be a few mistakes, and Radio Le Mans reports some of the top drivers are complaining that others are getting a bit dozy out there.
Rather worryingly, I didn’t spot Harris and Meaden’s Aston. But I did on my return to the pits – it’s in the garage, with work going on beneath. Not sure what’s happened there as there’s nobody round to ask. I kept an eye on it, as they seemed to be intent on it going out again, and sure enough, it’s out again now. Phew.
There are only five cars on the lead lap now and Aston’s 007 GT3 car is in sixth, well placed to pounce for a possible podium if any of the cars in front hit trouble, reckons RLM. Fingers crossed.
More generally, what’s really impressed me is how many people are out there. All the party-goers seem to have gone to bed and it’s the committed pros that are pounding the pit lane and grandstands, in surprising force.
Right now, adds RLM, this the morning happy hour: dawn is breaking, the air is thick and conditions are perfect to put in some fast laps. Looking forward finding out.
10 hours to go, it’s 30 changes of lead and counting…
Saturday, 2300h, The Forest
Germany had a World Cup match today. You certainly knew it: you couldn’t miss it. Forget the N24 for 90 minutes – literally, in the Aston Martin Dorint Base Camp, where the big race live feed was switched off and the TV feed from Brazil was showcased instead. The room was glued to it, too.
As indeed was most of the pitlane. Drinks stands with tiny TV monitors were doing roaring trade. Oh, and merchandise vendors.
Throughout the pitlane, mechanics were flicking between live race timings and the football, and the cheer as I walked past Michelin when Germany scored drowned out even the wonderful-sounding (and class-leading) Lexus LFA and Aston Martin GT3.
By now, the sun had set. I continued to mooch around, touching base with Matt from PH, watching the Radio Le Mans handover (John was in to take us through from Saturday to Sunday) and then deciding to trek over to the campsites, and the forest. Scary stuff, I’d heard. Know what? It was nothing of the sort.
Why? Because I didn’t go to the really scary campsites and didn’t walk too deep into the forest. And because most of them were… watching the football! It was remarkably quiet and peaceful, because every tent, awning and estate car seemed to have a TV or radio surrounded by race fans. I’m sure it livened up later but, as we ticked past 11pm, everything was genteel in Germany.
Plan’s to catch a few hours’ kip though. I want to be awake and sharp for sunrise, my favourite period of 24 hour racing, and don’t want to be flagging at 3am…
Saturday, 2045h, A Grandstand
I’ve been touring. There was a plan to head over to Adenau, but a few phone gremlins saw me remain within touching distance of wifi instead. I think I made the right choice; I reached the Aston Martin Lounge for a wifi reset just in time to see Chris Harris jump in, fuel up and go out. He certainly left the garage with no little purpose, and is currently holding fourth place in class: plan to catch up with Dickie Meaden when I can, to find out what it’s like out there – they’re in the top 50 so are running pretty well.
Straight after Chris went out, the #7 GT3 Aston came in. There was a bit of a pit lane jam so he used the neighbouring team’s pit box instead. As I watched the scramble, shock – a flash fire erupted as they refuelled. Scary stuff with vicious flames, but here’s how quickly it was out: between unlocking my phone and getting the shot, the fire had been extinguished. Marvellous teamwork there; the car lost perhaps 20 seconds while they cleaned off the foam, then it was out as if nothing had happened. Corking work.
After that drama, I went for a mooch. I saw the first of many dogs in the pit lane.
I saw yet another beer stand (0.3 litres of Bitburger, €3).
I saw the Nurburg Castle from afar, and thought, ‘I’ve been there’ (and have the leg aches).
I saw the racing from one of the many grandstands with the sun starting to set ahead of me, and realised the one problem of English-speakers watching racing abroad is the lack of commentary in your language. Radio Le Mans calling!
Saturday, 1800h, Nurburg Castle
I forgot how steep the climb to Nurburg Castle was, but the view was worth it. I wasn’t the only one trekking up there, although I was the only one jogging up there. You can see it for many tens of kilometres away so it’s always a treat to run up there: doubly so when the N24 is on. I’ll certainly have to make it a regular thing, because the views are stunning.
Mind you, it’s so high up, it’s not the best place to actually watch the racing; you can see where the track is, but you can’t see a thing on it…
Saturday, 1700h, Aston Martin Lounge
What a start to the race that was. Getting 170-odd cars underway for 24 hours is more akin to a military operation. Timings must be spot on, organisation perfect – and all the drivers incredibly well behaved. The mostly were, too: yup, they waited until the race had actually started to begin their ‘incidents’.
I thought of the phrase ‘to finish first, first you must finish’ when I saw Nick Heidfeld clobber someone in his Nissan GT-R, the group 3 BMWs start rubbing doorhandles on the start/finish literally as the race got underway… but then all hell broke lose and my concentration was solely on the monitors.
Leader Kevin Estre tagging a lapped car and forcing it into a spin that took out one of the GT3 Mercedes? Another SLS AMG losing it on the way into the GP circuit esses and hobbling a Porsche GT3? A Viper missing the yellow flags, locking up, hitting a MINI Cooper S, almost hitting the safety car and then nailing the barriers himself? And that was only a taster.
That last incident was the nastiest, and could have resulted in a badly injured track marshall, or worse. Heart in mouth stuff to watch – which is why I was unable to leave the Aston Martin lounge for the first hour. Each time I got up, something else flashed on the monitors that I had to watch.
Endurance races shouldn’t be like this! They should be measured, tactical things; I’m glad that it is, but boy, if it carries on like this, there’s going to be a lot of wounded cars and a lot of tired mechanics before long…
I’ve now actually left the lounge, though, and am going to go for a quick explore and bearings-check in a novel way: by going for a jog. I have my Nurburgring ‘route’ so will be setting Strava and seeing where’s best to go and explore later. Well, that’s the theory: shoes on and off to find out.
Saturday, 1500h, Dorint Base Camp
Fresh back from 300km in the Aston Martin Vantage N430. Of which I can’t yet tell you anything about – but I can show you a picture. Here it is. Quite a varied line-up, no?
There are five colour combinations available: green and yellow, blue and red, black and grey, white and red, silver and white. We had the black ‘n grey one, which is already proving a popular choice with those pre-ordering (production doesn’t start until next week).
It’s been a sublime morning’s driving – truly fantastic. The roads around here really are brilliant: quiet, top quality and with sequences to die for. They just keep on coming, too – it’s almost good road overload, just as the Norsdschelife itself is racetrack overload. If you want a top destination for a driving holiday, come here: the scenery’s stunning, too.
Now it’s a bit of a rush as the race starts in an hour and I want to soak up as much as possible. Catch you on the other side (of the track)…
Saturday, 0745h, Dorint Base Camp
The race starts at 1600h, but we won’t be lacking for anything to do: the drive of the N430 is this morning, taking in the divine roads that surround the Nurburgring. The drive itself has an online publishing embargo of Sunday midnight, but there’s nothing stopping me sharing a few snapshots on Twitter, so stay tuned…
Saturday, 0730h, Dorint Base Camp
Yesterday was a rush, and not just the thrill of qualifying, although that was pretty exciting. For the N24, the top 30 fastest cars get to take part in a two-lap shootout on Saturday evening. They line up on the grid in one long line along the ‘new’ circuit pit straight (from where we watched via the Aston Martin lounge), then set off at 20 second intervals. Being the Nordschleife, the the first lap is not technically a warm up lap, but a sighting lap; 17 minutes later, the first car was back to start their flying lap.
Of course, being racing drivers, competitive advantage was sought, so the grid was both spread out and rather unevenly spread – some were In a gaggle, others took a worrying age to appear.
Now, rather brilliantly, Aston Martin as hosting Radio Le Mans, whose commentator John Hindhaugh was in fine form. He and Paul Trussler were feeling live to the world, and also to us, so we were able to track everything that was going on. You know how relaxed it sounds when you’re listening to it? Believe me, the amount of monitors, live feeds, pieces of paper, conversations from spotters and Twitter-following that goes on is remarkable. They certainly do work hard.
So we were fully in the picture as the lap record was broken, then broken again, then smashed as Kevin Estre set an 8m 10s time in the McLaren 12C GT3. Aston was in the shootout with the Vantage GT3, driven by Stefan Mucke, and he was in a rather decent 17th place after the first lap. All was good.
Given the length of the lap, and the life a hot lap takes out of the tyres, no surprises seemed to come on the second lap, with car after car staying where they were. That was until the Aston popped up in the top 10! From 17th to 9th, the big surprise of the session… John actually had to prompt the room to cheer as nobody was expecting it. Impressive stuff.
From there, we ducked into the team pit garage, where I grabbed a quick hello with Chris Harris. He seemed remarkably calm for a journo on the eve of the N24; looking at the sheer scale of the operation, the track, the sheer speed differential between the fastest and slowest cars, the nighttime darkness, the weather, the mooted 400,000 spectators, I certainly wouldn’t be. It was also slightly random to see an Opel Astra OPC sharing the garage with the Astons; because there are 175 cars running, it’s five to a garage and no matter if you’re in the same team or not…
Where else after that but Pistonklause? And what else to eat but fillet steak on a stone? It was corking, too: €20 cannot buy a finer dinner in this part of the world. The restaurant was packed, full of a multitude of teams, and the Aston crew took up an entire wing. Then back to the hotel for a quick couple of beers (in the implausible hotel bar – both heavily Motorsport-themed and, in a blast from the paste, smoke-filled due to Germany’s different laws on smoking indoors) before bed.
We all slept wonderfully until a rather cheery German noisily came back at 4.30am. Nobody’s expecting him to wake again any time soon…
Friday,1700h: Aston Martin pit lane hospitality
Straight to the track for the top 30 shootout. The walk to the pits has been eye opening – it’s packed, cramped, rich with exotica, generally a Motorsport fan’s dream.
Radio Le Mans are here, commentating live. Normally I listen to them online – now I can listen to them live! And am doing right now – qualifying is about to begin…
Friday, 1600h: Press accreditation centre
If only all press accreditation sign-ups were this simple. We pulled up, showed ID, got our lanyards. In and out in five minutes. With a piece of plastic magic round our necks.
En route, I spotted some penguins by the side of the road. They only come out for the N24 in this part of the world, you know.
Friday, 1400h: The A3
Lisa from Aston met us and reported that it rained half way through qualifying last night, but that ‘Dr. Bez looked happy so we must be doing OK. He loves this place, is absolutely in his element.’ Comprehensively disproving the myth that top execs don’t show passion.
We’re headed now to get our media accreditation so I’m writing, rather implausibly, from the back of a Chrysler Grand Voyager. It feels like it’s had better days but it has Aston Martin branding on the side so that’s ok. Matt and I feel a bit like contestants on The Apprentice. Dr. Bez can be Lord Sugar and grill us on our performance in this afternoon’s task – yes, there was mention once again of that challenge in the pits.
It’s confirmed that tonight WILL be steak on a stone, then it’s early to the Aston Martin Nurburgring test centre tomorrow morning to drive the N430. Here’s hoping we don’t get stuck in traffic and miss the start of the race – although by the sounds of it, most of the expected 400,000 spectators are already there. ‘They’re camping everywhere, even by the side of the road.’
How will they take to being woken up early tomorrow by a rorty V8, I wonder? Possibly, they won’t notice: the festival spirit, by all accounts, is already (literally) flowing…
Friday 20 June, 0930: Heathrow
Checked in, waiting in departures, impossibly excited. I’m headed out with Aston Martin for my first experience of racing on the full Nurburgring Nordschleife, just a few months after my first experience of learning how to drive it. This is becoming the year of the Ring for me: how fantastic.
The plan is straightforward: fly out today, dive into a team challenge tonight before heading to the Pistenklause for dinner, then drive the new Aston Martin V8 Vantage N430 tomorrow morning before trotting over to the circuit for the race. Perfect.
We’re staying at the Dorint hotel right next to the circuit too – well, I say ‘staying’: word is we’ve actually got tents in a big conference room (all part of the N24 experience). Not that sleep is too high on my agenda – no point in going to a 24 hour race if you’re not going to stay up and experience as much of it as possible, is there? Besides, nothing beats the satisfaction of staying up and watching the racing as the sun rises (who needs Ibiza, etc).
Aston’s planning a full attack for the N24 this year, including journalists Chris Harris and Richard Meaden taking to the wheel. Look forward to catching up with ’em and hearing how it’s going – with no little envy, let me tell you.
The plan here is for me to report on everything I see, sample and experience (yes, including dinner at the Pistenklause). Keep coming back if you want to see how a total N24 newbie gets on – including a trip into the forests tomorrow night…