Alastair Preacher explains why he believes the Nürburgring 24H race is the best endurance race in the world. Yes, even better than the one in France.
It will come as no surprise to hear that the Nürburgring holds a special place for us here at Drive Cult. I’ve personally made the pilgrimage annually for most of the last decade, sometimes up to three or four times per year.
I’ve driven all sorts around the ‘Ring, from stock hot hatches to Porsches and of course my current Elise and race-prepped E30. I’ve even rented an excellent Swift from Rent 4 Ring and have enjoyed passenger laps in some of the wildest and most varied machines going. It’s safe to say I bloody love it. But what about making the trip and not driving? Not even passengering? Would heading out to spectate at a race be fun, or the automotive equivalent of heading up to Islay and being forced to stay off the whisky?
I’ve yet to visit and abstain from driving during Touristenfahrten or a trackday – I think that may be a step too far! However, for the last two years I have been to spectate at the Nürburgring 24H race. And you know what? I bloody loved that too.
It’s not as renowned an endurance race as Le Mans but it has a massive fan base of its own (this year’s race played host to over 230,000 people) and I’d hazard a guess that you’ve heard the stories about how good it is. One of its attractions is that it’s a bit more ‘raw’ and underground than Le Mans and for me this makes it all the better. But what is the core of its appeal? Well, other than four days of racing, vast quantities of German beers, all the sausage you can eat and banging Germanic tunes….
I think it’s simple. There are five distinct things that set it apart for me:
1. The cars
Let’s start with the obvious: cars. Lots of them. The variety of marques racing across the four days is phenomenal. The ‘Young-Timer’ race must have twenty or thirty different types of car alone; mk1 Golfs with the most purposeful stance you’ve ever seen vie for track position into the Karussel alongside Renault Alpines, Escorts, Astras, Jags, classic 911s and even the mighty BMW M1.
Then there are the other support races. This year saw the British GT cars in attendance (on the GP track only) with more Nissan GT-R, Aston Martin and Ferrari car porn than you could shake a stick at, not to mention the hotly-fought Clio/MINI race that tags onto the back of the rather good Porsche Carrera World Cup round that is now a regular feature at the N24 weekend.
However, the main event is obviously the full Nürburgring 24H field. The number of entries was down slightly on last year, but you’d do well to notice given it went from a staggering 250 in 2011 to ‘only’ 190 in 2012. Let’s put those figures in context; with a combined circuit length of 15.5 miles in length and cars being set off in three staggered groups, the leaders will be lapping backmarkers by the third lap of the race.
The N24 features an amazing selection of vehicles spread out across 28 classes and split into 4 divisions.
The top classes see exotica such as the Audi R8 LMS, Porsche 997 GT3 R, BMW Z4 GT3, Mercedes SLS AMG GT3, Aston Martin V12 Zagato, Lexus LFA, Nissan GT-R - the very best GT racing cars. Then as you move down the classes you get Astras, Peugeot RCZs, Mini Coopers, Sciroccos, E46 M3s … the list goes on and on. Oh, and of course the well-loved (and forever-present) Opel Manta GTE.
It’s very much real-world machinery that you or I could buy. Well, OK, sadly I’m unlikely to buy an Audi R8 LMS any time soon, but you can spot very similar cars on the roads, or at a trackday or local clubman race. In fact, it’s so accessible that that some friends of mine are currently building up an E46 M3 to campaign in the German VLN series next year and the N24 the year after.
2. The racing
It’s all very well having a wide variety of desirable racing cars, but what good are they if the racing is processional? Thankfully, the N24 is anything but boring.
There’s nose-to-tail battling and brave/foolish overtakes from the green light, right until the flag drops 24 hours later. This year saw an especially dramatic finish for some. With only a minute to go before the end of the race, the 911 GT3 R of the Wochenspiegel Manthey team slowed dramatically just before the finish line, because crossing the line before the 24hr mark would require completing another lap and their car didn’t have enough fuel on board to do this at race pace. Just before crossing the line, the engine died and couldn’t be restarted. Unfortunately, a fast-approaching Clio didn’t see the stricken 911 and ran into it at full pelt. This meant that the Wochenspiegel 911 couldn’t complete the last lap and hence was not even classified! This incident in the race’s dying seconds was all the more galling for the team, as their car was in 6th place overall before the crash.
Last lap shenanigans aside, it’s still seen as the ultimate driver’s race; something that doesn’t try to appeal to the casual TV viewer by changing the format. In fact, the TV coverage outside of Germany is frankly abysmal, but that just provides yet another good reason to go and watch it live.
Action throughout the field is frenetic. Put 200 cars on the world’s longest and toughest racing circuit, add a performance differential between cars that can border on the ludicrous - there’s a near-100mph speed differential between the leaders and the laggards - then add in crashes, mechanical problems, slow vehicles on track trying to recover others and you have a recipe for action that is unmatched by any other race.
Below are a few classic videos to provide an example of the craziness of it all [NB: not all are from the N24, some are from VLN races, but it’s essentially the same…]
Link to Sean Edwards in Wet at last year’s Carrera World Cup race
Local hero/madman Uwe Altzen in-car action from 2005
Fastest night-time lap from N24 2012
It's exactly how racing should be: fearsome competition and lots of action throughout the field.
3. The track
Core to the racing, yet separate to it, is the track itself. Much has been written about the Nürburgring and how it represents driving nirvana, but less well-covered is the fact that the ‘Ring is a mesmerisingly beautiful place to be, which is a big bonus for the spectator.
In fact, the title of this section should possibly read ‘The track and location’, so impressive is the local scenery. There’s a whopping 600m difference between the highest and lowest points of the track, giving huge elevation changes around the lap.
Click here to see the altitude profile of the circuit below, paying particular attention to the sheer gradient of the line at places such as Flugplatz, Fuchsröhre or Hohe Acht, or the number of ups and downs between Hohe Acht and Schwalbenschwanz. It’s certainly no Snetterton.
Funnily enough, what makes for great driving conditions also adds to the spectator experience as well. Cars float over blind crests, barrel into downhill off-camber corners or crash right in front of your nose with the epic backdrop of Germanic forests, yet you also often have the option of a birds-eye viewpoint to soak it all in for afar.
A crashed McLaren MP4-12C GT3, trackside
A birds-eye view
4. The access
The first time I attended a VLN race at the ‘Ring, I was blown away by the access to the drivers and cars that spectators get. You’re able to wander through pit garages and get onto the grid literally moments before the cars leave for their formation lap. It’s like nothing you’ve seen before. Surely there’s no way they would allow this for 250,000 fans on race day for the circuit’s premier event, the Nürburgring 24H?
But they do. The hour before the race begins, the pitlane and the grid are filled to bursting with spectators eager to get up close with the cars and their drivers. This year I tagged onto the back of a Pirelli rep taking a bunch of Brits on a corporate tour, and before I knew it I was clashing with the refuelling mechanic for space in the garage as he was brimming one of his cars to get out on track! Then it was out onto the grid with masses of fans poring over the cars; harassing/chatting to drivers, taking photos and just soaking up the buzzing atmosphere. Remember this is for a whole hour, and lasts virtually until the cars head out on their parade lap. It’s truly insane.
Love it or hate it, I don’t think there’s anything else like it in the racing world.
Fighting for space with the Z4's fuel rig man
Grid access to the cars is incredible
The unprecedented access doesn’t stop there, either. Trackside access is stunning at the ‘Ring, even without a photographer’s pass. Some might say the access is a little too easy, to the point of being dangerous, but I’m a huge fan of Germany’s staunchly-held views of personal responsibility. Much like driving on the circuit during tourist sessions, as a spectator you’re there at your own risk and it’s up to you to behave in a safe and appropriate manner. This sort of approach to health and safety is very refreshing, and something that is very much a dying trait in the US and UK.
What this means is that with a bit of effort you can get extremely close to the cars as they fly past at full chat. This sort of access is possible at a number of locations, but by far and away my favourite has to be the inside of the Foxhole. The photograph below sums up the N24 perfectly for me – beers, smiles and cars, right in the heart of the action.
As close to the action as possible, in the Foxhole
5. The fans
Last but certainly by no means least, what swings it for me over any of the other reasons above are the fans.
The commitment to the cause displayed by some is frankly heroic. Many die-hard fans rock up a full week before the race and several days before the gates open for vehicles. They hike all their gear to the best spots, set up camp and then build all manner of contraptions to make life in the woods all that more bearable. Then only once the gates actually open on Monday and Tuesday do they drive their cars in!
These micro (and not so micro) dwellings built by these fans never cease to amaze me. It’s like Glastonbury on steroids. I’ve seen several ingenious solutions to getting hot water for showers, several camps have fully plumbed-in facilities, and many have massive projectors showing the race or perhaps a bit of Gran Turismo. There are scaffolding towers that would require serious planning permission in the UK littered all the way round the track. I’ve even seen one German fan with a bucket of tar and a flame gun felt-roofing his abode. One group of fans at Hatzenbach even have a huge Scalextric track for those moments when the racing on track isn’t exciting enough.
This was built just for the race. Note the satellite dish!
Even more incongruous was stumbling through the undergrowth at the Kleine Karussel only to find a huge crowd watching the final of the Champions League cup on a massive screen. I stayed and watched Chelsea win on penalties. It was a surreal experience to say the least!
Kindling and beers
You get the sense that once people have been once, they will always go. They’ll camp at the same place each time too, pitching their camp with typical Germanic precision within a few feet of their spot from the previous year. On both occasions I’ve been to the race, all around the track the craziest Germans were in the same spot, with the same mad toilet setup, the same comically-parked transportation relic from WW2 and the same improbably large pile of empty beer and Jägermeister bottles. I guarantee you they will be there next year, and the year after that. They’ll have the mother of all sound systems and will be pumping out the MOST diverse and questionable music ever created. They will undoubtedly be hammered 24/7, playing drinking games at all hours and doing everything possible to continue the stereotype that every German loves Bratwurst.
Giant screen to watch TV on, but only if you're a girl...
This atmosphere is contagious. You can’t help but get sucked into it. Walking through the forests track and seeing, meeting and drinking with these guys really makes it the best race on the planet. You could almost make an argument for doing this even if there wasn’t a race on!
The fact that you’re probably sharing the event with a bunch of like-minded petrolhead mates is the icing on the cake. It’s like your ideal five-day lads holiday on the beers, with a world-class motor race thrown in for free. It’s the snowboarding/ski holiday for race fans and it’s a must do for any self-respecting car nut.
Your only problem is this: once you go you’ll never want to stop, so you’ve just committed yourself to yet another annual trip to explain to your wife….
Can't see the action? Then build a tower so you can.