May 31, 2013

Inside Line: the 2013 Nürburgring 24 Hour.

Photo: Jochen Van Cauwenberge/Frozenspeed

The 2013 edition of the Nurburgring classic, the ADAC 24h Rennen got additional exposure through an amazing video on the Drive Network: Leh Keen’s eye view of a dusk lap in the pouring rain, I’m sure you’ve seen it

What you have not have seen is what it was like to drive later in the night, when it was completely dark, the very lap conditions became so bad even the notoriously hairy chested Germans were forced to red flag the race. Have a look.

Scary, yes?

Axis friend Sergio Negroni competed in his seventh 24 hour at the ring. Last year, driving an Aston Martin Vantage, his race came to a premature end when the car was punted off the track by another, spatially challenged competitor.   Like the good maniac he is, he was back again, this time in a much more familiar car.  Driving with him, Alessandro Cremascoli, Massimo Colnago and Andrea Sapino.

2013 was my seventh time at the Eiffel marathon, this time with a car I am much more in tune with with:  a Porsche GT3 Cup, a car I have raced since 2007. While the Porsche holds no secrets for me anymore, the Nürburgring, even after seven attempts at the 24 and countless test laps, always demands the upmost respect.

My comrades in arms on this latest campaign were new to the race, all “gentlemen drivers” without much racing experience, not much time in Porsches but with plenty of 'ring laps under their belts. I must say, they did very, very well.

Read on...

We had been checking every weather app we could find since the beginning of the week, every one gave a different forecast but all were unanimous in announcing rain at some point. My mind went back to the 2007 edition when, at 2AM,  the race was stopped because of fog on the lap I was to step in the car and drive in the dingy darkness. I never got to drive that stint, the car crashed in the fog on the way to the pits.

This year, the race was held starting on Sunday and ending on the Monday, a national holiday in Germany. In hindsight a poor choice as Saturday saw 72 degrees and sunny with perfect track conditions. On Sunday instead, right about the 5 PM start time. rain was expected to come and last through the following day. I was worried for my teammates who had limited practice in a car notorious for being unforgiving if not driven correctly in slippery conditions.

The unpredictable weather at the Eiffel helped us Thursday when all of free practice was on a wet track. I did just two laps to check out the setup on the car, which we had rented from a German race team, and left the bulk of the session for my friends to gain confidence with. I explained to them how to set brake bias for the wet and the correct setting for the 14 position Bosch ABS installed in the car. The 997 Cup has no traction control, a “real man’s car” they say but I confess, it would be very useful to have sometimes.

Night qualifying followed, now on a very wet track. I let the others go first and took the final stint at dusk. On every lap I found nasty accidents and yellow flags everywhere. Rules state a driver must stay under 60km/h for the full yellow flag zone and as of this year, every car was fitted with a GPS to assure compliance, safety first!

Accidents and yellow flags aside, on my qualifying laps I had to contend with thick fog which severely limited visibility. Even knowing the track well, I almost ended up in the barriers at the Small Karussell. I could not see a thing!  On the long Döttinger Höhe straight at 250km/h I had no visibility, I just kept the foot down and pointed straight but it was terrifying. The fog only cleared towards the Antoniusbuche bridge as you approached the GP circuit.

As night fell conditions really became treacherous: it stopped raining but the track stayed wet until the final half hour of the session, fog got even thicker. At that point we decided discretion was the better part of valor and called it a night as good weather was expected for daylight qualifying.

On Saturday, the weather was indeed perfect, I would have fresh tires and a dry track but,  just as I was preparing to go,  the team told me there was an issue with the gearbox, which hd been replaced overnight.

A battle against time started in the pits, we had three hours to get back out and qualify. Waiting with my suit on and helmet ready besides the car,  I understood how Felipe Massa must have felt as mechanics were frantically repairing his Ferrari for qualifying in Monaco.. Mechanics finished the repair with just 10 minutes to go in the session.

I throw myself in the car and out onto the circuit but just as I reached the Nordschleife... a red flag, end of qualifying. My session lasted only two minutes, we would have to take our wet session time and start 80th overall. The race would be all uphill from here.

Weather was threatening at start time, 5 pm Sunday. I take the first stint. It took almost two hours to grid the 200 cars starting. There are 250,000 spectators:  even the seventh time, it’s very exciting.

Despite a sprinkle, everyone was on slicks but knowing full well it would be a busy pit lane soon enough. We had set the car up “full wet”, very soft, certain it would rain.

My first 2 hour stint goes by very quickly. The gearbox on the car felt very different from the standard GT3 cup I’m used to with very long, Le Mans gearing designed to stress the engine less.
I pass quite a few cars, I had a good dice with a Kremer Porsche which, because of a mechanical issue, had started behind us.
The car felt easy, safe, fast, I was having fun even if, with every passing lap, I found more and more and more yellow flags with their 60km/h zones. It’s always more dangerous to pass very slow cars, drivers trying hard never look in their mirrors so I’m constantly flashing my lights, I take a few risks and have a couple of close calls but I end my stint without damage.

Next up, Andrea has his whole stint in the dry without any issues and passes the car to Massimo, the least experienced driver in the group.  Five laps into this third stint, around 9pm,  the skies open up. Massimo manages to get the car safely back to the pits to change over to wet tires. Driving a Porsche Cup on slicks at the Nurburgring is not an easy thing to do, Massimo did well.

Wet tires installed, ABS set to “heavy wet” the car is handed to the fourth driver, Alessandro who completes 12 laps with conditions getting worse and worse. On the radio he tells us the track is becoming hellish, rain tires are getting overwhelmed and he's aquaplaning everywhere. lap times increase by 2 minutes!

It’s coming up to 11 PM, I’m up next but as we waited for Alessandro to come back around, the race was red flagged, just as they did the first time I ran seven years earlier. The track is flooded and we all knew that even if the rain stopped, a thick fog would settle in and running would be suicidal.

It’s a long night, race control is not sure what to do until 3 am when a new 8AM restart time is set.
I’m back in the car around 9:30 am and towards the end of my stint conditions become tricky on a drying track.  Daylight helps, we are running about 50th overall, not bad considering where we started. 

On my penultimate lap I have a “moment”.   On an almost fully dry track I come up on two slower cars fighting for position at Kallenhard. Behind me,  the Manthey Porsche wants by.  I want by.  The other two are side by side when Manthey and I go for it, four wide into the corner.  The speed differential is too big, I have to brake and but start to lose the rear.  I look in the rearview mirror enough to catch a glimpse of my oversteering wing glance one of the slower cars....a miss is as good as a mile, I make it back to the pits.

There are four hours to go, just two stints left. I tell Massimo to keep the revs down and to be extremely careful not to trust the drying track, there are still little stream in places enough to put you in the barriers in a snap.

At that point we are 51st overall and making up ground. Massimo is doing great but towards the end of the stint, he calls on the radio saying the car is making a terrible noise. He's forced to pull off and gets towed to the Pflanzgarten parking lot which at this point, resembles a race car junkyard.  Massimo is crushed but it was not his fault. somehow one of the half-shafts had come loose and bent a control arm, it would have taken too long to repair.  Game over.

I was sorry to once again not be able to finish the race,  more so for my friends who did a great job in horrible conditions and who were really looking forward to a good finish. At the time  we were running 46th overall and the car immediately in front of us,  running the same lap times ended 35th overall. That’s racing.

1 comment:

  1. Great write up Sergio, and great job at the NRing! Its the toughest 24hr race. Good luck next year so you can get to the finish line!
    Hope to join you soon there!


nRelate Posts Only