October 6, 2015

Axis of VLN: Road to the Nürburgring 24.

CG was in Germany last week, popping his VLN cherry! 
Here's the scoop. Enjoy, dream....

I have been visiting the Nürburgring for almost 10 years,  ever since AC and I took a break from a Monaco Grand Prix week for a "quick" drive up from the Riviera in his Ferrari 360... back when speed limits were not as strictly enforced in France.  

That was a great wake up call to the awesomeness and intimidation the 'Ring is.  We survived a few Touristenfahrten laps in the wet with the car in one piece but, it was so slippery we both thought there was something wrong with the car’s tires, but we got good marks from the locals for actually taking a Ferrari out on track rather than just the parking lot.

I have done many pilgrimages to the Nürburgring since,  almost on a yearly basis skipping just a few while focused on racing in the US.   In the past decade,  in part because of Jeremy Clarkson’s 10 minute challenges and the emergence of "Sabine, Queen of The Ring",  Touristenfahrten has become too popular to safely lap at decent speed in a fast car.   Private track days, like those organized by RSR or Destination Nürburgring,  are now the hot ticket,  especially when complemented by renting one of RSR Nurburg’s track weapons, preferably one of Stuttgart finest GT3 du jour. 

Oh! how times have changed from the Alfa 75’s days!

I always saw VLN and the Nürburgring 24 Race as a (perhaps "THE") top item on my bucket list.  With more real track knowledge and experience under my belt, great coaching from the likes of Kevin Estre (check his Nordschleife record lap!!),  more experience of fast car racing in multi class racing traffic at the Daytona 24 Hours and the 12 Hours of Sebring,  I felt I was ready to take on VLN.

Things changed in VLN over the last few years due to the popularity of the series and some serious on-track accidents.  It used to be that any racing license allowed you to go balls out racing at the 'Ring.  Not any more.
Now you need to obtain a B Permit, complete in at least 3 races in a B class Car and finally get the A permit that allows you to drive one of the SP9 class GT3 Spec ground sucking rockets and challenge the likes of Sabine, Manthey Racing or Kevin Estre in his McLaren GT3.

Fortunately, my FIA International B license allowed me a shortcut course for the B Permit and I could get it done all in a single day. 

The goal is entering the N24 in 2016 and I picked a VLN weekend that allowed me some practice during a track day just before the race.

I contacted pro racer and (former) RSR instructor Domenico Solombrino to decide which car and class would be best to race.   Shocker... we decided on the fastest car allowed with B license: BMW’s Cup M235iRacing. 

Cup 5, is where M235iR  compete, is the most numerous and hard fought of the Cup Classes, a good platform to start in VLN if you are used to racing cars as fast or faster.   Best lap times are only 1 minute slower than the leading SP9 classes and just 20 seconds off from GT4. 

The deal to race was arranged with Mathol Racing,  they field two M235i, along with other race cars and have a big organization with proper support (all cars are equal,  no A and B teams).

Race week started with an awesome mountain bike ride around the trails that parallel the Nordschleife.  Stopped at all the signature turns to discuss the racing line and other details with Domenico.   With pedal power the elevation changes feel even more brutal,  the climb from Breidscheid is looooong!  (I think I ended up putting more time on him on that climb on the bike than he put on me on the race car.. but who’s counting… wink, wink, hehehe).

Wrapped up the day with proper dinner of the classic Steak on Stone at the Pistenklause with fellow British track goers. Thanks for the dinner and great conversation guys!

Thursday was the second day of a Destination Nürburgring (run by Axis friend Darren Langeveld) trackday,  the track full of Brits and their track jewels.
Car culture in GB amazes me,  I definitively need to spend a good portion of my future retirement years racing in the UK.  I always see more Brits at the 'Ring than Germans. 

This year I rented a 991 GT3 from our old pal Ron Simons at RSR (Damn! the new GT3 RS was only a few weeks away!). The weather gods helped out and the forecast was all dry and mostly sunny including race day. So lucky as early October tends to be rainy and foggy in the Eifel mountains.

Trackday started mid-morning with some sighting laps with Dom driving to refresh the proper race line at the Nordschleife. Then some 8/10th speed laps with Dom as passenger and,  after 2-3 of those, was ready to start pushing a bit more on my own.

By evening, I had burned through 2 full tanks of gas lapping the Green Hell in the 991 GT3.  Track day rules meant waiting for point-by signal from slower traffic so going for lap times was not the point but I felt very comfortable with the track and, as it is always the case, the GT3 was perfect and faster than anything else out there.

This year, the most popular new car by far was the Cayman GT4, saw at least six or seven of those in different colors but the most impressive car there was the new GT3 RS.   No longer just a stickered-out wide-body job but proper aero and cooling ducts make for a very special, down to business look.  Plus, the size of that rear tire can't be ignored!

That 20 laps in the GT3 made for good warmup for the race car on Friday!

Met Dom early at the track to registered for the morning track session with proper full VLN configuration, the one that allows the use of the Coca Cola chicane, so one can do many laps on just the GP track before heading out to the Northloop.

How was the BMW M235i racecar?  

The good:   It's a great reliable package: strong consistent engine (hard to tell it's a turbo except for the flat torque curve), proper race brakes and very stiff chasis. 
The bad:  Twitchy chassis,  agricultural, flat sounding engine.   The short wheelbase with the wide track makes for some weird rear axle behavior on the limit (Side-skips) and on vertical jumps it likes to “fly" sideways.
You get used to the quirks more easily on the GP track but, on the permanently undulating and oddly cambered  Northloop surface, it makes you think twice.   You have to carefully anticipate almost every jump, with the occasional twitchy reminder that it can all go wrong very quickly!

Went on to the Nordschleife for a few laps with Dom on board and found that  despite dry weather, the shaded areas under trees become wet from early morning dew and don't dry up until it gets sunlight or a healthy dose of traffic.  Usually conditions improve as the morning goes by but that day cold weather made condensation worse and most of the corners on the climb after Breidscheid became more wet later on!

The B Permit theory course was at noon. As with anything in Germany, it's all really about simple rules to follow (a yellow is a yellow and means danger ahead and everyone with a brain should slow down!) and using common sense when being passed or making a pass. They do show you some great videos of what to do but most are examples for what not to do and things going wrong due to a slight (or serious in some cases) lack of judgement.

In the afternoon, self inflicted “technical difficulties" precluded me from lapping the BMW Racecar for my B permit exam, so we took one of the team's V6 class Caymans out. They are a slightly faster class (V6 requiring A permit), but what a difference the handling of that car. On top of the fact that the Cayman is my preferred Porsche and also one of the cars that I have raced the most, this one was soo easy to drive fast on the Northloop. Right away I felt at home, and completed the full 5 timed laps with ease at a moderate pace.

At 6pm got my B Permit signed and was ready for the Race! 6:45 was the driver’s meeting. Largest driver’s room Ive ever been to (2.5X the size of Daytona 24), but how else could it be with 150 cars on grid and 300+ drivers!? Sat close to the front row next to the Works teams and the legends (Sabine, Huisman, Henzler, Farnbacher et al). All the VLN regular teams were there too. There are just a few of the N24 top contestants like McLaren that are not VLN regulars.
Afterwards, went to visit the mechanics working on our car and brought them some pizza to ease off the pain of the late night work.

BIG THANK YOU to ALL the MATHOL Racing team. They did a job beyond the call of duty to get us ready for the race.

VLN qualifying starts at 8:30 and goes through 10am. Both drivers have to put in at least one full timed lap but only the best one counts. Therefore, there was no need for me, the VLN rookie, to go out and do an all-out lap with that insidious morning dew just settling on top  of the scarier shaded fast corners. That’s why you have a Nordschleife Pro as a partner; they take the BIG risks!

Unfortunately, our sister car had difficulties starting up and we got a bit delayed setting up the right radio frequencies and when it came the time for Domenico to do his 1st fast laps, the track was littered with double yellow zones. He logged in one lap for compliance with the rules and came right away for my “rulebook” lap. I proceeded, with due caution, 2 long fast sections (Doettinger Hoe straight and Flugplatz to Schwedenkreuz) still under yellow. Despite conditions, the BMW felt good for the race.
Domenico waited until the last 15 minutes for conditions to improve and a chance at a flyer.  He was in for a very good lap, but ran into traffic and some double yellows on the North Loop.
Nevertheless, he turned a decent 9:35 but that only gave us to place P17 in class and P93 overall. Definitively a very tough field out there.

The team decided that I should start (ooops!), so had one hour to get mentally ready. It takes 45 minutes to sort out the 150 car grid on track, so you spend a good deal of time out there in the car, almost on your own. I was surrounded by mostly M235iRacing's and a few fast Clio Cups, while the famous “Foxtail” was a few grid lanes ahead. The procedure requires for a full installation lap to warm up the tires and then take back your grid positions at the end of the North Loop. There are 2 grid flying starts, the A permit cars (sub 9mins) and then us BPermits with most of the M235iR's leading that pack.

Weather was dry, sunny and cool. Just perfect! The goal was survival for the first few laps, get into my own rhythm and hand over the car to Domenico in perfect shape after 8 laps. I would make a safe start on the GP track and follow my fellow Cup5 competitors to learn a few new tricks behind them through the North Loop....

Plans are just plans.

Warm up lap in place, Race mode on and the racer inside me takes over “my plan”.  All I can see as I start to accelerate into the superwide GP Track is at least 5-6 opportunities to make passes, so I go for ALL of them!
Three years racing at CoTA has taught me that the inside line into a Turn 1 hairpin with a following Turn 2 in the other direction is the worst place to be in a mass flying start.  I go for the outside line, braking at least 20meters (half a track width) later and made up a few positions, and then a few more in other sweepers on the GP track. So there goes my plan through the window. I find myself with only faster cars up front and a pack of more experienced Cup 5 competitors following me on to the NorthLoop.

I wasn’t prepared to do my first race lap ever in the VLN at 101% on the Nordschleife. I set on a pace to guarantee 1st lap survival and try to be as defensive as posible without being obtrusive or annoying. I concede 3 of the 6-7 positions I made, and got back safe into the GP Track for Lap 2.
Wasn't prepared to go all out on the NorthLoop engaging in tight dogfights for positions just yet.

Lap 2 found a rhythm and by the end of the lap, the SP9-SPX leader traffic got into my mirrors just before coming out of the North Loop. Had to lift in the final 2 corners to allow 3 successive SP9 SPX cars to go by and lost a bit of momentum that the leader of the Clio Cup class used as an opportunity to get into my rear bumper by the end of the straight. I saw him, so braked to make the hairpin turn at least 2 car widths wider than Apex. He needed 4!. Basically ended up braking into my rear bumper with his left tire and punted me into a spin. Corrected on time to no avail. There;s no clutch or anti-stall in the BMWCup so the car engine died in the spin (that’s when you realize that Ferrari’s are AWESOME by allowing selecting neutral by pulling both paddles simultaneously). For some unexplained reason, the engine starter didnt react to the start/stop switch. Radio to the team, and still no start. Cycled the master switch off and on again and finally the engine came alive.

The M Performance steering wheel (same you can get for your F80 M3) allows to monitor coolant and oil temp. All seemed fine, with just a bit out of alignment and maybe a flat spot in the rear tires.

Nevertheless, the team radioed me to come in and make an overall Checkup of the car. So slow lap making sure Car was good and the early stop put us out of sequence on refueling. So instead of one 8 lap stint, ended up making 1.3 stints or 300kms before handing over the car in one piece (sans tire donut in the rear bumper) to Domenico.
It was a brutal physical and mental effort to be almost two hours in the car. I found a great rhythm of laps in the 9:40s and up to 9:50s when filled with more than the usual yellow zones. For the first time ever I monitored my HR while racing, and the average bpms were just 92bpm with a max of 112bpm. It is proof that Im more the cool headed calmed racer type than a hot headed hyper one. I went from P17 to P21 with the spin and recovered to P14 at the end of my stint.
In the process had a good time dealing with traffic and good fight with another CUP5 car and even was able to pass a 997Cup (Cup2 class) on the NorhLoop .

While Dom drove his 8 laps moving us up from P15 to P12,  I had lunch, hydrated myself and got mentally ready to push a bit more in my last stint.  We lost one position during our second fuel stop and I got back in for the final 5 lap stint to the end of the race.

Despite dealing with traffic from behind and in front, and yellow flag sections, I was able to lap with not much effort or risk in the 9:30s.    I was very happy with that result and crossed the finish line safely. full of enjoyment and probably for the first time ever in a car race, not caring at all for my finishing position, just delighted for having experienced the most intense racing experience ever, on the hardest and toughest track on earth.

Now, I can say that I kind of know my way around the Nordschleife. Nevertheless, there’s still a lot more to learn, and that’s why there’s only one thing on my racing mind now and is to go back for more, including a 2016 attempt to complete the famous N24!

Looking back, the challenge of racing VLN initially feels completely unattainable.  I’m used to dealing with slower and faster traffic having raced the Sebring 12 Hours.   You got used to the “ghost lights” of the Audi LMP1 demons approaching from 500mts back on the back straight and then passing you left and right, 100kph FASTER, while you were on the knife’s edge of grip bouncing through Turn 17 at night.

However the Nürburgring does not allow for being even 30 centimeters “off-line”.
One untimely glimpse in the mirror, a twitch of the steering, a hiccup brushing the brakes and you have two wheels off on grass,  one meter away from  a race-ending crash into the Armco and a guaranteed 50,000 views on YouTube  (500K hits if Axis’s Ol’pal Dale at BTG catches that video and immortalizes you in Social Media).

However, after almost 3 hours at race pace, I can certainly say I felt in the zone. The racing line and all it takes to get it right (steering inputs with millimetric precision, brake pressure adjusted to the vertical jumps and compressions and timely use of the throttle to manage weight transfer), the traffic ahead, the lights of the SP9 cars demanding a way through,  it all blends in into a natural zone of deep concentration and you realize you can keep doing this forever (well, cycling and triathlon fitness shape does help too!).

I definitively want to do it as much as I can, so the VLN and its Nordschleife are now a permanent staple into my future racing calendar…

Stay tuned for more!

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