Autoblog's adventures at the Nurburgring 24-Hour race [spoilers]
The Race, The 'Ring, The G65 AMG, And More
The Audis did what they always do: lurked close to the front, stayed out of trouble, then pounced when everyone else faltered. For the opening stretches the BMW Z4 teams owned it, running 1-2-3 for a while, but all of them hit trouble. When morning came and the race got over its yellow-flag fever, the No. 28 Audi was in front and stayed there. It was the third Nürburgring 24-Hour win for Audi in four years, the brand's first win only coming in 2012. Last year's winner, the Phoenix Audi team that set a race record by doing 159 laps, had both of its cars retire. One hit an oil patch about 12 hours in, spun and was hit by another car behind, taking on too much damage to continue. The other retired with engine issues.
Three cars crashed out of the race while leading, after the rains that weren't supposed to happen, happened about 90 minutes in. The No. 20 Schubert BMW Z4 led the first 50 minutes of the race, hopped a crest at Pflanzgarten, landed in a pool of water, and hit the wall on the 30th lap. Then the No. 30 Frikadelli Porsche, with a driver team that included ex-'Ring Taxi driver Sabine Schmitz, hit the No. 31 Mercedes SLS AMG GT3 on the approach to Carrousel and crashed out. Then the No. 1 Phoenix Audi, last year's winning car, took the lead but hit the wall after that oil patch near Pflanzgarten and was out of the race.
Aston Martin celebrated a class win in the SP8 category with the No. 49 Vantage GT4 N430. This being the tenth anniversary of the Vantage running the Nürburgring-24, this year's car was painted in the same colors as the racecar from ten years ago. What's more, non-executive chairman Ulrich Bez was part of the four-man team, and in his tenth consecutive 'Ring 24-hour race he drove the class-winning racer across the line.
Bentley had a tougher time of it, the factory team watching the No. 84 car spin out of the race at midnight. The No. 85 car got hit in a braking zone and punted into the barriers, spent five hours getting repaired, then set the course on fire to make up 74 places by the checkered flag to finish 72nd. The satellite HPT outfit fared better, getting the No. 11 Continental GT3 into eighth at the finish. We give the Bentleys first place for their exhaust note, though – they sound properly awesome.
The sole Scuderia Cameron Glickenhaus SCG 003C to start the race, called Maccinauno, ran as high as ninth but finished 35th after a standard Honda OEM part failed a few hours in and caused intermittent alternator failures and a pit fire. And the team took a three-minute time penalty for exceeding speed limits. It's not a bad start to the competition life of a revolutionary car, though. The other car, Maccinadue, didn't start after crashing in the rain during practice.
Of course I've seen footage of pro drivers setting record laps at the Nürburgring, and I've even driven this course in a Ferrari 458. Nevertheless, I didn't understand the 'Ring until I went to see this race. If you come to Autoblog regularly to find out about cars, then you must put a trip to the Nürburgring on your bucket list. After all, the reason the 'Ring has such a big footprint here is because every automaker uses it to test cars, and half of our spy shots involve some stretch of autographed tarmac in the evergreen German hills.
The 24-hour race is the automotive version of Rio's Carnivale at 160 mph. If the Romans had been half as adventurous, they'd have had held their chariot races in the Eifel Forest instead of the Colosseum. If you enjoy motorsports, this is the event to see because there's nothing like it anywhere else in the world: a certifiable pre-war racing experience with loads of modern cars that all look like their production counterparts and most of which are driven by 'gentleman' racers. There are so many cars on track that when you look at the on-screen graphic of every runner identified by a blue dot, it looks just like an arcade game.
The pit walk before the start is the length of the entire front straight, and a mob scene. It's more hassle than I ever want to deal with again, but it has to be done once. A track tour on a shuttle bus, making just six or seven stops at various interesting points like Flugplatz, takes 90 minutes. You could run – on foot – the entire Le Mans circuit in that time.
The pits are narrow rectangular boxes that need to service as many as six cars. When drivers pit during the race, they do so at all sorts of crazy angles because there isn't enough room to line up parallel, so the hot pit looks like an airport departures terminal swarming with crew members and racecars.
The closing speeds are intense and it's so tough to pass through all those corners that drivers start flashing their lights at slower cars from the next zip code. Scott Preacher with Team Mathol told us that he checks his side mirrors every five seconds, which gives him three views of a GT3 car closing in on him, and he checks his rearview mirror every 15 seconds. It's the only way to make sure you don't get hit from behind.
There's no way you could race this track without prior experience, which is why the sanctioning body requires all but platinum-level drivers to have previously raced at the 'Ring in order to qualify for this event. Preacher said, "If you make a mistake at a turn, a lot happens before you get back to it. You've got another 171 turns to make, then you've got to remember 'Oh yeah, I want to be eight inches to the right.'" At night, drivers are outdriving their lights through the numerous twisty sections; if they don't absolutely know what the next turn is going to be, they'll run off the track.
When you lose a tire it's a long way back to the pits. For the driver that blew a tire just after the pits, that meant a 25-kilometer trek at crippled speed before he could get it fixed. But he had the crowds to keep him company. There are tens of thousands of people, they are everywhere, and they came to party. It is unbelievable. And I have to do it again next year.
Scott Preacher, the driver who got us to the 'Ring in the first place, cleaned up in the SP10 GT4 class. Team Mathol runs two Aston Martin Vantage V8-GT4 cars, one sponsored by Avia Racing (Avia is a fuel company, like Shell), one by Stadavita (a health company), and Preacher drove both during the race. He finished the race in the Avia Racing car, so he's listed as a class winner among the four-driver team, but he started the race in the Stadavita car that eventually finished second, so he's also listed as second-in-class with that car. They crossed the line 41 st and 43 rd overall out of 102 classified finishers, even after incidents like when the Stadavita car suffered a fuel pump issue on track, so driver Markus Lungstrass got out, ran to a public gas station off track, bought a jerry can and filled it up, then ran back on track and filled the tank. Because that's how you win races at the 'Ring.
AMG Customer Sports
The AMG teams got seven cars into the top 30, but had a hard slog of it in the race. The No. 2 Black Falcon car that qualified second overshot the first corner on the first lap and fell right down the order, then had to leave the race for good after four hours when a driveline issue resulted in its left rear wheel coming completely off the car. Driver Adam Christodoulou tried to repair it trackside, but there's only so much a driver can do with a severed wheel. The No. 5 Black Falcon car shared the lead in the early hours of the race, but gave up the lead when it didn't pit within the mandatory window and had to take a penalty. But that No. 5 car, which qualified in 18th place and didn't have quite the accomplished driver line-up of the others, finished the race in fifth, the last team to accomplish 155 laps.
The AMG GT3
This race was the last Nürburgring 24-Hour go-round for all of current German Big Three entrants: the SLS AMG GT3 and Audi R8 Ultra retire, the BMW Z4 GT3 won't be factory supported. The SLS AMG was more successful on the sales floor than Mercedes expected; it's likely that the brand had no idea how well it would do as an endurance racer either, but it's taken trophies every year in major and minor races around the globe, locking up endurance victories in Dubai, Bathurst, the 'Ring, and Spa in 2013 alone.
We spoke to Tomas Jäger, one of the AMG Customer Sports drivers who also oversees customer relations and who helped develop the AMG GT3. He said that Mercedes will continue to support teams who run the SLS AMG GT3 for ten years with engineering assistance and parts, because it did so well and they sold so many that they expect it to be run for some time. Jäger said also that because yearly running costs are one or two times the purchase price, the long-term support helps owners make the most of their initial investment.
The big change for the AMG GT3 will be its improved agility via its shorter wheelbase, and it will be more efficient in terms of aerodynamics and fuel usage. For the folks writing the checks, AMG wanted to make it less expensive to run than the SLS AMG GT3, with owners able to get more miles out of the car for the same expenditure. Reliability, comfort, and safety systems have been upgraded as well.
The G65 AMG Tour
I spent a week crossing Germany in a G65 AMG as the appetizer to this 'Ring adventure. The 6.0-liter, twin-turbo, 12-cylinder, 604-horsepower Geländewagen is coming our way later this year, so we thought it prudent to make the acquaintance in its homeland first. The AMG versions of the traditional G are mainly lifestyle vehicles, because the wheels, sidepipes, and turbocharged reflexes severely narrow its off-road focus. The question, though, was how the 12-cylinder G65 goes beyond the eight-cylinder G63. The answer is: subtly. The G63 is the boisterous one, whereas the G65 doesn't do any sonorous boasting until you lay deep into the throttle. It's only faster to 62 mph by 0.1 second compared to the G63, yet it needs a lot more gas even when you're only cruising. It has that quilted-leather Designo interior, but you pay for it: 140,000 euros for the G63, 264,000 euros for the G65 (it will cost us $217,900). I can't imagine where that price difference is hiding, but after ten days in The Fatherland I know this: it's tons of fun, and even among posh Teutons it says, "Baller Status." It is absurd as it is necessary. Oh, and that guy in the photo? That's a giant bust of Karl Marx, who would not approve. Review to come.
Sideways At The 'Ring
Having booked my hotel only ten days before the race, I had to throw a rock a long way from the 'Ring to find something open. The German equivalent of Lady Luck came through for me when I got a spot in the Mosel-Landhaus in Briedern, in the Moselle Valley. About 30 miles away, it took less than an hour through a countryside carpeted in deep green grass and bright yellow canola fields to get to the track, and because I came in from the side instead of the main B-roads I was never in any traffic. I barely saw another car until I got to the B258, the road in front of the track, and then it was only a couple of hundred meters to my parking spot.
The Moselle Valley is straight out of a Grimm fable, its steep, deep walls covered in Riesling grapes and a unique, blood red peach used to make dessert wines. The nine-room Mosel-Landhaus in Briedern is owned and run by a fabulous couple, Silvia and Jan, and they took excellent care of me – Silvia made breakfast every morning and packed lunches when I had to leave too early for breakfast. When I wasn't supping on that hospitality, the valley itself is a winding run dotted with other medieval towns and castles, or I'd simply sit in my room next to the river, drinking local wines and meditating on the swans. If you ever get this way, then you must get to the Mosel-Landhaus.
I'll definitely be there next year.
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