If Le Mans is the Oscars of endurance racing, the Nürburgring 24-Hour race is the Screen Actors Guild award – the one voted on by the actors, for the actors. In this case it's the race by the teams and fans, for the teams and fans, even though the increasing manufacturer presence has altered the team equation. We were told that it wasn't so long ago that true privateers could win the overall, but that's not really the case anymore. Front-running teams have heavy factory involvement – Audi Sport Team Phoenix, for instance, which finished in first and third last year, has its own 'Ring race center and is running the 2016 R8; Aston Martin is represented by Aston Martin Racing and Aston Martin Test Center, and Bentley has a Bentley Motors team and uses HPT to run another team.
The fan component hasn't changed, though, and you can't talk about the race for more than 60 seconds before someone brings up the battalions of spectators. Every driver we spoke to cited them as the most incredible part of this race after the track itself. It feels to us like a giant German Sebring, with thousands of people camped out in the ginormous, forested infield, many of whom have been here since Monday erecting their ornate camping compounds. There will be parties everywhere Saturday night, and so much bratwurst on the grill that the drivers can smell it when as they're blasting full speed through Wehrseifen. Even when we drove a Mercedes S63 AMG Coupe on a lap before the race, the fans waved like it was a competition. Scott Preacher's Australian co-driver Robert Thompson said, "You come around a corner and it's like you're driving full speed through the middle of a carnival."
The race field itself could also be called a carnival, with an officially invited field of more than 170 cars. Even on a track that's 24.4-km long, that's like racing on the 405 at midday. The final grid will have 152 cars from 19 manufacturers in 21 different classes. Leading the way on the grid will be the #26 BMW Sports Trophy Team Marc VDS Z4 GT3, ahead of the #2 Black Falcon Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG GT3, and the #20 BMW Sports Trophy Team Schubert Z4 GT3. The German stranglehold on the top ten – four BMWs, four Audis, one Mercedes – is broken up by the #84 Bentley Motors car at number nine. Aston Martin Racing secured spots 12 and 13. The Team Mathol Racing Aston Martin and Stradavita Racing Team Aston Martins that Scott Preacher will drive for Team Mathol are first and fourth in their SP10 class.
The race itself will be a little funky this year due to regulations introduced after last month's accident. The authorities have put speed limits at three zones on the track: the last big straight before the start-finish line has a 250-kilomter-per-hour limit, from Quiddelbacker-Höhe to Flugplatz – where the incident happened – the limit is 200 kph, and from Flugplatz to Schwedenkreuz the limit is 250 kph. The GT3 cars used to book it through the new 250-kph sections at anywhere from 270 kph to 300 kph, and they'll still hit those speeds through Fuchsröhre and after Bergwerk, where it's unlimited.
The upside of the limits is that you can add more downforce to the car and tweak the aero, but there are more downsides. The rules add five seconds to the lap time, and it is harder to pass, since GT3 cars will be limited to the same speeds as cars in slower classes. Team Rowe driver Tomas Jäger told us, "Traffic is always an issue," and that the best laps are the first two since you don't have to deal with other cars. By Lap 4, you're in the mix for the rest of the race and this only makes it worse. For example, where you used to be able to pass slower cars into Flugplatz and through the section of bumpy turns afterward, now you've got to stay with them.
Every car is monitored by race control, and going just one kilometer per hour over the speed limit will result in a time penalty of one minute and thirty two seconds, to be served during a pit stop. Punishment that severe means many cars have limiters set below the 200-kph and 250-kph maximum, just to make sure they don't accidentally go over. Top teams like Black Falcon and Rowe have fitted their SLS AMG GT3 with a button-activated limiter in fourth gear that caps it at 200 kph, and a limiter in fifth and sixth gears that holds it to 250 kph. The Team Mathol drivers, on the other hand, have to maintain their own speeds with their right feet while monitoring a giant, secondary speedometer to the left of their dashboards. It's a less-than-ideal distraction when one is racing.
Cars are set up to handle the bumpy Nordschleife at the expense of the grand prix track. Preacher told us, "If you drove the car just on the GP track you'd think it was a boat." On the other hand, he said, "You couldn't drive a new Porsche 911 GT3 on its stiffest setting on the Nordschleife – you'd bottom out so much." Cars have to be fine-tuned for the undulations; Jäger told us that if you don't bottom out at Pflansgarten your car is set up too softly. Preacher added, "Or you're not going fast enough." Preacher has another factor to consider, being ten kilos heavier than other drivers on the team. He said he has to lift coming out of Carrousel, taking it two or three kph slower, or he bottoms out so badly it sounds like he's ripping the bottom of the car away.
After all of that it's the usual endurance race rules: stay on track. Jäger said that if you can limit your pit stops to tire changes and refueling you can finish in the top five. But it's the 'Ring, and with 24 hours between the start and finish, anything can happen. The weather forecast said there'd be no rain today, but it's been sprinkling for the past few hours. But then, you don't earn the name "The Green Hell" for being predictable. We'll be back tomorrow with a race report.