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Nurburgring 24 Hours

John Barker
23 Jul 2009

The build-up is over. John Barker faces the Nürburgring 24 Hours, arguably the world's toughest motor race

I have come to the conclusion that it’s all about the ‘big’ corners, the ones that test your resolve, your commitment, your skill and bravery. Every circuit has one or two, and when you get them right it seems to unlock the whole lap and take you to a higher level. Brands Hatch has Paddock Hill Bend, Donington the Craner Curves and Spa the awesome Eau Rouge. And the Nordschleife? Well, there’s that off-camber right on the run down to Hatzenbach, then Flugplatz, the double-apex right, then Schwedenkreuz, Fuchsrohre, the entry to Metzgefeld, the flipping cambers like asphalt waves that lead into Miss-Hit-Miss… and so it goes on. It would be quicker, I reflect glumly, to list the corners I’m happy with…

It’s Thursday teatime, exactly two days before the start of the 37th Nürburgring 24 Hours and I’ve just driven the Scirocco in the dry for the first time. In my allotted two laps during free practice I have discovered that on warm slicks and in brilliant sunshine the Nordschleife feels like a different place – bumpier and narrower because of the extra speed you can carry. And for me, ‘can’ is the operative word. All those tricky corners I’ve tiptoed carefully around on wet tyres in previous soggy visits demand confident commitment for a decent dry lap time, and I don’t yet have it. Being a Nürburgring novice, I expected a steep learning curve, but I seem to have my nose pressed against a sheer cliff. 

A look at the clipboard of Gerard Zyzik, race engineer of ‘my’ Scirocco, start number 114, confirms it – my best lap was a 10.37. Jeez. I went that fast in the damp at the four-hour VLN test race a few weeks ago. Only about a minute to find, then…

There is no pressure from the team, though. Yesterday evening Kris Nissen, director of Volkswagen Motorsport, addressed all 20 drivers in this five-car squad. ‘We need to do our best to put on a big show, to make everyone driving a Volkswagen feel happy,’ he said. But he added that there was no need to try to beat our teammates: ‘You don’t need to impress us. You are here now.’ Then he gave each of us a 1/43 scale model of our Scirocco, with the exact livery, right down to the driver names along the cant-rail. A wonderful memento and an indication of the level of preparation the team brings to the 24-hour race. 

There may be just two events on the works Volkswagen Motorsport team calendar but they’re huge: the Dakar, which it won in January, and the 24 hours. The objective here is to win the ‘SP3T’ class for 2-litre turbo cars (which would make three wins in a row), and also the ‘AT’ class, for alternative drivetrain cars. To this end it has entered two Scirocco GT-24 CNGs (powered by Compressed Natural Gas). I’m sharing 114 with Volkswagen board member Dr Ulrich Hackenberg and journalists Peter Wyss and Bernd Ostmann.

Wyss has taken part in around 20 ‘around the clock’ races at the Ring and says we have to drive our own race and hope that the other gas car, 115, piloted by professional racers Vanina Ickx, Klaus Niedzwiedz, Thomas Klenke and Peter Terting, has issues. Kris Nissen concurs, adding sagely, ‘This is a race you win with your head, not your right foot.’

Wyss is nominated to qualify the car and the first timed practice is drizzly, which is good for the team because when it’s slippery the Scirocco is even more competitive against the Porsches, Audis and BMWs. Wyss has a great run, putting in a lap of 10.41 – we’re fourth Scirocco and 30th out of 170 cars.

The rest of us have to put in two laps in the dark to satisfy the regs and when I go out for mine at 11pm it’s on a shiny wet track. I don’t mind because at least I know what to expect from the car, and it proves to be a marvellous experience. There’s a festival atmosphere, with the occasional firework exploding overhead and the tang of wood smoke or barbequed meat creeping into the cockpit when you’ve punched through wisps of smoke drifting across the track. There are light shows too, making new landmarks around the circuit; at the hairpin before the Karrusell some spectators have arranged a string of lights into a giant arrow pointing helpfully to the tyre wall…

I’m quite pleased with my laps and having crossed the line decide to use my final tour of the rather featureless GP circuit to really test the brakes. In the briefing, technical director Andreas Lautner told us that this year’s brake pads are less instantly responsive but should need changing only once. Push and keep pushing was his advice. So I do and I am amazed: even on wets on a wet track the Scirocco seems to stand on its nose, and without triggering the anti-lock. Wow. At most I’ve been using two thirds of their potential…

There’s a second timed qualifying session after lunch on Friday but in order to preserve the car only Wyss will drive. It’s hot and dry so we’re unlikely to hang on to 30th place. Wyss does a great job once more, nailing a lap of 9.33, and we’re fourth Scirocco again and 49th overall. Impressively, Terting has qualified the other gas car ahead of all the petrol Sciroccos despite its shortfall of 33bhp.

I don’t expect to sleep well the night before the race. For a couple of weeks now when I’ve drifted up out of a deep sleep in the middle of the night to just below the surface of consciousness, my mind has snagged on my apprehension and jolted me awake. Tonight I’m awake at 3.15, and try to send myself off again by imagining a lap of the Nordschleife with more positive braking and more commitment. Well, sheep have never worked for me.

At 4pm Saturday, the first of the three grids comes thundering down the start straight, a mass of noise and colour. The race is on. A few minutes later, grid two, fronted by the Sciroccos, funnels into the first corner. As I’m driver four, I’m not required at our pit until 7pm, which is fine by me. I watch the live TV feed, mesmerised, jaw slack, as Dirk Adorf in the pole-sitting Ford GT fends off the robust attentions of the number one Manthey 911 driven by Marc Lieb. It looks more like the never-ending last lap of a 24-minute race than the first half-dozen of a 24-hour enduro. The driving is outstanding.

As requested, I’m at the pit when our third driver, Bernd Ostmann, gets in for his stint. It’s a long wait. ‘One lap,’ says race engineer Zyzik, eventually, and I get helmeted up. The Scirocco jinks into our lay-by, Ostmann extracts himself and I take the hot seat, which really is toasty. We’ve practised driver changes and I’m strapped in and hooked up to the radio before the gas is recharged and the tyres have been swapped for ones fresh from the tyre warmer.

My tongue tingles – a sure sign I’m nervous – and I press it hard into the roof of my mouth. There’s a hiss of compressed air and the car drops off its air-jacks with a clatter and thud, surprising me. Zyzik steps to one side with the pit board and his calm, French-accented voice comes over the intercom: ‘OK, go. Remember pit lane speed-limiter.’ I select first in the DSG gearbox, squeeze the throttle and thumb the green limiter button. This is it then.

Crossing the line at the pit exit, I hit the limiter button again. The straining, suppressed engine is freed and the Scirocco snaps forward. This feels good, I tell myself after a couple of corners. No, really good, I correct myself after a couple more. I’m taking an easy 20 yards out of previous braking distances and cornering grip is immense – the Scirocco turns instantly and hangs on brilliantly.

Have faith, I tell myself as I clip the apex of the looping, cresting left-hander that joins the clean, wide, sanitised GP circuit to the lumpy, narrow, high-kerbed country road that is the Nordschleife. The first testing corner is the right-hander on the run down to Hatzenback. I elect to back off rather than brake and tell myself to ignore the bumps, expect the off-camber feel and pick up the throttle early. The Scirocco sails through, poised, with more in hand. Bingo! That’s one corner defused. Next up, Flugplatz, the quick double-right-hander close after the crest where the front wheels get air. Again, just a lift rather than a brake, and hang on to those clipping points. Upshot? Sixth gear down to Swedencreuz and 230kph-plus (143mph) on the display. Now, the Foxhole. Flat in sixth? No problem.

And so it goes on around the lap. And on the next lap I trust the Scirocco even more, push it harder, and it pushes back. A couple of the quickest cars come past but not much else and there’s real satisfaction in bagging an M3. I stalk it for half a lap, see it use its superior power to hoof away down the Döttinger Höhe straight, and then reel it in and pass about halfway around the next lap.

I’ve lost track of how many laps I’ve completed but assume I must be close to the end of my stint when I radio in with the gas pressure at the start of the Döttinger Höhe straight once more. ‘OK. Three more laps, John, three more laps,’ says Zyzik. Really? At least I get to enjoy day fading into night and see the carnival atmosphere gradually emerging again, though to be honest I’m concentrating so hard it’s a peripheral feature.

It’s just about dark when I bring the car in. Zyzik says ‘well done’ and as I step away I’m suddenly aware of the effort I’ve been putting in – I feel as pumped, flushed and knackered as I do when I give up on the rowing machine down the gym. I’m sopping wet, too. Phew. Mental note: relax a bit more next time. But I know I won’t, because although I’m a lot further on than in free practice, I’m still climbing that learning curve.

My next stint is scheduled for around 2.30am so I make my way back to the room at the Dorint Hotel I’m sharing with my brother, Chris. It overlooks the main straight and I try to sleep plugged into my iPod but I’m buzzing and the festival of speed is roaring by outside. I’ve just nodded off when my alarm sounds. ‘I think there’s a problem with the timing on your car,’ says Chris. ‘It was up to 40th overall but it’s now dropped right down the order.’  

I find the car being worked on furiously – it’s had a spin and clattered the barrier, requiring a new gearbox seal. It’s a costly stop, and our troubles aren’t over yet. Wyss reports the repaired car feels a little out of sorts but finishes his stint, handing over to Ostmann who then unluckily tags some mid-track debris that loosens the undertray, requiring another 20min stop. So much for our strategy. On the bright side, I’ll be out again in four of five laps…

‘Do you know your car has been hit and lost a wheel?’ asks one of the team. It sounds like a joke but isn’t. What? Are we having the whole team’s bad luck? In the pit garage I find Scirocco 114 on high again, the mechanics working feverishly to fix the damage caused when a Porsche used the right front wheel to help it stop for the right-hander at the end of the start straight.

Two hours later I’m trundling down the pit lane under a sky just turning yellow and pale blue with dawn. I have now been awake for almost 24 hours and I feel great. The car feels great too, but different. Not intrinsically but in detail – the brakes are cold, as are the tyres, and so for a lap or two the car feels looser. On the run down to Schwedenkreuz a whole gaggle of the lead cars come through, including the Manthey number 1 with a low, wide Audi right up its chuff. And then the Scirocco starts to come back and the process of finding more speed through every corner takes hold again.

I. Love. This. 

I radio in at the start of the Döttinger Höhe with a gas pressure of over 20psi and Zyzik asks me to do one more lap. It will be my slowest of the race… Half way round, at Metzgefeld, it feels like someone has pulled the plug. As I coast onto the grass in front of a marshals post I notice that the gas pressure has gone to zero. No! Where has it gone all of a sudden? I radio in as I try to re-start it and the pressure comes up to 3 or 4psi but as soon as I take first gear it drops to zero and the engine dies. Just as a recovery vehicle turns up, Zyzik suggests switching the master switch off and on. It works, pressure building to 9psi, and I wave the tow rope away. Must get to the pits. But just after Breidsheid it stops again, and then three more times, each time taking longer to restart. I wave away another tow rope just in time before eventually, gratefully, getting it back to our pit.

I tramp back to the hotel at 7am in the soft dawn, the rattling of rims and tyres on a trailer being towed by an ATV reminding me of the rattle of bottles on a milk float. I have no trouble sleeping this time. Just before 10.00am my mobile wakes me. ‘Can you be ready in 30 minutes?’ asks Zyzik. Of course, I reply, feeling the deep-rooted aches of exertion and sleep deprivation. Now it feels like a 24-hour race.

As it happens, I don’t get back into the car until after lunch. In this last session, I truly feel that I’m getting the best out of the car and myself. I’m convinced that these will be easily my fastest laps, even though I’ve been requested to shift up at the first shift-light (at not 7000rpm) and run around the top of the Karussell to preserve the undertray.

That off-camber right down to Hatzenback is now taken in fifth with a slight lift. At Schwedenkreuz I arrive at over 150mph, lift a fraction and turn in in sixth, back on the gas. It’s the same at Kesselchen, and from the little jump at Pflanzgarten (brake after the jump now) it’s flat on the throttle for a kilometre, upshifting to sixth before steering a straight line over the blind crest…

It only strikes me later that this is how I drive these big corners on the office PlayStation. And to think, these last few weeks I’d given up on it, thinking I needed to get to know the real thing. Kazunori Yamauchi, respect to you. But to Andreas Lautner, architect of the race Scirocco, and the guys who built and developed it, even bigger respect for creating a car that makes you feel comfortable driving the Nordschleife with the commitment you’d show on an arcade game. What a bloody superb car.

Oh, and those laps in the final session weren’t my fastest. My fourth lap in the very first was, and that 9.41 was the fastest lap the car logged during the whole race, which I’m proud of. But, of course, I can’t help wondering how fast it might have gone with that last-session commitment. OK, OK, I freely admit that in 24 hours I have become a total Ring addict.

At the end we’ve climbed back from around 140th to 101st but I’m not in the least disappointed – it’s been a brilliant, unforgettable experience. The team has achieved its objectives, too: Scirocco 118 driven by Jimmy Johansson, Florian Gruber, Nicki Thiim and Martin Karlhofer has won SP3T and finished 15th overall while the other CNG Scirocco has won the AT class and is just two places behind on 17th overall.

And despite being 101st, Scirocco 114 is still second in the AT class, so Wyss, Ostmann, Dr Hackenberg and I get to stand on the podium in Dunlop caps and spray champagne. I’d much rather feel I’d earned it. Maybe next year? I already have the dates marked in my diary…

Blog as it happened

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