Le Mans may be the biggest endurance race in the world, but this year it clashed with another day-long spectacular a few hundred miles away on arguably the world's most challenging circuit--the Nordschleife. And while the open-topped prototypes at la Sarthe have their own appeal, the racing in Germany is more spectacular and the variety of machines on show is something else. Le Mans would have to wait for next year.
It was a wise choice. While Le Mans followed the predictable pattern of an Audi one-two-three in perfect conditions, the Nubürgiring 24 Hours was blitzed by rain, providing one of the most entertaining races in years. In the end it was still a walkover, with BMW claiming its 17th victory in Germany's premier endurance race in a one-two finish. Racing legend Hans-Joachim Stuck, Jorg and Dirk Muller drove the winning car, while North American Boris Said III shared the second car with touring car star Duncan Huisman and former F1 pilot Pedro Lamy.
An untrained observer would struggle to differentiate between some of the cars in France without the logos and paintwork. Here a BMW M3 mixed it with an Opel Astra DTM an Audi TT, a highly modified Porsche 996, a Chrysler Viper, a Nissan Skyline and even a Jaguar-clad V8 starred in the opening hours. This was a real race: GTs vs DTM vs something in between on the toughest circuit in Europe. It's a clash of styles and approaches that rarely happens in this world.
And the track adds a large helping of spice to the unique flavour of the event. This circuit makes Le Mans look easy thanks to its tortuous twists, rollercoaster undulations and a margin for error so thin it barely registers on the page.
One lap in the dry is an emotional experience. Add intermittent driving rain, darkness, a blanket of fog and fatigue and this small corner of the Eifel Mountains becomes as welcoming as a bed of broken glass. If Le Mans is a marathon, this is an Iron Man event.
A total of 210 cars started the race, in three separate groups and 18 different classes, and everything from the aforementioned stars to a virtually standard Mercedes 190, still with its Taxi livery from its former life taking fares in Frankfurt, turned out to play on the 14-mile circuit. There were even open-topped machines, including a Morgan, which couldn't have been fun in the rain.
Hobby racers enter this race for kicks, to take on the Everest of motorsport, and they are more than welcome. Their presence takes this event beyond the serious business of professional racing and turns it into a carnival--the biggest club race in the world with some serious teams there as well. It's an excuse for 200,000 Germans to get drunk for a weekend and watch cars blat round this legendary circuit.
It also turns the paddock into a refugee camp for the weekend. By the time morning rolled in grimy men, women and children snatched sleep in cars, chairs and even on the floor under plastic sheeting while 500-bhp racing cars fired up just meters away. Trucks and borrowed awnings sit back-to-back throughout the paddock. People walk precariously under the hydraulic loading bays of trucks and mechanics run through crowds with replacement parts, pushing crowds out of the way in a desperate bid to reach their car in record time. It is mayhem.
The "amateurs" are mostly seasoned club racers and professional racers often join forces with minor outfits just to take part, so amateur is always a relative term. The aim is merely to finish, to get to the end of this odyssey. Beating each other is almost irrelevant, as those that stopped to push stricken cars over the line with their own machines proved. One of the crueller aspects of this race is that if you're not running at the end then you're not classified, as Dario Franchitti's younger brother Marino found out to his cost.
Franchitti was entered in Land Motorsport's Porsche, together with veterans Franz Konrad and Marc Basseng. The young Scot had completed just nine laps of this 157-corner track before the race, but he his team-mates managed to keep the car on the asphalt, bar an off in the rain, more or less, and up to speed for 22 out of the 24 hours and they were running sixth overall. Then disaster struck, the clutch blew and, as it takes three hours to replace, their race was run. "To come this far and then lose it all, that's just wounding," is a much-sanitised version of his conclusion.
At the front Opel brought its up-to-date DTM car to take on BMW, while Audi relied upon the Abt Sportsline-run TTs. BMW brought a version of the ALMS M3 GTR, but the modifications proved just how seriously the Roundel takes victory on home soil.
It had been humiliated in 2003 when using dry ice to cool the cars before the race led to gearbox failures. This time Schnitzer Motorsport boss Charly Lamm knew there could be no repeat.
"This race is one of Germany's major motorsport events," said BMW Motorsport Director Dr Mario Theissen. "A marathon of this kind is a tremendous sporting and technical challenge: it's a combination of speed, teamwork, strategy and reliability."
He forgot to mention a civil war-size budget...Nobody at BMW offered numbers, but it ploughed more into trackside advertising than most teams spent on their entry and keeping two cars running at that pace for 24 hours undoubtedly cost millions of Euros.Proving its cars to be the fastest and most reliable was more than worth the investment, so BMW took its all-conquering ALMS car and transformed it. Not only did the engine need reworking to meet the ADAC's regulations, reducing its output to 500 bhp, it also needed an all-new aerodynamic configuration for the faster Nubürgiring, achieved with a 40% model and serious wind-tunnel time. It also needed more supple suspension to cope with the ups and downs of this circuit.
Many components were reinforced to cope with the rigours of 24 hours on track, compared to the four-hour outings on U.S. soil. And BMW had one other weapon in its arsenal, a crucial one, traction control, gained from a raid on the F1 team's technology. Opel didn't have this at its disposal, and in the end it was to prove decisive.
After dry practice the first BMW lay fourth fastest behind the Manthey Racing Porsche, one Opel and one Audi TT. It wasn't looking good, but in the race the rain came almost immediately and the traction control came into its own."The car was all over the place and it was really difficult for the first half of the race, especially as we seemed to be on the wrong tyres all the time," said Jorg Muller, who won the ALMS and has been BMW's main touring car man for many a year now. He may have had problems, but they were nothing compared to their rivals.
Without traction control, Opel drivers Volker Strycek and Peter Dumbrek put BMW's only challenger into the wall during the night--losing catastrophic amounts of time in the pits. From there Muller, his brother and Stuck simply had to keep the car on the track to claim victory ahead of the sister BMW with a North American at the wheel.
It was Jorg and Dirk's first win in this prestigious race, and the jubilation was clear to see. Stuck had won twice before, but at 53 years old the former F1 driver and Le Mans winner was as jubilant and childlike as ever with his latest win.
Said III was understandably pleased with the groundbreaking effort in the second car. His most gushing praise, however, was reserved for the track.
"It's cool being the first guy from America on the podium, and if I could race at this place every week then I definitely would," he explained, with the 1,000-yard stare of a man who just returned from a warzone. "I try and tell my friends about this circuit, but I don't think I've ever really got across just how great it is here.
The wide-eyed star said it all, Boris was buzzing while I could barely stay awake. In a bid for catharsis with the drivers and complete coverage, I had stayed awake for the whole race, having driven to the Nordschleife the day of the start and home after the race. It was arguably more brutal than racing, but I wouldn't have missed it. And if Le Mans clashes with this, the world's biggest and best race next year, it will have to wait once again.