Nürburgring 24-hour race 2012 with Falken’s 997 GT3R

It’s 25.947km (16.123miles) long, has a total of 40 left-hand bends and 50 right-hand bends, and a 300m height difference. This is the infamous Nürburgring, which is made up of two tracks; the Nordschleife, which was opened in 1927, and the Grand Prix circuit inaugurated in 1984. One of the most demanding and longest circuits in the world, it snakes and slopes around the villages and medieval castle of Nürburg and through the Eifel Mountains. There’s a reason the ’Ring is often referred to as the Green Hell (Grüne Hölle), thanks to Formula 1 legend Jackie Stewart’s memorable reference to its tortuous nature and the forests that line it.

The best-known event today and the highlight of the European racing calendar is the ADAC Zurich 24-hour race, which for four days transforms the entire circuit into a huge spectacle. It’s been on my ‘Things to do before I die’ list, so when Falken Motorsports asked if I’d like to join them after confirming their entry for the 40th running of the Nürburgring 24-hour event – well, it was a no-brainer. Building on last year’s positive experiences, the #44 997 GT3R was going to be piloted by the tried and tested line-up of Sebastian Asch, Peter Dumbreck, Wolf Henzler and Martin Ragginger in the SP9 category. For 38-year old Brit Dumbreck, this was his fifth race for the Japanese tyre manufacturer, while Henzler is a Porsche factory driver, who also drives an RSR Porsche for Falken in the ALMS. Also, his teammate in the ALMS, Ragginger, a former GT2 class winner of the 24-hour race in Spa and FIA Talent of the Year 2010, and Asch, an automotive engineering student and son of Porsche’s most successful cup driver, Roland Asch, is intimately familiar with the course, proving his worth with sensationally fast lap times during the night in 2011’s race.

A number of key upgrades were made to the 997 ahead of its 2012 campaign as the Falken team planned to mount a serious attack on both the VLN Championship and flagship N24 race with it. Factory-sanctioned modifications included a switch to a paddle gearbox to help its drivers avoid mis-shifts, and a softer front anti-roll bar. Schnabl Engineering also carried out some work to the engine to offer more power (525hp) and better drivability, as well as servicing the gearbox, fitting new uprights and driveshafts (as opposed to re-conditioned items last year) and replacing fuel filters and pumps. Other than additional lights and illuminated side panels so that the car’s number was easily identifiable come nightfall, no other requirements were needed for the headline race. “We don’t even need to lower the rev limit,” claims team boss Sven Schnabl.

The team also uses its own Falken high-performance racing tyres (290/660R18 front, 330/710R18 rear) developed specifically for use on the Nordschleife, incorporating features to meet the specific requirements of an endurance race as well as the 2012 chassis setup and softer front end. So, for example, they have a higher puncture resistance with the inevitable corner cutting and softer compounds for running during the night. Astonishingly, Falken will bring more than 1,000 tyres to cover any eventuality in practice, qualifying and the race.

Upon arrival on Friday evening at Dusseldorf airport, the snapper and I were chauffeured to the impressive Kameha Grand in Bonn, unfortunately to news that Falken weren’t able to qualify. We decide to head up early the following day and make the 50-mile trek to the circuit with John Glynn, a freelance contributor to Total 911 and more recently owner of Ferdinand, and spend some time with the team to try and find out more. In the final few miles to the media car park, traffic starts to slow with fans lining the roads along with cars that are parked half way into drainage ditches, including a McLaren MP4-12C – which we joked must have been a press car – to then later discover it was borrowed by Chris Goodwin for a Pistonheads piece! Motorhomes and tents are crammed into the many vantage points around the track as far as the eye can see, and the smell of currywurst fills the air. After picking up my pass from the accreditation office and signing on at the media centre, we head over to the awning where the car is, and its entourage of around 20 technicians, engineers and tyre developers.

It’s not uncommon to hear drivers saying that qualifying for 24-hour events carry little importance, as the race provides enough time for the fastest cars to come to the front, so to inject more excitement into proceedings for this year’s Nürburgring the organisers decided to introduce a new top 40 qualifying shoot-out. Each car that made it into this session completed two timed qualifying runs, running at ten-second intervals to ensure they don’t get held up by traffic. To further guarantee a level playing field, the order of the Top 40 runs were determined by a random draw. Ten of the top 40 slots were pre-assigned to cars that run in the German VLN series (including the Falken Motorsports’ 911), which holds shorter-duration races at the Nordschleife throughout the season. The remainder of the grid was based on times set during Thursday night and Friday afternoon’s regular qualifying sessions. Thursday was the main focus for the teams to set meaningful times and try out setups and get drivers acclimatised to busy night- time traffic with a four-hour session starting at 7.30pm.

Sadly, Falken Motorsports was not permitted to participate because it inadvertently went out on track too early during the last practice due to a miscommunication issue. The track was also quite wet from the rain overnight and the car was on slicks ­– Wolf Henzler drifted off the track on the approach to Adenau and grazed the barriers. Fortunately, the car only required light repairs.

Still, the team were feeling confident that they would be competitive and reliable for this year’s assault, as was reinforced by Dumbreck when and I managed to grab a few words with him just prior to the race…

Louise: With four drivers, how do you decide what stints each of you do?

Peter: We are all on the same pace. The quickest was eight minutes 30 seconds, and I did eight minutes 33. I was on the leanest map and oldest tyres, but there was no traffic, and we were experimenting. If one of us were particularly faster we would perhaps be placed at the start. We find out at the drivers’ briefing, but if you’re first out there are a lot of things that could go wrong, and it’s up to you to take that risk. It’s the most dangerous part, mixing it up with slower cars.

Surely racing at night has its dangers too?

The nicest thing about this race is seeing the sun come up. You think ‘Okay, we can do this now’ –­ it’s making it through the night that’s hard. I’ve not done a lap in the dark yet, obviously I’ve driven the 24 Hours here before, but I did my qualifying at 8.30pm, so it was still fairly light. My first experience will be in the race.

Where you do you think you would have come in qualifying had you not been placed last?

It’s hard to say. I think we would have been knocking on the door of top ten. It would have been nice to see what the car could have done, especially on soft tyres and low fuel. Marc Lieb is the best Porsche driver and he secured a good starting position for the race in sixth place with a time of eight minutes 21 seconds – the quickest that he’d ever driven the Porsche there actually, so I think we could have got an 8.23.

How many laps can you do on one tank?

The car will take 110 litres of fuel, and after nine laps you need to come in to refuel and change the tyres. We report back to the pits once a lap at the beginning of the Döttinger straight, so if there

are any problems you’ll hopefully have time to change anything.

How many laps in total will each driver do?

Typically, the car will drive around 155 times over the course of 24 hours, so each driver will do 38 or so laps. It doesn’t sound like very much when you say it like that, does it? Some drivers will do more than others, though, as is the nature of endurance racing. Last year, for example, I ended up doing a stint and a half because something packed up, maybe the power steering.

And what determines getting a good lap time?

That’s the thing about this race ­­– you’re all up for a good time and you don’t want to let the team down, then you get to a pack of cars and it will take you about six or seven corners to catch up. A fair bit is luck, too. Last year only two of the laps I drove were not yellow-flagged.

I guess it doesn’t help when there are so many driver levels?

No the range in ability of the drivers is a major issue, and on a yellow flag, professional drivers run to a fast running pace and the slower drivers to a walking pace so the field concertinas up and you’ll come over a brow of a hill, and the next thing you know the car in front is hard on the brakes, and you brake so hard the ABS kicks in. It happened last year and I hit someone square in the back, but my car was alright. Also, you think you’re clean through a corner, and then a car alongside you will then tag you on the rear with his front left, and that’s it.

Does that not terrify you?

You’re not scared for your safety – you don’t want to let the team down. There are so many people here with Falken, it’s the event of the year for them. It’s apprehension, not fear.

What’s your top speed, and what’s the most challenging section?

We reach between 175-180mph just under the bridge by Tiergarten. From the Karussel to where the fans are, you climb to the highest point on the track (Hohe Acht) before dropping down, and the car is airborne – that is the most challenging. There’s a fast little S shortly after (Hedwigshöhe), on a good lap you’re flat out, then you can breathe easy. A kilometre after that is Brünnchen, where all the BBQ smoke wafts over the track, and for a split second you think ‘Is that me on fire or the car?’ But then you can smell the meat! I still don’t know the name of all the corners – it’s not like Brands or Silverstone, where there are only a handful to remember and the names are all in English!

I expect the changing conditions such as the rain and fog is more of a problem?

When the mist comes you hope you’re not in the car – it can happen so quickly. The danger is when some of the drivers drop to a quarter of their speed and you’ll drop ten per cent – that’s when the crashes happen. You certainly don’t want either rain or fog, especially during the night.

How does the Porsche compare to the Nissan Skyline GT-R R33 that Falken reverted to from 2001 to 2005?

I’ve finished 7th, 8th and 9th overall, but its 40 seconds a lap slower than the Porsche so when you finish inside the top ten we consider it a win. It also has a larger tank, so it’s slower, but it’s one less pit stop. In comparison the Porsche squirms a bit more as you’re carrying more speed.

How will you compare to last year?

The engine let go after three hours so we lost a lot of time in the pits, but we came 47th and we were the quickest car through the night, so potentially we could have been knocking on the door of top ten. The pace is there and with a tyre that has come on a long way in the course of a year we should be very competitive.

It was a real honour to talk with Dumbreck in so much depth, and get up close and personal with the car, which as you’d expect looks like a serious bit of kit. Another highlight included the opportunity to do a white-knuckle lap of the circuit in one of the safety cars. Despite being an Audi A6 diesel, ex-racing driver Hermann Molitor heaved the automatic barge around the track in an impressive ten minutes and 30 seconds. Suffice to say, I have now seen for myself why the place has such a reputation for being so incredibly unforgiving – it is a formidable test of skill and stamina, and I had more respect and admiration than I did before for Dumbreck and his teammates. The armco that lines the Nordschliefe is never more than a few feet away, most of the corners and crests are blind, and the elevation changes make you giddy; it’s ridiculous. It made me think of a quote from an English journalist who was reporting on the opening race in 1970: “It seemed as if a reeling, drunken giant had been sent out to determine the route.”

Despite feeling like I was going to lose my lunch at any moment, with the sun shining brightly in an almost cloudless blue sky and a growing sense of anticipation among the spectators, I chose to take advantage of the open pit lane and grid walk prior to the race. It’s a unique spectacle to see 5,000 members of the public mingling with frustrated pit crews trying to move tyres, cars and kit around in the throng, alongside the media desperate to get those last few words and photos. In the paddock, fans can also get free stickers and autographs. I decide to exit early and watch the first few hours from the Dolate Lounge reserved by Falken, which looks over the start/finish line, and at that point of the day had an endless supply of coffee and cake – the perfect accompaniment to watch a battle of man and machine. By lap 11, the car was in 19th place with a time of 8.49.745 minutes, running just one lap and 22 seconds behind first place.

After that, I spent a few hours walking around the track to soak up the atmosphere. Amid a mix of strange smells; barbecued meat, chips and flavoured tobacco, Bitburger, pine trees and sweat, there’s also the assault on your ears; terrible techno or thrash metal, a cacophony of horns, cheers and whistles and, of course, a symphony of flat sixes, V8s and V10s, and somewhere in the background, the clatter of diesel. Of course, this bizarre race-cum-party extravaganza is also a visual bounty. With many of the loud beer-swilling fans turning up a week before the event to stake out their pitches on the campsite and get the best view of the graffiti strewn track, you have to pick your way through a crazy array of structures. Ranging from small, temporary shelters made from bark and tree branches to towers constructed from scaffolding, with most draped in flags or bunting created from empty bottles or decorated with incongruous window boxes filled with bright colourful blooms – the lengths some go to are extraordinary. Sinks and urinals are fixed to fencing panels, some had their own power generators and satellite dishes, and others brought along sofas. I even spotted a Christmas tree sat next to a post box stuffed with letters to Santa. This event clearly gets under your skin – quite literally – with many fans bearing a fresh tattooed outline of the Nordschleife circuit on their calves. On track, aside from the sheer mix of cars, what really amazed me was how the recovery crews would retrieve and load stricken vehicles and then mooch back to the pits at around 35mph, just under the protection of their flashing yellow lights and marshals frantically waving white flags. Oh, and the fans launching fireworks across the track was pretty insane. It seems like just about every rule is tossed out of the window.

We head back to the Dolate lounge for around 9.45pm to catch up on the standings; the car is now 17th after 38 laps. An hour later, I went downstairs to the garage just in time to catch Dumbreck. “Progress is slow. We’re not really on the pace with the guys at the front,” he reveals, looking disappointed. “8.41 minutes was my best, that’s the last lap I did. The Z4s and Audis have larger air restrictors and they seem to be more fuel efficient.” I leave him to get changed into his overalls. All of a sudden, chairs get tossed aside as the Schirra motoring MINI #148 gets pushed inside (unbelievably, seven cars are allotted to one garage), and I crush myself against a tyre trolley. Next thing, the Porsche comes in, and while the fuel is topped up, the tyres are changed and Dumbreck climbs into the driving seat. There’s a cloud of dust from the carbon brakes, and the air is rich with the smell of petroleum. Barely two minutes pass before it starts up; the rumble getting you right in the chest. The pit-lane can be up to ten times busier than a Formula 1 race and yet somehow cars manage not to run into each other. It’s all very exciting.

After going out to grab some more shots, we finally head off at 1.00am, and get to our hotel for 2.30am. After six hours of sleep, I make my way down to breakfast to see a tweet from Peter: ‘Thanks for all the good wishes, but we are out of the race. One of my teammates got caught out on a damp track and hit the wall.’ Further comments revealed that one lap earlier the track had been bone dry, and several other cars had moments there, too. ‘It was going not too badly… It’s hard to predict a wet track in pitch black,’ he adds before getting on an early flight back to Birmingham.

Once we got to the track, we were able to find out more. Sebastian was at Flugplatz at around 2.30am on lap 66 and up to 15th when he encountered a sudden downpour and lost control.

A few days later, I was able to get more feedback from Dumbreck. “It was a disappointing end to what was turning into a good race. Nürburgring notoriously has mixed weather conditions, and with no room for error it can lead you into a false sense of security. The damage to the car was not too bad, but it was not drivable from the spot where he crashed, so there was no way of getting it back to the pits for repairs. Falken is committed to further development of the brand and tyre for Nürburgring, and we are constantly improving. We’ll be back to fight another day!” Schnabl also had some words for us. “It has been a tough race, any one of 30 cars could have won. With so many yellow flags, we managed to save fuel and do nine laps (as opposed to eight), giving us the opportunity to avoid traffic in the pits. The car was running well, pit stops went well and we managed to gain a few positions. We need to improve, the Porsches were not so competitive – neither Manthey, Frikadelli or ourselves.”

In fact, the ending for Manthey was disastrous, and illustrates how unpredictable this event can be. Unfortunately, the snapper and I missed it, as we trekked almost 10km in 25-degree heat to get a picture of the crashed Falken 911, which we then couldn’t use, but was revealed to us by many excited fellow hacks upon our return. As the end of the race approached, the Wochenspiegel Team Manthey GT3 R did not have enough fuel to drive another fast race lap, forcing Romain Dumas, who was fighting off attacks from the Mercedes, to slow so the clock would reach 24 hours while he was still running, and thus remain classified. After crossing the finish line, the engine died and could not be restarted immediately. Unfortunately, a Clio driver, obviously looking to the pit wall for teammates, didn’t see the 911 and crunched into the back of it. It was also the first time Audi took its first overall victory in the Nürburgring 24 Hours, notching up a resounding 1-2, with the semi-works Audi Sport Team Phoenix team and Peter Mamerow’s privateer R8 LMS Ultras.

The 2012 race was run by a team of 2,000 staff, contested by 170 cars and piloted by 600 drivers, with around 200,000 spectators – and I’m pleased to have finally crossed it off my list. I urge you to experience it for yourselves.

If you have an iPad and want to see the new Falken film onboard the Porsche 911 GT3 R with Sebastian Asch behind the wheel then use the link below:

http://wtrns.fr/K9tpQzHA1cBHmII

And for those that don’t check it out on You Tube:

 

 

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