My first race at the Nurburgring. Part 2
Updated: May 10, 2020
Late in the afternoon once scrutineering was complete, we found ourselves in a bar relaxing and keeping out of the cold. It had warmed slightly but that brought with it the drizzle and mist. We decided to head back to our paddock area for a reasonably early night to be fresh and ready for our practice sessions on the Friday.
As we entered the paddock, we noticed quite a lot of commotion. Race cars being started and moved around. Not for one moment did we think this was anything to do with us and our fellow competitors in the Youngtimer Trophy. We got back to our paddock and with some horror, noticed most of the cars in our race were lined up and ready to go out onto the Grand Prix circuit. It was strange that all the drivers had no crash helmets on and were just wearing jeans. What on earth could this be about? It was very tricky keeping track of announcements due to none of us having yet learnt any German in the three days we had been at the Ring. What had we missed? Eventually a German chap asked if we were joining in with the parade lap. What parade lap? He explained that all the cars competing in both the Youngtimer race and the 24-Hour race were expected to take part in a slow parade lap of the circuit for the spectators. We assumed he meant the GP circuit so we three drivers squeezed in our race car and joined the convoy. As we slowly headed off on our parade lap of the GP circuit, we soon noticed how full the grandstands already were with cheering and clapping spectators. As we approached the last right hander called Coca-Cola Curve, to our astonishment, instead of following the GP circuit to the right, all the cars slowly peeled off and joined the Nordschleife. This was the slowest lap I have ever completed and the start of one of the maddest hours of my life. Those of you who have attended the Nürburgring 24 Hour will be familiar with the amazingly enthusiastic and energetic spectators. Around 200,000 people are camped around the circuit. It's an incredible sight and the ingenuity is incredible. It’s a spectacle that has to be seen. These spectators have spent days in some cases constructing some of the most elaborate campsites that I have ever seen. They could be described as hamlets and under different circumstances would have required planning permission. Massive constructions of timber and metal line the circuit. I mean hundreds and hundreds of these temporary and quite elaborate complexes. Many incorporating bars, kitchen areas, sleeping areas, even balcony type raised viewing platforms, firework launchpads all decorated with bunting, flags, lighting and enormous neon signs. This was real camping. The woods around the circuit are crammed with these impressive settlements, tents of every shape and size. You even find fully stocked bars nailed together out of timber, selling beer in the middle of nowhere. These German spectators have to be some of the hardest core party goers I have ever seen. The drinking and partying is 24/7 and I can only assume that it’s the high blood alcohol levels of these spectators that keeps the exposure at bay.
The parade lap is basically a full-on spectator track invasion. Thousands of incredibly jolly, enthusiastic but very drunk spectators are all over the place. Just as you get moving you are stopped again by the most excited race fans I have ever seen. Everyone wants to personally wish you luck and, in many cases, physically hug you. Beer bottles are continually handed over and slowly our race car filled up and started to resemble a brewery delivery truck. This is all actually quite tiring on the driver who is driving a car with no cooling fan, an exceedingly heavy clutch that actually operates like a switch, brakes that do not work as they are not up to running temperature and engines that are not designed to idle. This mixed with a cockpit temperature that is stratospheric actually soon makes the driver feel quite worn out and nauseous. We took it in turns to drive while the others walked alongside the car being groped by drunken Germans.
Pagodas had been erected in the middle of the circuit with the front and rear left open. You had to drive through these pagodas. Each race car in turn is stopped by a looney holding a homemade lollypop sign reading STOP! Once you have been given more beer, hugged, more handshakes, the lollypop is spun over and the word BURNOUT greets you. You are then not allowed to leave these temporary pit garages unless you agree to accelerate out of them in a haze of spinning tyre smoke. Luckily, we had not yet fitted our race tyres and the car was still shod with some old test slicks. Music blared out from the woods everywhere. I will never forget the sight of a man with a four-cylinder motorbike engine, mounted in a shopping trolley, no exhaust, being gravity fed fuel from a small petrol can. He just stood in the middle of the circuit with the hand throttle wound fully open in an attempt to deafen anybody that dared to get within 100 meters of him. Whilst all of this was going on, one also had the massive distraction laid on by one of the major sponsors of the event that year.
This sponsor was called LiveStrip.com and from memory was an erotic phone in TV channel. Intermingled with the race cars were numerous orange convertible Smart cars. In these where squashed as many girls as possible all wearing orange t-shirts with the name emblazoned across the front and handing out flyers. These girls were as enthusiastic as the spectators and also appeared to drink as much. As each kilometre of the Nordschleife passed, more and more of the girls ended up topless, flinging their orange T shirts into the crowd with abandon. This mad event has now been stopped as so many spectators ended up being whisked away in ambulances to the local hospital. It was not quite the early night we had expected but highly amusing to have taken part. We woke early to heavy rain and it appeared to be set in for the day. We immediately decided that wet tyres would be needed for practice and we set about preparing our car. The three of us practiced well and without incident. The car was running like clockwork and as predicted Jody set our fastest practice lap. A 10:28. When our grid positions for the following day were published, we found ourselves 9th on the grid out 174 starters. Our M3 was 200 bhp and running 15x7” wheels. To put that into some perspective, the first 30 - 35 cars on the grid were Group 2 and Gr A cars of various marques, all with over 300 BHP and running enormous 9,10,11 and even 12” wide rims. I have to say this made all of us rather chuffed with ourselves and probably a little over confident for the race. For the rest of the day we found the prying eyes of many German competitors trying to get a glimpse of our car. I can only assume they thought we were cheating and wanted to find out what our hidden advantage and illegal tweak was to have placed us so far up the grid. We all retired early lulled into a slight false sense of security for the race day. Up early for race day and it was gloriously warm and sunny and we swapped over to slicks. The whole team carried out checks on the car in preparation for the race and filled the tank to the brim. Three drivers meant at least three pitstops for driver changes and refuelling. It is possible we would have to make more stops depending on the famous unpredictable Nurburgring weather. Our race started at 12 and by now the paddock was pandemonium. It was almost impossible to walk through the cars and crowds. Before our start was another practice session going on for the 24 Hour. I do remember thinking when we arrived a few days earlier that our nominated paddock area was about half a kilometre away from the actual pitlane. It was a mission that took about 40 minutes to move all the stuff we needed for the race up to our pit garage. It is literally a fight to push through the crowds to achieve this mission. Manners simply have to be abandoned. Spare slicks, wets, tools boxes, jacks, spares, fire extinguishers, trolley of race equipment, water for drinking, race clothing, helmets, pit board and timing equipment all had to be lugged to the pitlane. We were exhausted before we had even started but we had made it in to position. Cem was driving first and all that was left was for him to walk back to the race car and join the line-up of cars all waiting to be formed up on the grid. It was then that we all looked up at the sky and the clear blue had been replaced by heavy thunder clouds. Within 10 minutes the heavens had opened again and it was a mad rush for us all back to the car and change back on to wets, only to have to then lug all the stuff back up to our pit garage in the pitlane. Our volunteer pit crew now looked quite broken.
The 174 starters are split into 3 grids. The first grid is formed up on the GP circuit start line and the other two grids are formed up on the Nordschleife main straight either side of the bridge. All three grids are started at the same time and the race is started behind a course car for one rolling lap before the course car pulls in to the pitlane. We had actually only worked this out about two hours previously. The split is done to spread the cars over a greater distance to stop 174 cars becoming too bunched up on the first race lap. This is quite a logistical feat for the grid marshals and the building up of this grid ready for the start actually takes about one and a half hours. During our quick last-minute change over to wet tyres, the weather had continued to deteriorate. Deep puddles were forming and, on the circuit, also. I wished Cem a final good luck for the race and started to turn to head back to the pitlane with our crew and prepare our pitlane equipment for the start, when Cem’s hand grabbed my shoulder and announced “you are doing the start”! I asked why and Cem simply said “its my car, I insist and over to you” “I will be second driver”. With that, he wished me luck, smiled and headed back to the pits with the others. I had been thrown in at the deep end without any time to prepare myself for the start. Starting 9th on the grid meant that we were one of the very first cars to be ushered out of the paddock and positioned on our grid slot by the marshals. This meant that I would have a lonely hour and a half, sitting in the race car, in the pouring rain waiting for the other grids to be built up behind us. Far too much thinking time! Before the race, I had decided to drink a lot of water to stop dehydration. This was now causing some discomfort but I was in the car, strapped in, on the grid, miles from a loo and becoming increasingly desperate. I had no choice. I got out the car, walked over to the guard rail and had a wee in front of a now full main grandstand. Once the spectators realised I had been caught out, the entire grandstand stood up, cheered and applauded my widdle on the Armco. What else could I do, but smile, wave and head back to my car knowing I had caused much amusement. A one and a half hour wait in total solitude strapped in to a race car on a grid is far too long and I will not pretend I was not nervous. The rain was so heavy rivers were now running across the circuit and the car was totally misted up inside. I could not run the engine for more than about 4 minutes to clear the screen as the car had no cooling fan and would overheat. I would have to get the timing just right and make sure I started the engine with enough time for the screen to demist before the start but not too long causing the car to overheat and dump all the coolant on the grid. As the minutes counted down, my nerves calmed and the adrenalin took over. Before I knew it, we were off for our rolling start lap behind the course car. It took about 15 minutes to complete that first lap before we re-joined the GP circuit and the course car pulled back in the pitlane. This was really it! We were already doing about 100 mph and still accelerating and as the speed increased, the cars became closer and closer together. As I exited the first right hander, I realised that it was now utterly impossible to see anything at all. The massive wet tyres on the cars around me were throwing up walls of spray and I can only describe it as total white out. All I could do was follow the tail lights and watch for brake lights of the cars in front of me. It was insanity but without a doubt one of the most exciting things I have ever done. My knowledge of the Nordschleife was pretty good but I did not know the GP circuit at all well and had only done about six laps of practice. Not sufficient time to know the braking points and apexes. I had to be very cautious as being first driver and after nearly 6 months of preparation and planning, I did not want to let the others down before they even got in the car. I was feeling the pressure. From memory about twelve cars managed to pass me on the GP circuit and I started to feel a little dejected. My spirits rose as soon as I joined the more familiar surroundings of the Norschleife. After about the first four kilometres, I settled in to a rhythm and I have always enjoyed the wet. I overtook a car. A few kilometres on I overtook another car and by the end of my first race lap I had managed retake 7 of the cars that had overtaken me on the start. By now I felt like the happiest man on the planet and our 200 bhp M3 was doing a sterling job surrounded by machinery with at least 100 bhp more. I was holding track position well and felt really comfortable in the car. After about an hour the rain stopped. The circuit was still like a river so it was still wet tyres that were needed. Another half hour passed and by now a dry race line was starting to appear. Some of the more powerful cars and therefore juicier were having to make stops for fuel. Due to the drying circuit they were re-joining the race on slicks. I had about another half hour of fuel left but the track was continuing to dry. I knew my laps times would be getting slower as my wet tyres started to struggle for grip on the dry areas of tarmac. It was then I saw my pit board. The word “IN” was being held out. I was having a ball and a little disappointed my drive had come to an end but I knew the car had to go on to slicks or we would start falling back. It was also an opportunity for our first driver change and refuelling. Our volunteer pit crew did an amazing job and our first ever proper race pitstop ran like clockwork. Cem was strapped in. I told him the car was perfect and he left the pitlane for his stint on a fresh set of slicks. Cem was under pressure. By now the German sun had dried the circuit. The wet is a great leveller, giving less powerful cars a chance to show the more powerful cars up. We had proved that in both practice and the start of the race. On a dry Nurburgring, there was no way Cem could stay in front of massively more modified and powerful cars. We did start to slip down the leader board. Cem did an amazing job for one and half hours and managed to only loose a few places to these far superior cars It was time to pull him in and time for our final pitstop, fuel top up and to hand over to our fastest driver, Jody. Again, the pitstop was faultless and Jody was soon back on the circuit. We took a look at the monitors and to our amazement, we were running third in class. We did not have pit to car radio so it was down to pit boards to try and get this information to Jody. Jody’s lap times where getting faster and faster and after about 400 kilometres of racing, we were 2nd in class. I can’t put in to words the excitement in our pit as we watched the monitors to see Jody each lap, getting closer and closer to the car leading our class. My heart was pounding now even faster than it had been for my start. It was dawning on us that we stood a chance of first in class at our first ever race on the Nürburgring. Another two laps and Jody had done it. We were now first in class with only three laps to go. Two laps to go and Jody had pulled away and opened up his lead. Now on the last lap and with a healthy lead, we were jumping round the pitlane like kids. We could not believe it. We all leapt on to the pitfall to see Jody bring our car home first in class. We waited and waited. Something was wrong. He should have crossed the finish line by now. Then to our horror, the car that was behind him running in second appeared into view and crossed the line snatching our class win from us. We waited and Jody never appeared. The feeling of disappointment was extraordinary. We where all close to tears but being Jody’s brother, I was a little more worried than the others. We had no idea what had happened. I was just praying that Jody had not had an accident. Obviously, that was more important to me than not finishing our first Nurburgring race. It was a long half hour wait before I saw our M3 being towed in to the pitlane with a very miserable Jody behind the wheel. He looked at me and announced that the car had run out of fuel on the last lap. We all felt terrible. Our pit crew and some fellow German competitors worked hard at cheering us drivers up but we were miserable. We felt victory had be snatched from us. It was then that one of the Yountimer officials wandered over and asked if we would be attending the post-race party and award ceremony. He announced that as we had made it to the last lap and because of the distance we had covered, we had still managed to come 3rd in class. This helped ease the pain a little.
The party was quite something. Pit crew, drivers and mechanics all attend and about 1200 people all enjoying live music and free flowing German wine and beer all night. We were called on stage to collect our trophy to massive cheers from all of our team. As we became increasingly intoxicated our spirits lifted and we had a truly smashing evening made even better by our very welcoming fellow competitors who all patted us on the back and said well done. By now we all actually felt we had done an amazing job and had successfully dipped our toe into the unknown! It was some months later that we found the reason why we had been short of fuel for that final stint. The bag tank that had been made to order for our car was filled with foam. It had been manufactured incorrectly and the foam had made its way up the filler neck. This caused the fuel to back up the neck when filling and the pump to cut out as if the tank were full. This left us about 15 litres short. After getting back to Blighty, it was not long before our team were back in the pub planning next year’s Nurburgring 500KM race.