The Day Hell Froze. Over All the action at this year’s Nürburgring 24 Hours including monumental hail storms. This year’s N24 was notable for being the M6 GT3’s debut race, but it will always be remembered as the year when the Green Hell turned into an ice rink. Words: Bob Harper. Photography: BMW/24-rennen.de.
The 24-Hour race at the Nürburgring is one of the toughest endurance events on the calendar and this year the new M6 GT3 had a bit of a baptism of fire and sadly for us BMW fans luck was not on the car’s side. BMW fielded four quasi-Works cars, two run by Schubert Motorsport and two by new-to-BMW Rowe Racing, while there were two further cars run by Walkenhorst Motorsport. Pre-qualifying and the top 30 qualifying shoot-out went well, with Farfus putting one of the Schubert cars (number 18) on the front row of the grid with the Walkenhorst number 999 machine in sixth, the Rowe number 22 car in seventh and two more M6s in 13th and 15th.
The typical Nürburgring crazy grid walk took place before the race where the crowds are so thick on the grid that you can hardly see the cars but most of the talk on the grid was when the weather would arrive. It might have been hot and sunny overhead, but two weather systems were due to arrive and clash above the circuit shortly after the 3.30pm start, but this being the Nordschliefe no one was quite sure when the heavens would open…
The cars are released in three batches according to where they qualified and right from the get-go there was a tremendous tussle between the GT3 cars at the front. But after three laps or so it settled down a little with the number 18 M6 GT3, with Jörg Müller at the wheel, running second and embroiled in a close battle with the leading Mercedes. With four of the six M6 GT3s in the field in the top 15 it was looking good for a tight battle for the remaining 23 and a half hours.
Then, 40 minutes into the race the weather front hit, first with unfeasibly hard rain which developed into hail. Not your normal common and garden hail, but nigh-on golf ball size hail and as the field was running on slick tyres at this point simply keeping their cars on the track became an epic struggle. Watching the TV screens in the pits there were collective ooohs and ahhhs as car after car left the track, some returning to the black stuff unharmed, some crashing heavily into the barriers. The real drama unfolded when it became apparent that as the cars had slowed so dramatically they could no longer make it up the slippery slopes on the track and when virtually all you could see on the trackside monitors were queues of race cars trying to slither their way up hills the race organisers brought out the red flag and stopped the race after just 40 minutes of action. Martin Tomczyk, who was behind the wheel of the number 100 Schubert Motorsport machine at the time commented: “That is the Nordschleife for you. We knew something like this was going to happen. However, it came as quite a surprise that ice started to fall from the skies so early in the race. My wheels were spinning and I simply couldn’t get up the Fuchsröhre section. Unbelievable.”
It wasn’t until after 7pm that all the cars had been recovered from the circuit and that any hail that hadn’t melted had been brushed off the track, that the race was restarted. Even then the streaming wet surface looked so dangerous that the field completed three laps behind the safety car before getting properly going again.
Initially after the restart it was looking good for the BMW teams as when the safety car pulled off the circuit at around 8pm Jörg Müller in the number 18 Schubert Motorsport M6 and Markus Palttala at the wheel of the number 22 Rowe Racing car took the top two spots in the field. Müller initially dropped down the field after an early tyre change, but then worked his way back up into first place. Sadly the car would not last much longer as it had a spectacular technical failure while travelling at speed on the Döttinger Höhe with smoke billowing out of either side of the engine bay after just 17 laps.
Palttala also lost some positions following a puncture and then made up ground but by 10pm the next best placed BMW was Richard Westbrook at the wheel of car number 22 in 20th. At the restart an electronic problem meant that Philipp Eng in the number 23 M6 GT3 dropped down to the back of the field before slowly clawing his way back up.
After the drama of the previous evening the night was relatively kind to BMW, with the drivers only reporting periods of fog, which reduced visibility. By 7.30am there were two M6 GT3s in the top ten – Schubert Motorsport’s number 100 car in fifth with the number 23 Rowe Racing car in seventh place. Sadly for the number 22 Rowe car its race had finished at 4am when it had an accident on the Hatzenbach section and retired.
The number 18 car that had a technical problem on Saturday had been worked on overnight by the Schubert team and was now back in action, albeit majorly out of contention, and the two Walkenhorrst cars were still in action with its number 999 in 17th after making a pit stop for repairs.
As the morning wore on it was looking like the number 100 M6 was on for a podium finish but disaster struck at about 9am on the GP track when, lying in third place, it was hit by a slower moving car that was trying to move out of the way of another quicker machine. Lucas Luhr was at the wheel and there was really nothing he could have done to avoid the impact and fortunately he wasn’t injured when the car made heavy contact with the barriers.
The rest of the race was relatively uneventful from a BMW M6 perspective and when the chequered flag fell the number 23 M6 GT3 was the best placed BMW crossing the line in fifth place one lap behind the winning Mercedes. While it wasn’t the win BMW was hoping for it was a great fight back from the car that had dropped back to 50th place at the restart! There was drama on the last lap, however, when the number 4 Black Falcon Mercedes driven by Maro Engel overtook the number 29 HTP Motorsport Mercedes on the final lap. The number 4 car trailed the HTP car on the final lap but squeezed up the inside on the grand prix circuit and raced clear to clinch victory.
In the end it was a one-two-three-four for Mercedes, definitely not the result BMW wanted with its arch rival taking all the plaudits. But the M6s will be back next year and with another year’s racing under its belt it should be in with a better shout of winning. Finger’s crossed.
“Nürburgring is unique, you won’t find a circuit like it anywhere else in the world”
The number 23 Rowe car was the highest placed BMW
Below: Parked race cars on the Nordschleife after the hail arrived
Bottom: Enterprising race fans used the hail to cool their drinks!
The drivers’ perspective
Before the race we talked to some of the BMW drivers to discover what it’s like to race at the Nordschleife for 24-Hours…
Marco Wittman is one of BMW’s DTM stars and during the weekend prior to the N24 he was winning in his DTM car at Spielberg. We were interested to find out how difficult it was to go from a DTM car one weekend to a GT3 machine the next: “To be honest it’s not a big difference. Of course the M4 DTM has a bit more downforce and has a different driving style, but I would say that here at the Nordschleife extracting the last tenth of a second from the car is not what counts. Here it’s more about being really smooth through the lap, managing the traffic and not making any mistakes.
In DTM it’s all about pushing 110 per cent to get the maximum from the car. It’s a different approach here and you also share the car with three others so you need to make a few compromises in terms of setup so everyone is happy, but overall I would say it’s pretty easy to adapt from one weekend to the next one.”
Learning the track has to be one of the hardest parts of racing at the Nürburgring but even for seasoned and experienced campaigners like Richard Westbrook (driving for Rowe Racing in the 22 car) it’s not plain sailing as he explained: “You never stop learning it. You come back each year and find new sections of Tarmac and you have to change your whole philosophy at certain points on the track. For example, through Flugplatz it’s now much faster than it was before. Also you’re always coming back in different machinery, the cars are constantly being developed, tyres are changing…
so you never come back and are bang on it straight away – you need to take your time.” And of course there’s the weather to contend with too: “I prefer the dry parts!” quipped Jörg Müller with a grin before talking about how the track evolves. “With the new asphalt you have a tremendous amount of grip in the dry, but yesterday when we drove in the wet the old parts of the track had so much more grip, draining is also much better on the old asphalt. Ultimately the dry parts of the circuit are definitely the best parts for me!”
This being the ‘Ring the dry parts could well be few and far between and Westbrook told us about his biggest fear when the rain comes and you’re on the wrong tyres: “It’s the sort of thing you have nightmares about, you’re on slicks and you just get on the Nordschleife and you can’t turn back. On slicks here in the rain it’s brutal, and that’s one of the challenges about the race. These conditions will happen in the race, they always do, and you can be lucky or unlucky. You’re the unlucky one if you’re dropping down Hatzenbach when the rain comes – lucky if you’re on Döttinger Höhe. The rain comes so quickly – you can be driving through Flugplatz and it’s dry but you get to Schwedenkreuz and it’s completely wet and it can be too late to react to it – there’s no grip there when it’s wet and you’re on slicks. And that always seems to be where the rain comes first, and there’s literally no warning.”
As well as the weather there’s the challenge of driving the ‘Ring at night but according to Müller and Westbrook it’s not as bad as you might think: “I don’t find it so bad here at night as say, at Spa,” commented Westbrook. “As there are so many cars here that it feels in a strange way lit up, It’s not so much physically exhausting, it’s mentally very tough, maintaining the concentration. At night it’s the other cars that are the greatest challenge as you don’t know what they’re going to do. Are they being blinded by your full beams? You have to remember that there’s a huge range of cars and driving abilities here – some cars are much, much slower than we are. There are also a fair number of hobby drivers here and if you flash the hell out of them with your lights they can get confused – most people would!”
As the fans at the ‘Ring are so close to the action we wondered whether their presence was off-putting at night, but Müller reckoned it’s good to be able to see the fans so close: “You can always see the fans around the track at night, you have so many corners where you’re straight braking towards the fans – even if you’re really concentrating on your braking and turning into the corner you still see the flags waving – it’s a great feeling compared to Spa where all the fans are too far from the track to be seen. I know where all the BMW flags are at the Nordschliefe – you don’t focus on them, but you definitely see them! There’s quite a bit of smoke round the circuit too from all the barbecues – it can make you quite hungry!”
While the track itself is a challenge we also wanted to know how the M6 compared to previous BMWs that have tackled the Green Hell. Who better to ask than Jörg Müller who’s driven here with E46 and E92 M3 GTRs, the Z4 GT3 and now the M6? “The biggest talking point between all the cars I’ve driven here is the torque of the M6’s engine,” says Müller enthusiastically. “It’s what we were missing in all the other years as we were always driving normally aspirated engines which means that the power always comes with the revs, but now with the torque of the turbocharged engine it’s much nicer to overtake. Press the pedal down and you’ve got the boost there whereas with the other engines you always had to shift up and down and make sure you were in the right rev band to overtake. It’s a lot more comfortable to drive I would say, especially with the long wheelbase on the M6 all the fast corners are a lot more comfortable and the car’s not very nervous – it’s a really nice machine for 24-Hours of Nürburgring.”
And with the seasoned racers assembled we can’t help but ask whether the N24 is the greatest of the endurance classics. Müller again speaks up and it’s obvious he’s a huge fan; “For me the N24 is the best 24-Hour race. I’ve done Spa, I’ve done Daytona, I’ve done Le Mans and you know, at Le Mans you have plenty of time to blow your nose – those straights are so long!” he says with a laugh.
“Nürburgring is unique, you won’t find a circuit like it anywhere else in the world and to drive with all the other slower cars, and with the atmosphere in the pits, it’s the best race in the world.”
If you’ve never been, put it in your diary for next year. Don’t just take our word for it though, when a BMW legend like Jörg Müller says it’s the best you really should sit up and take notice.