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Mid-July saw the Cotswold BMW Saxon Motorsport team back at the Nürburgring. This time it was there for a four-hour sprint race after its class-winning success at the 24-hour race on the same infamous circuit…
In contrast to the one-car team that contested the Nürburgring 24 Hours, this time the team arrived with two cars and five drivers for the fifth round of the German VLN Endurance series. Team owner Nick Barrow and regular driver Jamie Morrow were to drive the newly developed 5.0-litre V10 petrolpowered 1 Series while Ellis Hadley, Martin Gibson and Tom Barrow were to drive the 2.0-litre diesel built for the 24-hour race pre-qualification process. This car would run in the Alternative Fuels class as it would be powered by Neste Oils’ bio-diesel.
When Nick and his then team-mates first attended the Nürburgring for a 24-hour race back at the end of the ‘90s, as long as a driver had a competition licence, it was quite possible to arrive with a road car (a Peugeot 205GTi in Nick’s case), lightly prepped with a roll-cage and better brakes etc, get it scrutineered and go racing. Things are a little different these days and budding 24-hour race drivers with an international competition licence need to complete 18 competitive laps over three VLN races (four- or six-hour sprints) in a 2.0-litre car as well as attend a twoday training course before being allowed to enter the main event. With this in mind, Saxon converted one of its 135d cars to use the Twin Turbo Diesel N47 engine and Ellis and Martin had secured funding – and tyres – from their employer, Chinese tyre manufacturer GiTi Tyres. The tyre company is looking at the possibility of promoting public awareness of its products through motorsport and this is its first foray down that avenue.
Despite having driven numerous 24-hour races at other circuits with Saxon over recent seasons, Tom still had to complete the same pre-qualification process so joined Ellis and Martin, both of whom had previously driven for the team at Donington at the end of the 2015 season. At this stage, the aim was to give the three drivers a reliable car in which to complete the necessary laps over the coming races so chief engineer Jon Taylor and the Saxon Motorsport crew provided just that: a reliable 120d in a known chassis, albeit with unknown GiTi tyres!
Friday morning track-day practice on the GP circuit allowed all five drivers to acclimatise to their cars. Neither car had ever been to the track previously nor were any of the drivers familiar with their cars, Ellis, Martin and Tom for obvious reasons. Despite the V10 having run in the UK through its development process, the recent addition of Bosch Motorsport ABS and recalibrated paddle-shift gear change software ensured the drivers and engineers needed the track time to adjust both their driving and the cars’ performance to a new circuit. The cars acquitted themselves well in this first session with the inevitable setup adjustments required between runs for both cars – and drivers! Principally on the 120d, some suspension setup was needed to get the best out of the GiTi tyres which were performing differently to the usual Dunlop rubber.
Between the two practice sessions, scrutineering for the main event on Saturday was conducted by the VLN organising body. Due to a combination of the language barrier and seemingly ever-changing rules, this is always a stressful time for engineers and team managers alike. This visit to the Nürburgring was to be no exception with minor previously unknown alterations to rules since the 24-hour race in May and different rules for the two cars, causing delays and frustrations. However, after a good effort by the team to adapt to the new rules, the scrutineerers allowed both cars to pass and be approved for competition. Friday afternoon brought the opportunity for the cars to sample the full Nordschleife circuit for the first time. This would also be the first time the 120d drivers had been on the track with traffic – indeed the first time since completing their induction course at the end of 2015! It’s fair to say that the 120d is not currently the fastest car on the circuit although modifications and improvements will be incorporated before the next race as the car is developed.
Nevertheless, the car again achieved the aim of familiarising all the drivers with the course, helping them to learn all 25 kilometres of the circuit. The V10 on the other hand flew. Initially it was in Jamie’s hands and showed huge potential. However, as Nick took over, a misfire became apparent and the car returned to the garage. After extensive examination, the engineers concluded that a recently serviced fuel injector had become stuck open and partly filled a cylinder with fuel. This meant that the cylinder had become hydro-locked when Nick started the engine, which in turn had damaged a big end shell bearing. There would be nothing for it but to change the engine overnight! As is often the case, physically changing the engine with a spare already built-up, ready for installation is the relatively straightforward part. However, as the V10 runs with a dry sump lubrication system, every component from filters to pipes and the footwell-mounted oil reservoir, needed to be removed, flushed and refitted. With qualifying due to commence at 8:00am the next morning, the team of engineers managed to grab an hour-and-a-half of sleep before an early breakfast call.
With qualifying came the welcome news that all the hard work had been worthwhile, with Jamie and Nick reporting that the new engine was significantly faster than the original unit. Jon Taylor had expressed doubt about whether the Vanos system was working correctly during the previous day’s running and this seemed to be borne out by the driver’s observations. Indeed, as the drivers became familiar with the circuit, the V10 was hitting the rev limiter in top gear – nearly 165mph – in more than one location! The end of the qualifying session saw both car and driver combinations acquit themselves well: the V10 liningup in 36th in the first group of 50, fourth in Class SP8, there being 147 starters overall, and the 120d in 96th, second in Class SPAT (Alternative Fuels).
As the race start of 12:00pm approached, final checks on both cars confirmed that all was in order. The 120d was scheduled to stop twice to change drivers but race-pace fuel usage meant a ‘splash and dash’ towards the end of the four hours remained a possibility. The V10, meanwhile, would stop on or around the hour mark for a change of driver and to refuel; such is the difference in fuel consumption between the two cars.
Jamie elected to start in the V10; Martin – now questioning the wisdom of choosing to start amongst so many other cars – had volunteered to start in the 120d, an offer that was gratefully accepted by his codrivers!
Nearly 150 cars in groups of 50 approaching the first bend is always going to result in a few casualties, however, both Saxon cars avoided any trouble and both gained positions from others’ misfortune. The 120d race ran much as predicted – albeit with an earlier than hoped for fuel stop, shortening the second stint for Ellis. He, however, made up for his lack of laps, taking over for the final dash, and brought the car home in a creditable 98th place. All three completed their qualification laps without incident.
The V10, on the other hand, had a busy and ultimately frustrating race. After a brief stop to deal with a noise infringement notice, the car climbed as high as 33rd overall, running fourth in class and gaining on a podium finish. The car was now reaching the rev limiter in at least four places on the track and setting a blistering pace. Next time out, the team will alter the final drive gearing and run to approximately 175mph, which should see a significant improvement in lap time. At the start of the final hour, with Nick at the wheel, all still looked promising for a podium finish, until radio contact was lost and Nick arrived in the garage unexpectedly some ten minutes later than due past the pits. He had moved to the left at Hohe Acht to allow a faster Porsche to overtake on the inside and been catapulted sideways by an off-line bump. With so little run-off – and carrying significant speed through the corner – there was nowhere to go and the drivers’ side hit the barrier, hard. With the car across the track, Nick initially climbed out to safety – disconnecting the radio – and so lost contact with the pit-wall. Further inspection convinced Nick that the car could be driven, so he climbed back in and returned to the pits. Close examination soon revealed, however, that suspension components were bent and the car would take no further part in the race.
Meanwhile, the 120d was still circulating reliably and consistently, second in class, and it was not until some time after the race that it became clear that the leading Porsche Cayman – a much faster car running on an ethanol/petrol mix – had failed to finish. In this series, a car has to pass the chequered flag to classify as a finisher, so first place was inherited – apparently on the last lap! Ellis, Martin and Tom were deservedly delighted with their win: the result of consistent, smooth driving from three very well matched drivers. On the other side of the garage, Nick and Jamie were left wondering what might have been and what improvements and developments would enable them to challenge for the podium again next time out.
The trip to Germany has taught the team a lot about both cars: the V10 showing the improvements made since last year and highlighting what needs changing next – in particular the gearing. The 120d is a good, reliable base on which more performance can be built. Both cars have considerable potential and the GiTi tyres have performed like their drivers – consistently and long lasting, although a softer compound may be used next time. The team already has ideas for improving both cars’ performance before the next round so the guys returned to base in Hereford with mixed emotions but looking ahead to their return to the Nordschleife in August.