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Shit happens. That’s not something you often hear from executives of major car companies, but in the context of endurance racing it is the simplest description of what can happen at a twenty-four-hour race. In this case it was Volkswagen Board Member and Head of Research and Development Dr. Ulrich Hackenberg describing the myriad of pitfalls that befell VW’s three 450-hp Golf 24 race cars. First was a gearbox failure on one car after just six hours of racing. The second was a massive accident involving a different car trying to enter the pits when a slower car intervened. Third was a failed differential at the eighteenth hour of the race, taking out the final Golf 24. On top of all that, a rabbit (the animal kind) also ran in front of the number 3 car before it retired, but managed not cause significant damage. So yes, almost anything can happen and usually will at the 24 Hours of Nürburgring race, and this year was no exception.
Trying to explain to someone what racing is like at the famed Nürburgring Nordschleife is incredibly difficult. The twenty-four-hour race event held each June runs on the combined Nordschliefe and Formula 1 tracks at Germany’s famed Nürburgring. Together the two tracks require a driver to cover 25.3 kilometers (15.7 miles!) to make a full lap. Think about that for a moment — over fifteen miles just to cover a single lap. If you took the combined length of a lap at Road America, Road Atlanta, Laguna Seca and Lime Rock you would still be over five miles short of a single lap at the Nürburgring. The track was built in a dense forest winding up and down several mountains in the Eiffel region in 1927. With over 990 feet of elevation change (see graphic above) the track winds through 74 turns up and down hills, over blind crests and around turns that punish every type of race car. In 1976 the last Formula 1 race was held on the old Nordschleife, as it was deemed too unsafe for modern Formula 1 cars. The track has long been a one-way public road accessible to the public when there isn’t a race event, testing or inclement weather, and when the track is available to the public, anyone can pay €25 to drive a lap of the circuit. This includes motorcycles, cars, buses and RVs, so it can be a bit hairy getting around the various slow-moving and fast-moving obstacles at times.
The ADAC 24 Hours of Nürburgring started as an official twenty-four-hour race in 1970, and the event now attracts more than 200,000 people to the track each year. The starting grid alone has more than 200 cars that are crammed along the entire front straight of the Formula 1 circuit. Fast cars are grouped up front with slower cars gridded toward the back of the pack in the order they qualified. Part of the success of this race is the laid-back atmosphere. Amateur racers and teams race alongside factory efforts with top-level professional drivers. Paddock garages house up to six cars, making pit stops a bit chaotic to say the least and the teams all have to get along. The sense of camaraderie between racers all doing their best to survive a full, non-stop day of racing on the most dangerous and brutal track in the world is something you can feel when you walk through the pit lane.
Two hours before the 4pm race start, the cars are brought onto the grid and the general public is allowed out on the track to see the cars and their drivers up close. This is something you just don’t see in most forms of motor racing and is unique to the 24h of Nürburgring race.
As if the racing weren’t chaotic enough, the spectator camping areas littered around the track are mammoth, with each area looking like a small Grateful Dead show rolled into town. Spectators regularly bring their own scaffolding to set up along the track so they can get a better view. Full nightclubs are created out of enormous tents with lights, speakers, generators, huge amps and more. We came across more than one campsite that had running water setup with water tanks, pumps and even hot water by running copper tubing through the camp fire pit. The creativity of the people that come to camp for a full week was remarkable, with most people we spoke to having attended for five years or more. Parties carried on until dawn each night, often including elaborate fireworks displays. It is during these late night parties that spectators wander out onto the track and apply the now-famous graffiti that you see all over the track. Again, nowhere else do you see this.
This year Volkswagen decided to go to the 24h Nürburgring race with three 450-hp, 2.5-liter turbocharged five-cylinder, all-wheel-drive Golf 24 racers as well as two natural gas-powered 2.0T Scirocco 24 racecars. The Sciroccos are a now-familiar sight at the Nürburgring and finished this year’s race in 1st and 2nd place in their class; car 117 finished 27th and car 116 finished 47th overall. The three Golf 24 cars, however, didn’t fare as well; all three dropped out of the race before the completion for reasons we noted above.
The Golf 24 was put together very quickly and didn’t have a lot of shake-down time to sort out any reliability issues, particularly at a track like the Nürburgring. The Golf 24 cars were very strong runners during the race, often seen pulling on the Porsche 911 GT3 R cars up hills. Aerodynamics on the cars were reportedly a bit tricky at high speeds compared to the dedicated sportscars running on the circuit. Volkswagen is talking about returning again next year and our guess is that the mechanical issues will be sorted out by then.
Audi was represented by five privateer R8 V10s, and the number 14 Audi Sport Team Phoenix R8 finished on the podium in third place overall. The Audi R8s also clinched the top three positions in their class as well narrowly beating the eight highly competitive Mercedes SLS GT3 cars.
A Porsche once again secured first position overall with the Manthey Racing 911 GT3 R, while BMW took second position overall with the BMW Motorsport M3 GT.
This is one event that we recommend any petrolhead put on his bucket list of must-do things in life. A twenty-four-hour race is something special to experince, and it will give you a fresh perspective on how difficult it is to make any car survive at that pace. Throw in the fact that it is at the most difficult and brutal circuit in the world and you’ll almost shed a tear at the end as you watch all the crews and drivers jumping up and down elated that they made it through the entire race unscathed. This isn’t just about winning, but survival, and that is something a little different than your typical 200-lap feature event. The fact that the entire race has such a great friendly vibe to it in such an iconic place is just icing on the cake.
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