Think of a single sporting fixture capable of drawing not only 200,000 spectators to a single venue, but 500 competitors. The 100 metre final at the Olympics? The football World Cup Final? Small fry in these terms. Though I willingly stand to be corrected, in the entire field of sport, and so far as I am aware this weekend’s Nürburgring 24 Hours stands alone.
Thank Frankel it's Friday: Is the N24 the most challenging endurance race?
I’ll state now I have never myself taken part in the infamous twice-around-the-clock race on the world’s most feared race track and, you will be disappointed to hear, largely out of choice. When I was young and desperate to prove (mainly to myself) that I was a respectable racing driver, I had no offers because no one knew who I was. When I was no longer young I was offered some tempting drives, all of which I turned down because I have reached the stage of life where I race for fun or not at all.
Would the Nürburgring 24 Hours not be the most fun thing any person like me could wish to do? The answer is yes, but only in a very particular set of circumstances that, in my life at least, I will never encounter.
Allow me to explain. Racing at the Nürburgring is not like racing anywhere else: that’s why drivers flock there. It’s not the speed of the place – though it is a quick track – nor is it a car breaker. So long as you keep it out of the scenery, it’s actually quite gentle on brakes and tyres. It’s that there’s nowhere else that requires such concentration, nowhere you’re more likely to make a mistake and nowhere where that mistake is more likely to be severely punished. For the driver, it is the ultimate challenge.
And when I first raced there, I absolutely hated it. I was in a Renault Clio Cup car in, I think, a six-hour race. It wasn’t that I didn’t know the track for I’d been going there for years to do track days, the problem was that I was in a slow car. Don’t let anyone tell you that racing a slow car is easier than racing a fast one. If you’re in one of the quicker cars in your field, you spend all your time looking forward to the next car you want to overtake... which is the way you are facing. If you’re in a slow car, you spend all your time looking backwards to the car that is trying to overtake you. And while this might not be a big factor in a short sprint race at Goodwood, in a slow car in an endurance race at the Nürburgring, you’re rarely doing anything else.
The speed differentials are absolutely terrifying. I reckon our little 2-litre Clio probably chuntered down the straight at around 120mph, while 8-litre Dodge Vipers flew past probably 70mph faster. But that wasn’t a problem because you could see them coming and just keep out of the way. But around the rest of the circuit and its hundreds of corners and blind brows, they’d approach so fast and unseen the first time you were aware of their presence was often when you were blinded by a wall of light behind you. And of course, they are not lone wolves but hunt in packs. So you might go from a brief moment’s peace to finding eight snarling, thundering race cars, all driven by Ringmeisters, all trying to go around, over or under you. And it was almost impossible to get out of their way: first it’s a risky thing to do as you might just move onto a part of the track just as they try to pass you there, second after about an hour of racing there is so much rubber off-line it’s like moving onto a skating rink. Even if you do survive, your tyres will have picked up so many marbles your car will vibrate like all your wheel bearings have failed at once, making you even slower, more vulnerable and miserable.
It is utterly intimidating, so much so that in the end and bizarre though it sounds, I ended up pushing the interior mirror to one side so I was no longer blinded and just stuck to the racing line, making it their problem to pass me.
So I’ll never race at the ‘Ring again other than in a competitive car, not because I want to win or think my talents deserve it, but because it would be a whole lot more enjoyable and safer. But I was offered a drive in a very competitive car in the 24 hours a couple of years back and still turned it down. Why? Because the problem with very competitive cars is that they tend to be run by very competitive teams. And while I can just about cope with the idea of flinging a car around the Ring in the pouring rain with 150 other mad men and women in the middle of the night, the idea of my crew chief coming on the radio and saying ‘I’m sorry Andrew, unless you can find another x seconds per lap we’re going to have to get you out of the car’ makes my blood run cold. The thought of my team-mates back in the pits looking at the timing screens, watching me squander their hard work and secretly wishing they’d hired someone else is about as far from my idea of a good time as it gets, short of actually crashing the car.
So the only way I’d do the Nürburgring 24 hours is in a car that was in the top half of the grid on pace, but with a bunch of people who were happy just to be out there, soaking it up, never being asked to go faster than they felt they reasonably could and regarding seeing the finish line in any position as a triumph in itself, which it unquestionably is. And, being honest, that is never going to happen. So I wish all those taking part this weekend all the very best of luck for a safe and enjoyable race. I’d like to say I wish I was out there with you, but being realistic, more in theory than in practice.
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