APR 27th 2015

Chris Harris: Have We Lost Our Nurburgring Fear?

Racing at the Nurburgring used to be simple – in fact a dispassionate assessment of the process as it used to be would probably reveal that it was too easy for people with no experience of the place to pitch up and compete. But that’s the way it was.

How things have changed. For the past few years there was a sensible move towards training and acknowledging racing experience around the ‘Ring – but for 2015 the authorities have introduced a permit system. To say it’s causing something of a kerfuffle would be an understatement.

There are now two permits, A & B for racing in the VLN series (those are the ten 4 & 6 hr races that run throughout the year and are well worth a visit to watch) and the famous 24hr race. At this point you will be wanting me to explain exactly what each permit is and how you get it, but I can’t, because I don’t fully understand the system. I think a B permit allows you to race anything up to a BMW M235i, but not race in the N24, and an A permit gives you N24 privileges and no restrictions on what you can drive. No doubt I’ve got that completely wrong and will stand corrected some time soon.

Now all this permit stuff was going on before the season started, and it wasn’t going down too well with the many race teams who survive on paid drivers coming along to experience this special race series. And then in VLN 1, as many of you will know, a Nissan GTR went airborne at Flugplatz and a spectator was killed. It was a horrible reminder of the risks of motorsport.

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The initial reaction from the German governing body of motorsport was to ban all fast cars from racing on the Nordschleife. This would have meant all of the big German brands losing the millions of marketing dollars they spend on the events and so the ban didn’t last.

The pointy-end of the grid has been getting very fast and competitive for a while and as the cars became faster, so the regulations have changed to peg them back. The target time was always an 8-minute lap using the VLN configuration, which is still under 7 minutes for a Nordschleife lap, which as you probably know is very, very fast indeed.

Other classes were outlawed too, but by the time of the special 6hr race to allow cars and drivers to qualify for the 24h event, a few weeks back (not a VLN round, I know, this is all very complicated), all cars were allowed to run, and instead three speed limits would be in place. The site of the accident would now have a 200km/h maximum (125mph), the fast section after it 250km/h (155mph) and the same limit would apply to whole of the 2.2km main straight.

‘I think, fundamentally, some of the respect that comes from fearing the place has been lost too. I worry that some racers merely view it as another place to compete, like Spa or Silverstone, only a bit longer. It has never been, nor ever will be like that.’

What was it like in practice? Not that good. I was racing with Aston Martin in the new GT12 in preparation for the N24 next month, and the combination of an unfamiliar machine, working my way back into driving the ‘Ring and having to manage speed limits wasn’t easy.

By far the most difficult section is Flugplatz. The car is accelerating hard downhill – even with a restrictor we have 550hp pulling around 1,400kg – and you have to lift and hold 200km/h manually and then fire up hill and over the crest. If you hold constant throttle here of course the speed drops and that leaves you exposed to an overtake when the limit rises to 250 just after the two fast right-handers after Flugplatz. There’s just too much distraction from the basic requirements of racing.

Part of the problem lies in the fact that most drivers are having to do this manually, and that means constantly referring back to the speedometer, which means taking your eyes off the road ahead, which when you’re in a gaggle of cars is at best unnerving, at worst potentially dangerous.

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The main straight is just as frustrating, especially when you have a slippery V12 that should be able to outrun most others in a drag race. At least peeking down at the speedo feels less risky here. If the limits remain in place for the N24 and we have 200km/h and 250km/h limiter buttons on the wheel, this will be far less unpleasant.

But boy do they disrupt the rhythm of the lap. For me the main straight was always a place to gather thoughts, make a radio call, have a drink, flick through the dash and generally untangle one’s head. And I loved the sense of sheer speed too – it felt like a worthy ending to what is always a stunning lap, the speed building before some hard braking into Tiergarten and beginning over again. That rhythm, because of the two speed limit zones, is for me now fundamentally broken.

What this certainly isn’t meant to be is a rant against the DMSB and the imposition of these measures. It had to be seen to do something, and I can see why it has moved to slow cars where recent incidents have occurred. I just hope, given that it was a spectator who lost their life, not a driver, that similar attention is being paid to where people can and can’t stand and watch.

As someone who’s raced there for years, I see the following problems. The speed of the GT3 cars in isolation isn’t a problem for me, but the sheer numbers of them, the manner in which they are often driven and how they interact with slower cars certainly is a concern. Ten years ago there were around 20 quick-quick machines in a VLN race, now there are nearly 50. It isn’t an easy place to overtake, so risk-taking has increased exponentially.

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And I think, fundamentally, some of the respect that comes from fearing the place has been lost too. I worry that some racers merely view it as another place to compete, like Spa or Silverstone, only a bit longer. It has never been, nor ever will be like that. It requires a different approach; a more measured aggression. This is compounded by the impressive mechanical reliability of these modern GT3 machines, which has turned endurance racing into long-duration sprint events. Combine these two attitudinal changes and you have a potentially dangerous situation that needs some level of control.

Of course it is still a wonderful racing circuit. And once we’ve done a little chassis work on our Aston, I think we’ll have a cracking little 24h car.

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