There was an inkling that our grid position was a little flattering compared to our potential race pace. Andy Guelden is chief instructor at the Nurburgring, he is also in possession of some large gentleman’s-hardware, and this combination meant that his 9min 02sec lap was probably even more outstanding than I thought when writing the qualifying report. We reckoned anything between 9min15 and 9min30 in the race would be a sensible balance of speed and mechanical sympathy.
Now this did leave me feeling a little deflated, because, despite being confident of the Aston’s pace, the sheer number of GT3 cars, and their inherent speed and reliability meant that we were probably looking at a mid-30s result. And I don’t much like starting races thinking that 35th is the best–case scenario, even if there are 150 starters.
The race build-up was suitably Nurburgring: thousands of people with total access to the grid, women wearing things they really shouldn’t be wearing and three separate grids of 50 cars. The entry was a little smaller this year because of the DMSB’s changes governing licenses and permits for the N24, but you could still spot spectators on their first visit, walking around cod-mouthed at the sheer scale of the thing. The cars, the people, the circuit. It sounds so terribly trite, but there really is nothing else like it.
Our biggest hope was that attrition among the SP9 GT3 cars would allow us to creep up the leader board, and a repeat of last year’s insane first hour – which resembled a 20minute sprint race – would have been ideal. But when the first grid came roaring through with us near the rear, the behavior was shockingly mature. Very little contact, no stupidity – nary a crash in the whole caboodle. We were most disappointed.
Andy took the start and nudged up and down the odd position within a gaggle of Porsche Cup cars for six laps. It was the ideal start, but the weather was building ominously, meaning at least one of the seventy wildly differing pre-race weather predictions was in fact correct. I jumped in for the second stint and, after one clear lap, during which it was immediately clear that Aston’s overnight work to fix the speed limiter had been a complete success, it started to rain.
A part-wet, part dry Nurburgring is a very common thing, and the skill is balancing the tyre choice not just in terms of speed, but also survival. There is so little run-off that even a small whoopsie can end your race.
The other problem is that the GT12’s majestic 550hp V12 may have been down 50hp on the street car, but we didn’t have any traction control. This, coupled with a very wet section at the end of the track that had the Aston at angles you normally see in one of my videos, made me radio in and ask for a set of cut slicks.
It seemed like the only possible call, but of course after the stop the next six miles were bone dry. Even the few parts mid-lap that had been treacherous ten minutes earlier already had a dry line. I was beginning to think I’d made a bad call when I exited the mini-Karussell at the end of the lap and it was fully wet. Cars were slithering about on slicks, and I drove past with no troubles. It was the correct call – even if it didn’t gain us much time, it stopped me binning the thing.
For those nine laps there were several showers and crashes and incidents, but the GT3 cars remained pretty well behaved. And our Aston was proving itself to be very handy indeed. Certainly miles punchier than last year’s V8, so we could sprint away from the irritatingly rapid M235s with little effort. The chassis was spot-on: supple and not fatiguing. Only on the very, very fast uphill section over the two bumps did it feel a touch loose. But then I’d hazard that it was one of the very fastest cars on the circuit at that point.
We’d broken into the top-40 when I handed over to Ollie Matthai and headed off for a Coca-Cola. The plan was to single stint for the first round of driver changes and then double stint in the darkness to allow each of us a longer sleep. This is, after all, a civilised sport. But the plan changed slightly when Ollie Mathai fell ill and we became a three driver team. He’s a superb driver and it was a big loss, so we began double stinting immediately, which was around two and a half hours in the car.
Peter Cate ran smoothly and without incident, lifting us into the mid-30s, and as darkness fell the attrition began at the front of the race – just the odd mistake in traffic or mechanical issue and we were climbing up the leader board faster than expected.
Andy Guelden then triple stinted on a slicks-then wets-then cut slicks mixture of mayhem and he only came in because he’d reached the FIA three-hour limit in the car! By now it was 1.30am, we were in 29th place and I had the full graveyard stint during which, in my nine N24s, all the silly stuff tends to happen. And sure enough on the first lap there was an enormous shunt just after Pftanzgarten 2 which looked like a 737 had crashed into the circuit. I could recognise a bit of Audi, but not much else. The barrier took ages to fix and the N24 system of running ‘Code 60’ zones as marshals work on the track demonstrated its strengths and weaknesses. There’s no need for a safety car but some of the GT3 cars clearly have a different idea of what the flags mean and what 60 km/h actually is. At one point I was behind three cars, trundling through the 60 zone and one of the new Audi R8s flew past at race speed. He received no penalty whatsoever.
I had expected to hate the 200km/h Flugplatz speed limit and not mind about the 250km/h limit on the main straight, but in practice it was the other way around. Flugplatz was less of a challenge of course, but not once did I really care about being slowed. However the ease with which the GT12 hit 250 on the 2.2km straight made me constantly frustrated that we couldn’t let it fully-sing. And it reminded me how much overtaking you actually used to do there – and now couldn’t.
There was all kinds of nonsense going on through the night – crashes everywhere, running repairs all over the circuit and, of the 18 I completed, only one lap was nearly clear. We double stinted the Michelins, but the V12’s torque made the back axle pretty lively from lap three, and by the end of the stint the car wanted to slide everywhere. On my last lap there was an almighty stack at Steilstrecke- at least four cars including the 007 Aston and a new R8. Clearly there was some fluid down, but none of the marshals were showing fluid boards. The green flag was at the exit of the Karusel and, on part throttle in second gear, I nearly binned it on yet more oil. I was pretty happy to hand over to Peter Cate at around 4am, now in 23rd overall. I think we all quietly hoped to get into the top 20, and at this rate we’d be well inside that.
Peter ran another very consistent stint and handed over to Andy once again in full daylight to try and break into that top 20. He was finding serious pace at around 7.30am when he crashed at Bergwerk. We don’t know what happened, but it was a big impact and the car was not repairable. Andy himself took a big knock but concerns diminished when he was heard moaning that the hospital was suffering from a shortage of gin and pretty nurses.
This all began on Monday, rolling the GT12 off a truck and driving it through the Eiffel hills to the circuit gates. It ended with the car still howling around at full speed after fourteen hours, and was a stunning endorsement of how special the customer cars will be. I’m sitting here less than a day after the event with the usual post-endurance race blues. Gutted that we didn’t finish, wondering what might have been and still wincing at what the Fuchsrohre was like at full throttle in the pitch darkness.
It remains the most grueling circuit race, and I remain addicted to it.
Photography by Jochen Van Cauwenberge and Aston Martin